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What Is Zen Meditation: Zazen, Shikantaza, and Mindfulness


Zen monk sitting in meditation with a white kitten in theri lap

Zen meditation, often referred to as Zazen, is a practice deeply rooted in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist traditions. Within Zen, there are various approaches to meditation, two of the most prominent being Zazen and Shikantaza. Additionally, mindfulness, which has become a more secularized practice, found its roots in the West through Zen monk and peace advocate Thich Nhat Hanh and shares similarities with these meditation techniques. In this blog post, we'll explore the definitions, differences, and similarities between Zazen, Shikantaza, and Mindfulness to gain a better understanding of each practice.


Zazen:

  • Zazen, translated means “sitting meditation” is a central practice in Japanese Zen Buddhism.  In Zazen, practitioners typically sit cross-legged on a cushion (zafu) with a straight spine. The hands are often placed in a specific position called the Cosmic mudra, and the eyes remain open, lowering the gaze to the ground a few feet in front of the practitioner. Eihei Dogen, (1200-1253) was a Japanese monk who, dissatisfied with his practice, traveled to China, and brought his experience there back to Japan, teaching Zazen and writing his Zazen “How To” instructions in Fukanzazengi. He is the founder of the Soto School of Zen, which is the school Rising Lotus Sangha adheres to. 


When practicing Zazen, the emphasis is on maintaining a posture of alert stillness while allowing thoughts, emotions, and sensations to arise and pass without attachment or judgment. There is no “thinking about things” in Zazen. We let thoughts and feelings arise and then pass by, as if we were sitting on a park bench watching people walk by.  We would notice them, perhaps nod, say hello, and then forget about them as they fade from view.  In zazen, we breathe slowly and deeply, in and out through our nose.  Sometimes if we notice ourselves lost in thinking, we can bring ourselves back to the present concentrating just on our breath.  


Shikantaza:

  • Shikantaza, which translates to "just sitting" or "nothing but sitting," is Zazen (sitting meditation) that emphasizes total immersion in the present moment without any specific focus or object of meditation. Dogen describes this as “mind and body slip away.”  Practitioners are completely in “just this” moment, without making distinctions between the observer and the observed. Shikantaza is not a practice unto itself, it is something that happens during Zazen. 

Mindfulness:

  • Mindfulness, while not exclusive to Zen, shares common ground with Zazen and Shikantaza in its emphasis on present-moment awareness and non-judgmental observation of experience. Originating from Buddhist teachings, mindfulness has gained widespread popularity, through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. In secular contexts, it is widely encouraged as a means of reducing stress, enhancing well-being, and cultivating greater self-awareness.  With mindfulness practice, the breath is often used as an anchor for awareness, with attention returning to the breath whenever the mind wanders.


In mindfulness practice, individuals cultivate awareness by intentionally directing their attention to the present moment, often focusing on sensations of the breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions. One key aspect of mindfulness is maintaining an attitude of openness, curiosity, and acceptance toward whatever arises in one's experience. Another key is that mindfulness can be practiced in all areas of life, washing dishes, brushing teeth, and whilst exercising. It could be seen as fully intentional living. 


Differences and Similarities:

While Zazen, Shikantaza, and Mindfulness share similarities in their emphasis on present-moment awareness and non-judgmental observation, there are also distinct differences between these practices.

  • Zazen and Shikantaza are specific forms of meditation rooted in Zen Buddhism, whereas mindfulness is a broader concept that can be applied in various contexts and traditions.

  • Zazen typically involves a structured sitting posture* and may include specific instructions on breath awareness and concentration, whereas Shikantaza emphasizes a more open-ended approach to meditation without a specific focal point. I like this quote I found by author Lewis Richmond: “Just Sitting” doesn’t help us reach our destination,  It allows us to stop having one.”

  • Mindfulness can be practiced formally through meditation, but it can also be integrated into everyday activities such as eating, walking, or listening, making it accessible for people with diverse lifestyles and preferences.


Zazen, Shikantaza, and Mindfulness are all valuable practices for cultivating present-moment awareness, clarity of mind, and inner peace, but we really shouldn’t get too fussed about any of them. Just pull up a cushion and sit.


*note: When Dogen wrote his instructions for Zazen, he was writing to mostly men in a monastery. Rising Lotus Sangha is an inclusive sangha.  We meet people where they are. In this teacher’s opinion zazen in our times is not about a specific form, but it is about the intent of the practitioner. It doesn’t matter so much the position you take, it’s that you practice. 


Bows,

Kyoji


woman meditating seated on a sofa

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