What is Zazen?

Za-zen means “seated meditation.” Zazen is a place of refuge far beneath our everyday involvements, a place where we turn inward for peace, for answers to the deepest questions of life, and for the ability to meet our lives with wisdom, love, and compassion.

For twenty-five hundred years the practice of Zen meditation and the essence of Buddhism has been passed from teacher to disciple. The method of this practice is simple and direct. However, like any discipline, knowing of it is not enough; Zazen requires time and effort sitting on the cushion, training the mind, and doing the work that leads to transformation.

Zazen brings a state of stable, focused concentration by the act of repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present. Dhyana, absorption, is the form and method of zazen — the practice of letting go and returning to the present. Cultivating this prevents distraction, but it is not a way to escape or ignore the conditions around us. Zazen happens in and with the world, not apart from it. The result of meditation is an ever deepening experience of openness and serenity in the midst of life.

In Soto Zen, we use the method known as shikantaza, or “serene reflection.” The meditation involves staying alert, aware and still, and “just sitting.” It is an objectless method of meditation, simple and straightforward, but radical in its acceptance of conditions. Shikantaza is profoundly deep when practiced over time. This meditation helps us see our minds clearly, for there is nothing to do but watch how our habit patterns distract us from the present moment.

Seeing our mind clearly brings awareness of both the impermanence of everything in the mind — each thought, feeling, pattern, idea — as well as the limitlessness of mind itself, a vast space that lies beneath all the clutter. The practice of Zen is a direct method of finding this place of real truth within ourselves, and learning to function with this wisdom.