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Be Zen

Zen. It is a very commonly used term in our world today—and one that many of us use in our daily lives. However, the phrase ” What is Zen ” is pretty common, and while many people have a general idea of what the word Zen means, it can be difficult to define.

This is why we have created a spiritual guide for you that will help you gain a better understanding of what Zen is and how to incorporate it into your life so you can live more spiritually.

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What is Zen?

Zen is actually a Japanese term that is derived from the Chinese word “Ch’an.” Translated, it means concentration or meditation. The practice itself is a type of Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the value of meditation and intuition.

In western culture, the term “Zen” is used quite liberally, and with a few definitions, but at its core, Zen is a type of traditional wisdom that encourages people to have a peaceful and personal relationship with your own mind and a higher power outside of yourself.

Simply put, if you want to “be” Zen, you are in a state of being at peace with your own thoughts and being self-aware of your place within the universe.

What is Zen Meditation?

Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is an ancient Buddhist tradition that has a long and detailed history. Zen meditation can be dated back to 7th century China, and is a traditional Buddhist discipline that provides insight on how the mind works.

The goal of Zen meditation is to uncover clarity and workability of the mind. Many people who practice Zen meditation experience a unique type of awakening as they are able to learn how to let go of thoughts and feelings that cloud their minds. This form of meditation also helps practicing meditators have a better insight into the nature of the body and mind.

While some forms of meditation may be all about relaxation and stress relief—Zen meditation goes much deeper and attempts to help people tackle life questions and deep-rooted issues.

There are three common Zen Meditation techniques.

  1. Observation of Breath- This is where you sit on a padded cushion and draw awareness to your breath and how it moves in and out of your body.
  2. Quiet Awareness- This form of meditation encourages those meditating to allow their thoughts to flow through their minds. During this time, you are not supposed to have a goal, but instead should just “sit” and allow the mind to be with judgment, thought, grasping or rejection.
  3. Intensive Group Meditation- More serious meditators can choose to practice group meditation in special centers or temples. This is a Japanese practice known as sesshin and involves sessions that last nearly an hour and are alternated with a walking meditation and meals taken in silence.

This unique type of meditation can help you reach a spiritual understanding unlike any other type of meditation can.

What is Zen Buddhism?

Zen Buddhism is a very simple, focused and stripped-down version of Buddhism. It is meditation-based and does not rely on scriptures or rituals like other forms of Buddhism. Instead, it focuses on personal experiences.

This type of Buddhism is also passed down from master to disciple through intimate training. One of the major cornerstones of this type of Buddhism is Zen meditation.

Benefits of a Zenful Life

So, whether you are just trying to have a more Zen attitude in your day-to-day life, or if you are looking to study the ancient forms of Zen Buddhism—there are many benefits of living a more Zenful life.

  • Greatly Improved Health

Embracing a more Zen life, and learning to be at peace with your mind, wont just have mental and spiritual benefits—it will have physical benefits as well. Studies on Zen and health have found that Zen meditation can actually help improve the immune system. If you want to make sure that you are well-protected against colds and flu—regular meditation may be able to help.

Other proven effects of those who regularly practice Zen meditation includes the ability to lower heart rate, improve blood circulation and lower blood pressure.

  • More Restful Sleep

If there is one thing that all people today could benefit from—it is more restful sleep and living a Zenful life can help you achieve that calm, relaxing, restoring sleep you have always wanted.

Short, Zen Meditation practices before bed is a great way to help make sure that you get this restful sleep—although you may start noticing a better quality of sleep simply from your more relaxed and peaceful state during the day.

Focus on breathing exercises and the feeling of letting go of all that weighs you down, and practice this form of meditation for 5-15 minutes before bed to start enjoying the type of sleep that actually helps you feel restored.

  • Improved Compassion and Creativity

Being Zenful is all about working on the relationship with yourself, but embracing a more Zen life won’t just help you become more self-aware, it can also help improve your understanding of others. Through regular practices that help you understand your place in the universe and be more mindful of other people, places and things around you—you can learn to be more compassionate.

This self-awareness is also known to trigger a heightened sense of creativity within many people. With a clear, centered and focused mind—there is less clouding your thoughts and more opportunities for you to expand your mind and tap into your more creative side.

  • Less Stress

If there is one benefit of living a more Zenful life that everyone could take advantage of—it is the fact that it can help with stress. Regular Zen meditation can also help reduce pain and sensitivity as it can teach those who practice hope to cope with the pain that they deal with—as it can be a big help with stress reduction.

By lowering stress levels, Zen meditation can also help increase the production of serotonin—which is a hormone which can cause headaches, depression and even obesity.

