What is Zen?

Zen is a sect of Buddhism that is focused on meditation. Put simply, Zen is a unique method of body-mind training that, if practiced with sincerity and devotion, leads to self-understanding. The heart of Zen Buddhism is zazen (sitting meditation), the most direct way to see into the illusory nature of the ego, belief in which is the cause of our suffering.

Zen does not rely on a specific doctrine, but rather places emphasis on experiencing for oneself the source of the Buddha’s teaching: Awakening.

What is zazen?

Zazen literally means “sitting meditation” in Japanese and it is the core of Zen practice, but experienced practitioners work toward extending the one-pointed, stabilized awareness that they develop in zazen into all their daily activities.

Zen students begin by learning to sit still in a stable, comfortable upright posture, ideally on cushions but in a chair if necessary. The initial Zen practices involve breath awareness; later, when the student is ready, the teacher may assign a koan as the meditation practice. Koans, paradoxical questions that cannot be answered by the intellect, are unique to Zen and are practiced under the close guidance of a teacher. Shikantaza, or “just sitting,” is also practiced at the Rochester Zen Center, generally by more seasoned students.

Can I continue to practice my family religion and still practice Zen?

Yes. Since zazen allows us to directly experience the Reality that underlies all genuine religion, it is not in conflict with other religious faiths. Zen points to our Original Mind, which existed before religion was even conceived. Moreover, the practice of zazen itself is without content, and by developing concentration and purifying the mind it goes to the core of prayer and of all spiritual work.

How much should I sit?

There is a direct relationship between the amount of time committed to zazen, the quality of the effort put forth during that time, and the progress one makes in practice. For the beginner, at least one-half hour per day is recommended (though one may start with even 15 minutes). This period of time is long enough to sink beneath the surface chatter of the mind and to get more out of our zazen.

What do the terms “Roshi” and “Sensei” mean?

Both are Japanese words which, for lack of any better, English terms, are used as titles by most Zen teachers even in the West. “Roshi” (“venerable teacher”) is usually reserved for a senior teacher.  “Sensei” is the more common title for a Zen teacher, and in Japan it may be used for a mentor in any field, from martial arts to flower arranging. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to which title is to be used for which teachers, and some Zen teachers may keep the title “sensei” throughout their careers.