What is zazen?
Zazen literally means “seated Zen.” Zen is the Sino-Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which means essentially concentrated meditation. So, zazen is seated meditation. But paradoxically, in a Zen like fashion the founder of the tradition in Japan, Eihei Dogen (1200-1252), said that zazen is not actually meditation at all – with that implication of a doer engaging in a dualistic activity. Rather, he asserted that zazen itself is an immediate gateway to profound and inherent universal connection and harmony. So much so that even when we don’t feel connected and harmonious, we can sit resting assured nonetheless, inquiring for ourselves what this might mean in our own practice and experience.
Also, zazen is considered to extend beyond the limitations of a seated, standing, moving, still, silent, or noisy posture or position. Every activity is or can be zazen.
Valley Dragon Zen Sangha is simply a safe place to practice zazen. No more. No less.
Is Zen Buddhism? Is it even a religion?
Yes, and yes – with maybe some conditions.
Zen can be thought of as a reform movement, an evolution, or a synthesis at certain points in Buddhist history. It’s roots are in India, potentially as far back as the historical Buddha Shakyamuni himself. It flowered in medieval China and later Japan, with counterparts throughout East Asia. It shares significant aspects with most other Buddhist schools, including an emphasis on the cultivation of wisdom and compassion.
Distinguishing it from many other religions, Zen does not require any particular ritual or belief system to fully participate. To just show up and wholeheartedly engage in the investigation of your own body and mind is the whole point.
Is Zen the same as mindfulness meditation?
This depends on what is meant by mindfulness. The popular, secular Mindfulness meditation that is increasingly widespread actually stems from certain Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions which have many similarities and some differences with the Soto Zen we practice that developed in China and Japan. In the end, it may simply come down to a flavor or style that feels more suitable for each individual.
Zen is distinguished by its emphasis on focused yet formless sitting. “Thinking not-thinking” is one phrase for it. Mindfulness typically has a bit more structure and something like a script or guide that shapes it. It is sometimes practiced with some hope of improvement – be it physical, emotional, performance wise, etc. Science shows these improvements are often quite palpable, and this has benefit.
In Zen however, we generally aim to just sit, without a specific goal other than being gently present, settling, and enjoying our inhale and our exhale.
There are different schools of Zen – Which is yours?
We practice in the Soto Zen tradition of Eihei Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki. Dogen brought the tradition from China to Japan in the 13th c. When asked what he learned, he said “that my eyes are horizontal and my nose is vertical.” In other words, things are naturally occupying their positions. Our job is to compassionately and wisely perceive and harmonize with them, each other, and ourselves.
Dogen de-emphasized the importance of Zen “schools”, and even the idea of Buddhism itself. Waking up to “things as it is” without anything extra (as Suzuki roshi put it) is possibly the real purpose of our lives.