The History of Zen

Zen Buddhism was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhiharm in the 6th century CE. By the 7th century CE, it spread to Korea and then eventually to Japan in the 12 century CE. By this time, Zen Buddhism had become a global practice and one that was only growing.

What is most impressive about this spread of Buddhism is that, according to tradition the transmission from Zen must go from master to disciple. This creates a spiritual bloodline, and it has been that way for more than 2,500 years.

Throughout its history, Zen has been based upon the belief that awakening can be achieved by anyone—but must be taught by one of these masters.

How is Zen Practiced?

There are two primary activities that are involved with formal Zen practices: sitting and breathing. You should always do this with awareness, paying close attention to your breath.

Once you master the art of sitting and breathing, also known as Zazen, you can start incorporating this awareness and breathing into your other everyday activities.

Over time, you can start incorporating your Zen awareness into your everyday activities, such as walking, eating, working and even chanting. This is how Zen becomes a part of your everyday life—not only in your meditative practices.


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During Zazen, the meditator must initially focus on breath—allowing your breath to flow softly and naturally. Zazen’s primary focus must be on attention to breath, which is common not only in Zazen, but in other forms of meditative practices.

Zazen is actually quite simple—it is all about devoting the mind’s attention to sitting and breathing. Formal meditation sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, or event longer.

Here are some tips on how to practice Zazen:

  • Sit in a quiet location, with a tall, strong posture.
  • Use a cushion, mat, blanket or meditation bench to make sure you are in proper form.
  • Hold your hands either in cosmic mudra- with the left hand on the right palm facing up, encircling the navel, or on the natural shelf. This is where the elbows are held slightly away from the core.
  • Sit and take several deep breaths in and out—to make sure that you are keeping your mind from wandering, every ten breaths, return your wandering mind to your breath.

It is simple as that. Experts recommend that you engage in this practice daily for up to 45 minutes per day to get the best results.

Walking Zen

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Walking Zen, also known as walking meditation or Kinhin. While you are walking with this type of meditation, you can do this practice on your own, focusing your attention on movement and breath.

However, if you really want to practice this form of meditation in the correct manner—you will need to do it in a group. Here is how:

  • Walk in a single file line, close to the person in front of you.
  • Hold hands in shashu—at waist level, where the right hand holds the left thumb and the left hand covers the right.
  • Hold the elbows slightly lifted so that the lower arms form a line parallel to the floor.
  • Walk in a line appreciating your breath, movement and the environment around you.

If you are practicing Zen walking on your own—then all you need to do is take a leisurely walk focusing on your breathing and awareness as you do.

Koan Practice

Koan in Zen Buddhism is a succinct paradoxical statement or question that is used in Zen meditative practices. It is a discipline that can help novices who are looking to master the art of Zen.

This exercise is a way to test a novice’s competence and fosters communication between the Zen master and the learner. There are a few different examples of how this practice goes, one of the most common being a question-and-answer form.

For example, the teacher may ask “What is Buddha?”

And the novice will answer “three pounds of flax.”

There are also clapping exercises and other ways to test the novice as they learn about the intricacies of Zen.

Zen Resources

The best way to learn about Zen of course is to go to a school of Zen or to a meditation center that specializes in Zen Buddhism. There is no better resource. However, if you are unable to make it to a center for an appropriate education on Zen Buddhism—there are other resources available that can help you learn.

Books on Zen


Books are some of the best resources available for those looking to learn more about Zen practices. Here are a few different books on Zen that can help you learn more about this practice. These are particularly helpful for those who are beginners and just getting started.

  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practices by Shunryu Suzuki, Trudy Dixon, et al.
  • Buddhism for Beginners: Buddhist Rituals and Practices to Eliminate Stress and Anxiety by Dharma Hazari
  • Zen: Beginner’s Guide: Happy Peaceful and Focused Lifestyle for Everyone by Ian Tuhovsky
  • Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind by Norman Fischer and Susan Moon

Keep these books in mind when you are looking to do a little casual reading on Zen Buddhism so you can learn more about this practice, what it entails and how to incorporate Zen practices into your everyday life.


You can start embracing a more Zenful life each and every day. Sometimes, the smallest steps towards being more mindful, at peace and in-tune with the world around you can go a long way in transforming your life—as you truly become more “Zen.”

Take the time to learn more about the milestones of Zen Buddhism and about what resources can help you on your journey towards a more Zenful life.

