Zen, a Japanese word meaning “meditation,” is a tradition of mind-body disciplines that originated in sixth-century China as “Chan.” It emerged as a distinct school of Buddhism that became known as “a teaching beyond words,” in which sitting and moving meditation was the predominant practice. Today it can also be practiced, if not as richly, as a type of meditation detached from its Buddhist roots.
Zen practice is a method through which the mind becomes settled and aware, unencumbered by thoughts even while capable of more focused thinking as it is called for. It is a practice that involves a balance of concentration and mindfulness that we strive to actualize throughout our daily life. To achieve this stabilized mindfulness in activity, however, requires devoting time every day to immobile meditation–sitting still in a straight but relaxed, upright posture with the limbs drawn together.
Although Buddhism is considered one of the world’s major religions, Zen Buddhism is not a religion in the Western sense, in that there is no God concept. Zen as a practice, even when drained of its traditional, Buddhist elements, reveals the essence of all religions—that which is beyond human divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, and even religion itself. So it is that Zen meditation may be practiced by people of any religion as a way to deepen their respective faiths.
Probably the most common form of Zen meditation is simply to concentrate on the inhalations and exhalations of the breath, either with or without counting them. As basic a practice as this is, it can be sustained and deepened throughout one’s life. Another, less common practice, is to investigate, in a non-conceptual way, a koan. Koans are dialogues or stories, passed down primarily from ancient China, that have a central contradiction to them, and thus cannot truly be resolved through analysis or other functions of the discursive mind. The third major form of Zen practice is a pure, objectless awareness, known in Japan as shikantaza and in China as silent illumination.
Through Zen practice (as with some other types of meditation) we reap benefits such as reduced stress, greater physical and mental health, and stabilized emotions. The ultimate promise of Zen, however, is enlightenment—the realization that what all beings have in common is our innately luminous nature of wisdom, compassion, and virtue. This most fundamental human experience reveals the illusory nature of “self” and “other,” “us” and “them,” enabling us to live life spontaneously, joyously, and attentively under all circumstances.