What is Zen Buddhism?

By Michael Quesada September 01, 2018

What is Zen Buddhism?

What is Zen Buddhism?

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

For us to understand what Zen Buddhism is, we must first define Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy that aims to help us find the happiness and contentment we seek.  It is a way of finding peace within oneself.  Buddhists develop inner peace, compassion, and understanding through daily practice, and share their experience with others bringing real advantage to humankind.

Zen, on the other hand derives from the Chinese word "Chan” which has a literal meaning of meditation.  Zen Buddhism therefore is a way of life to train oneself to exterminate feelings of hatred, anger, and selfishness.  One replaces the feelings with love, kindness, and selflessness towards other people.

Zen Buddhism

How Zen Buddhism started

Throughout the centuries, India, where Buddhist originated, increasingly spread factions and sub-sects of its scriptures and commentaries.  When it reached Central Asian trade routes to China, these materials came with them.

The Chinese had long practice Confucianism and Taoism and were resilient to ideologies of foreigners.  There’s also a linguistic barrier for the Chinese people in comprehending Buddhist text.  The Sanskrit language is different from Chinese, and the translations could not always convey the meaning.  Eventually, Indian and Central Asian Buddhism began to evolve by its meeting with Chinese culture.  The remodeling gradually led to the creation of Zen.

Zen Buddhism

The fundamentals of Zen Buddhism

The practice of Zazen or Zen meditation is the fundamental of Zen Buddhism.  Za means sitting, and Zen means meditation in Japanese.  At the core of Japanese culture emerges Zen, a school of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is the primary form of Buddhism in North and the Far East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia.

Zen is a practice that goes back to the spiritual Enlightenment of a man named Siddhartha Gautama - The original Buddha.

Zen Buddhism

Who is Buddha?

 Buddha was born in the Lumbini woods, near the town of Kapilavasta, in modern day Nepal.  Most Historians would agree that he was born in 563 BC and died in 486 BC.

Gautama’s mother died shortly after giving birth to him.  His father remarried, and he was raised in luxury by his father and his new wife.  He married young, by his father’s request and took part in the public life of the king’s court.  He had a son named Rahula.

Gautama began his pursuit for Enlightenment at the age of twenty-nine when he managed to escape the palace walls.  His father was a protective man and kept Gautama inside the palace walls to shield him from any forms of suffering from the outside world.  He overcame his fathers objections, and eventually ventured out and saw the world for himself.  He was horrified with what he found, and disavowed his worldly possessions, and set out to find a way to end all suffering.  

At the age of thirty-five, he sat in dhyana (same meaning as Zazen in Japanese, and Chan in Chinese) at the feet of a pipal tree (Later known as the Bodhi Tree) in Bodh Gaya, India.  He became determined not to stop meditating until he reached Enlightenment.  It is believed that after forty-nine days he attained Enlightenment. He became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One.

Zen Buddhism

With new and deeper understanding of existence, he developed the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths.  He decided to return to his former disciples in Benares.  They were amazed by his wisdom and knowledge that they accepted him back as their teacher.  Together with them, they formed the first group of Buddhist monks.

How to practice Zen

Zen Buddhism does not focus on rituals but on the mindful training of Zazen.  In the silence, focus on your Zazen posture and your breathing.  Zazen is going back to the simplest of simplicity.  It is without steps, or stages.  Zazen is “seated meditation”.  Sit upright in good stance, pay attention to breathing in your stomach until you are entirely aware and present.

The bodily posture should be grounded, balanced, and open.  Take note that the main point of Zazen position is to be present, and not to simply take the body in a position to look holy or that of “like a Buddha”.

Turn to sit facing a blank wall.  Sit on the front edge of a zafu.  Zafu is a round meditation cushion.  If it’s not available any thick and firm cushion will do.  Rest the knees on a zabuton, flat padded mat, or blanket so that the knees and buttocks form a support for the upper body. 

Lift up one ankle with the hands and pull it up onto the thigh of the opposite leg. Allow the foot to rest in the thigh and then try to bring the other foot up the same position on the other thigh.  Bring the feet in as close as possible. This is the full lotus posture.  If this is uncomfortable, you can bring up only one foot and tuck the other below the leg.  This is the half lotus position.

If you can not do either just yet, you can simply take the “Burmese” posture in which the knees contact the zabuton and one ankle is placed in front of the other.  If this is not suitable still, sit in seiza, a formal kneeling posture on the zafu with knees spread and the big toes of each foot in contact, left over right, behind the zafu.

If you have back pains or severe illness that does not allow you to have the lotus or Burmese postures, you can just sit in a chair or lie in a bed with your right hand folded to form a fist with the left hand placed over the right, the left thumb tucked into the fist. 

In meditating, do not keep the eyes widely open or you will easily be distracted.  Do not close the eyes or it will be hard to collate yourself because of the random colors and images that will arise.

The word "zen" is rather well known, but also misunderstood.  To sum it up, the word really just means self-control for the benefit of others.  It is not an easy practice to start, but it is very much worth it if sustained.

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What is Zen Buddhism?


Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.


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