  • Historical development
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William+M. Bodiford
Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures UCLA. Author of Going Forth: Visions of Buddhist Vinaya.
Alternative Titles: Chan, Sŏn, Seon, Thien, Zen Buddhism
Be zendegi man khosh amadid

Zen, Chinese Chan, Korean Sŏn, also spelled Seon, Vietnamese Thien, important school of East Asian Buddhism that constitutes the mainstream monastic form of Mahayana Buddhism in China, Korea, and Vietnam and accounts for approximately 20 percent of the Buddhist temples in Japan. The word derives from the Sanskritdhyana, meaning “meditation.” Central to Zen teaching is the belief that awakening can be achieved by anyone but requires instruction in the proper forms of spiritual cultivation by a master. In modern times, Zen has been identified especially with the secular arts of medieval Japan (such as the tea ceremony, ink painting, and gardening) and with any spontaneous expression of artistic or spiritual vitality regardless of context. In popular usage, the modern non-Buddhist connotations of the word Zen have become so prominent that in many cases the term is used as a label for phenomena that lack any relationship to Zen or are even antithetical to its teachings and practices.

Origins and nature

Compiled by the Chinese Buddhist monk Daoyun in 1004, Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (Chingde chongdeng lu) offers an authoritative introduction to the origins and nature of Zen Buddhism. The work describes the Zen school as consisting of the authentic Buddhism practiced by monks and nuns who belong to a large religious family with five main branches, each branch of which demonstrates its legitimacy by performing Confucian-style ancestor rites for its spiritual ancestors or patriarchs. The genealogical tree of this spiritual lineage begins with the seven buddhas, consisting of six mythological Buddhas of previous eons as well as Siddhartha Gautama, or Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha of the current age. The spiritual awakening and wisdom realized by these buddhas then was transmitted from master to disciple across 28 generations of semi-historical or mythological Buddhist teachers in India, concluding with Bodhidharma, the monk who supposedly introduced true Buddhism to China in the 5th century. This true Buddhism held that its practitioners could achieve a sudden awakening to spiritual truth, which they could not accomplish by a mere reading of Buddhist scriptures. As Bodhidharma asserted in a verse attributed to him,

A special transmission outside the scriptures, not relying on words or letters; pointing directly to the human mind, seeing true nature is becoming a Buddha.

From the time of Bodhidharma to the present, each generation of the Zen lineage claimed to have attained the same spiritual awakening as its predecessors, thereby preserving the Buddha’s “lamp of wisdom.” This genealogical ethos confers religious authority on present-day Zen teachers as the legitimate heirs and living representatives of all previous Buddhas and patriarchs. It also provides the context of belief for various Zen rituals, such as funeral services performed by Zen priests and ancestral memorial rites for the families of laypeople who patronize the temples.

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The Zen ethos that people in each new generation can and must attain spiritual awakening does not imply any rejection of the usual forms of Buddhist spiritual cultivation, such as the study of scriptures, the performance of good deeds, and the practice of rites and ceremonies, image worship, and ritualized forms of meditation. Zen teachers typically assert rather that all of these practices must be performed correctly as authentic expressions of awakening, as exemplified by previous generations of Zen teachers. For this reason, the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp attributes the development of the standard format and liturgy of the Chinese Buddhist monastic institution to early Zen patriarchs, even though there is no historical evidence to support this claim. Beginning at the time of the Song dynasty (960–1279), Chinese monks composed strict regulations to govern behaviour at all publicly recognized Buddhist monasteries. Known as “rules of purity” (Chinese: qinggui; Japanese: shingi), these rules were frequently seen as unique expressions of Chinese Zen. In fact, however, the monks largely codified traditional Buddhist priestly norms of behaviour, and, at least in China, the rules were applied to residents of all authorized monasteries, whether affiliated with the Zen school or not.

Zen monks and nuns typically study Buddhist scriptures, Chinese classics, poetics, and Zen literature. Special emphasis traditionally has been placed on the study of “public cases” (Chinese: gongan; Japanese: kōan), or accounts of episodes in which Zen patriarchs reportedly attained awakening or expressed their awakening in novel and iconoclastic ways, using enigmatic language or gestures. Included in the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp and in other hagiographic compendia, the public cases are likened to legal precedents that are designed to guide the followers of Zen.

Historical development



Although Zen Buddhism in China is traditionally dated to the 5th century, it actually first came to prominence in the early 8th century, when Wuhou (625–705), who seized power from the ruling Tangdynasty (618–907) to become empress of the short-lived Zhou dynasty (690–705), patronized Zen teachers as her court priests. After Empress Wuhou died and the Tang dynasty was restored to power, rival sects of Zen appeared whose members claimed to be more legitimate and more orthodox than the Zen teachers who had been associated with the discredited empress. These sectarian rivalries continued until the Song dynasty, when a more inclusive form of Zen became associated with almost all of the official state-sponsored Buddhist monasteries. As the official form of Chinese Buddhism, the Song dynasty version of Zen subsequently spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

During the reign of the Song, Zen mythology, Zen literature, and Zen forms of Buddhist spiritual cultivation underwent important growth. Since that time, Zen teachings have skillfully combined the seemingly opposing elements of mythology and history, iconoclasm and pious worship, freedom and strict monastic discipline, and sudden awakening (Sanskrit: bodhi; Chinese: wu; Japanese: satori) and long master-disciple apprenticeships.

