Buddhism A–Z
What is Zazen in Buddhism?
Photo by Marubatsu via Wikimedia Commons

Zazen is Japanese for “seated meditation,” which is the central practice of Zen Buddhism. Zazen might also be translated as “sitting Zen.”  It is a simple yet profound meditation practice that combines posture, breathing, and mental awareness. As Jules Shuzen Harris writes, “Zazen is being awake but letting go, experiencing your present moment awareness without thought or story.”

Zazen emphasizes the process of sitting and observing rather than striving for specific outcomes. This is, of course, much more difficult than it sounds because our minds are constantly striving, chattering, judging, worrying, planning, and anticipating. The practice of zazen is not about stopping or controlling the mental noise, but about simply observing it and letting it go. In time thoughts pass through awareness without causing excitement or disturbance.

It’s sometimes said that zazen is sitting without goals. This doesn’t mean there is no enlightenment to be realized. The Zen school teaches that enlightenment is already present in all of us and doesn’t have to be pursued. Instead, one sits still and observes, and enlightenment is clarified. Over time, consistent zazen practice can lead to greater insight into the nature of reality, the self, and the interconnectedness of all things.

Here are the key elements of zazen practice:


A stable and grounded posture is an important element of zazen practice. Often, in a beginner zazen class, the instructor will spend most of the class discussing the correct alignment of one’s hips, spine, shoulders, and head. Correct posture helps one sit more comfortably and more alertly for longer periods.

Practitioners typically sit on a cushion called a zafu, placed on a soft mat called a zabuton. Zazen can be practiced sitting in full lotus, with both legs crossed so each leg rests on the opposite thigh; half lotus, with one leg resting over the opposite calf; or kneeling with your legs folded beneath you.

You can also straddle a cushion, sit on a low bench with your legs tucked beneath, or sit in a straight-back chair. Practitioners will also put hands together, forming a zazen mudra, with the left hand resting on the right hand with the palms facing up and the tips of the thumbs touching.


In zazen, the breath is used as a focal point to help quiet the mind. While practitioners maintain the seated posture, they pay attention to their breath as it naturally flows in and out, sometimes counting the breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing, or breathing from the belly, is encouraged. However, breathing should not be forced or controlled.

Silence and Stillness

Zazen is typically practiced in silence, often in a group setting in a zendo. There may be periods of walking meditation (kinhin) interspersed with seated meditation. The environment is generally quiet and conducive to deep concentration.

Mental Focus

In 12th century China, two prominent Chan (Zen) teachers were presenting two very different approaches to zazen.  Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) taught mozhao chan, or “silent illumination zen.” This practice emphasizes open awareness of the entire present experience. This is the practice commonly referred to as zazen.

Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) first proposed what came to be called koan contemplation. Very briefly, a koan (in Chinese, gongan) is usually a short bit of dialogue that points to a teaching. Koans are not riddles or puzzles, but they are intended to push one outside conventional thinking. Dahui proposed boiling down the essence of a koan into a short, critical phrase and using that as an object of concentration. However, instead of thinking about what the phrase means, students take the phrase into their hearts and bodies and breaths. This technique can be remarkably effective at opening doors of insight.

These two paths of zazen practice are still with us today, wherever Zen is found. In Japan, the Soto school does shikantaza, a practice based on mozhao chan that was developed by Eihei Dogen. The Rinzai school is known for koan contemplation.

Related Reading

Zazen: Just Sitting, Going Nowhere

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