During the Song dynasty the study of public cases became very sophisticated, as Zen monks arranged them into various categories, wrote verse commentaries on them, and advocated new techniques for meditating on their key words. Commentaries such as The Blue Cliff Record (c. 1125; Chinese: Biyan lu; Japanese Heikigan roku) and The Gateless Barrier (1229; Chinese: Wumen guan; Japanese: Mumon kan) remain basic textbooks for Zen students to the present day. The public-case literature validates the sense of liberation and freedom felt by those experiencing spiritual awakening while, at the same time, placing the expression of those impulses under the supervision of well-disciplined senior monks. For this reason, Zen texts frequently assert that genuine awakening cannot be acquired through individual study alone but must be realized through the guidance of an authentic Zen teacher.


During Japan’s medieval period (roughly the 12th through 15th centuries), Zen monks played a major role in introducing the arts and literature of Song-dynasty China to Japanese leaders. The Five Mountain (Japanese: Gozan) Zen temples, which were sponsored by the Japanese imperial family and military rulers, housed many monks who had visited China and had mastered the latest trends of Chinese learning. Monks from these temples were selected to lead trade missions to China, to administer governmental estates, and to teach neo-Confucianism, a form of Confucianism developed under the Song dynasty that combined cultivation of the self with concerns for social ethics and metaphysics. In this way, wealthy Zen monasteries, especially those located in the Japanese capital city of Kyōto, became centres for the importation and dissemination of Chinese techniques of printing, painting, calligraphy, poetics, ceramics, and garden design—the so-called Zen arts, or (in China) Song-dynasty arts.

Apart from the elite Five Mountain institutions, Japanese Zen monks and nuns founded many monasteries and temples in the rural countryside. Unlike their urban counterparts, monks and nuns in rural Zen monasteries devoted more energy to religious matters than to Chinese arts and learning. Their daily lives focused on worship ceremonies, ritual periods of “sitting Zen” (Japanese: zazen) meditation, the study of public cases, and the performance of religious services for lower-status merchants, warriors, and peasants. Rural Zen monks helped to popularize many Buddhist rituals now common in Japan, such as prayer rites for worldly benefits, conferment of precept lineages on lay people, funerals, ancestral memorials, and exorcisms. After the political upheavals of the 15th and 16th centuries, when much of the city of Kyōto was destroyed in a widespread civil war, monks from rural Zen lineages came to dominate all Zen institutions in Japan, including the urban ones that formerly enjoyed Five Mountain status.

Find Your Zen Meaning

After the Tokugawa rulers of the Edo period (1603–1867) restored peace, Zen monasteries and all other religious institutions in Japan cooperated in the government’s efforts to regulate society. In this new political environment, Zen monks and other religious leaders taught a form of conventional morality (Japanese: tsūzoku dōtoku) that owed more to Confucian than to Buddhist traditions; indeed, Buddhist teachings were used to justify the strict social hierarchy enforced by the government. Many Confucian teachers in turn adapted Zen Buddhist meditation techniques to “quiet sitting” (Japanese: seiza), a Confucian contemplative practice. As a result of these developments, the social and religious distinctions between Zen practice and Confucianism became blurred.

When the Ming dynasty (1368–1661) in China began to collapse, many Chinese Zen monks sought refuge in Japan. Their arrival caused Japanese Zen monks to question whether their Japanese teachers or the new Chinese arrivals had more faithfully maintained the traditions of the ancient buddhas and patriarchs. The resultant search for authentic Zen roots prompted the development of sectarianism, not just between Japanese and Chinese Zen leaders but also within the existing Japanese Zen community. Eventually sectarian rivalry led to the emergence of three separate Japanese Zen lineages: Ōbaku (Chinese: Huanbo), Rinzai (Chinese: Linji), and Sōtō (Chinese: Caodong). Ignoring their similarities, each lineage exaggerated its distinctive features. Thus, both Rinzai and Sōtō emphasized their adherence to certain Song-dynasty practices, in contrast to the Ōbaku monasteries, which favoured Ming traditions, especially in such areas as ritual language, musical instruments, clothing, and temple architecture. People affiliated with Sōtō, by far the largest of the Japanese Zen lineages, stressed the accomplishments of their patriarch Dōgen (1200–53), whose chief work, Shōbōgenzō (1231–53; “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”), is widely regarded as one of the great classics of Japanese Buddhism.

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