How to Practice Zen

The very experience of Zen is that of experiencing wisdom and understanding. To actively achieve this form of enlightenment, meditation is essential. To learn how to practice Zen most effectively, the student or practitioner must look beyond the theoretical or written doctrine of other Buddhist teachings to explore the divine knowledge thought to be inherently present in the mind, heart, and soul of everyone.

The Indian prince, Siddartha Gautama (563 to 460 BC), is credited as the founder of Buddhism. He is said to have achieved the ultimate enlightenment, nirvana, during meditation. This spiritual achievement led him to denounce his princely wealth and live an ascetic life instead, focusing on the riches within instead of those of the world.

The school of Zen, one of several associated with Buddhism, is said to have started with Gautama’s Flower Sermon, in which he sat silent, holding a lotus flower, as his disciples tried to determine if he was ill, tired, or presenting a lesson. One disciple, Mahakasyapa, is thought to be the first to finally understand: the meaning of the sermon was not about words but about mental enlightenment instead. The state of nirvana in which the Buddha lived is not a state to be conveyed in words or scripture but in purity of thought and action.

The first documented evidence of the practice of Zen Buddhism comes from 7th century China, where Buddhism had spread over the centuries. Buddhism continued to spread throughout the world as Asian immigrants settled in new lands. In the United States, interest in Zen outside traditional Asian communities has flourished since the 1960s.

Over time, certain postures and rituals have been adapted by the varying schools of thought on the most beneficial ways to practice Zen. They were developed to help the body and the mind focus all attention inward. The Zen master, or jikijitsu, will guide the meditation with bells and a kyousaku, as appropriate. The kyousaku, also called an encouragement stick, is a thin, flexible wooden or bamboo slat usually ornamented with calligraphy. It is used to gently tap the practitioner on the shoulder to maintain focus on the meditation process. The use of the kyousaku is for guidance only and is never applied to inflict pain or punishment.

During the sitting meditation, or zazen, stage of the ritual, the practitioner signals the jikijitsu to apply the kyousaku by bowing the head and assuming the gassho position. In other sessions, the jikijitsu circles the group, routinely applying a gentle tap on the shoulders of the practitioners as the meditation progresses.

The only equipment a practitioner needs, other than a willing spirit and an open mind, is a zafu. The zafu is a round cushion, about eight inches thick and 14 inches in diameter. The Zen practitioner sits on the zafu with knees touching the ground. Loose, comfortable clothing is recommended.


While standing and facing the zafu, place the hands together in front of the upper chest, with palms and fingers touching as in prayer, and arms extended from the shoulders. This joining of the hands represents the duality of two forces (the hands) becoming one mind in an expression of devotion, faith, and respect.


Curl the fingers of the left hand around the thumb, which rests against the palm of the hand. Cover the left hand with the right hand and lower the hands to mid-torso level.


Return to the gassho position, bow toward the zafu, and turn clockwise until facing the wall opposite the zafu.


Maintain gassho, bow to the opposite wall, and continue turning clockwise until once more facing the zafu.


Sit on the zafu and place the right foot on the left thigh and left foot on the right thigh.


If achieving kekka-fuza is physically difficult, place just one foot on one thigh with the knee of the other leg bent and the foot situated as close to the body as possible.


Keep the spine straight, both horizontally and vertically, leaning neither forward or backward or toward either side. Hold the shoulders loose but straight, neither curled forward nor backward, and the chin parallel with the ground.


Cup the hands together, with fingers slightly overlapped and the thumbs gently touching, to form an open circle. Lower the hands, with thumbs on top, until the fingers rest gently on the uppermost foot.


Keep the eyes open to minimize the temptation to doze or daydream. Hold them slightly open, facing the floor at about a 45-degree angle. Resist the temptation to focus on any object, pattern, or other distraction in sight.


Part the lips slightly and exhale quietly but smoothly and deeply, using the lower abdomen to expel the breath completely. Close the lips and inhale once naturally, through the nostrils.


After kanki-issoku, place the tongue against the roof of the mouth, with lips closed, so no air escapes the body through the mouth. Maintain this mouth position until the entire meditation session is over.


Settle the base of the spine in the center of the zafu and sway the torso from side to side, beginning with wide swings that decrease in angle until the spine is once again centered in an upright position. Keep the spine straight, centered, and still until kinhin, or walking meditation, begins.

Awareness / Kakusoku

The steps leading to zazen help relax the mind and body but even in a state of deep meditative tranquility, most practitioners find random thoughts continue throughout the session. Do not allow these thoughts to become distractions. Instead, acknowledge them and allow them to vanish freely. Do not dwell on or follow through with any thoughts but focus instead on freeing the mind and allowing a state of meditative awareness to develop.

The Bell / Zazen

The meditation session is guided by the ringing of a bell:

  • Three rings signal the beginning of zazen, which lasts about 50 minutes.
  • Two rings signal the end of zazen and the beginning of kinhin.
  • One ring signals the end of kinhin or the end of the entire meditation session.


During zazen, the practitioner can signal the desire for the kyousaku by returning to the gassho position. The jikijitsu then approaches the practitioner with the kyousaku held firmly in both hands and bows to the practitioner before administering the taps to re-focus the practitioner’s mental activity. When the shoulder is tapped with the kyousaku, the practitioner leans the head toward the opposite shoulder. After administration of the kyousaku, the practitioner returns the head to an upright position, bows while still in gassho, and resumes zazen.


When two rings of the bell signal the beginning of kinhin, practitioners stand, with hands in shashu position, and walk in single file, clockwise, around the meditation area. During this meditation, the breath is synchronized with each step, with one complete breath, exhaling and inhaling through the nose, coordinated with each time a foot is placed on the ground. The eyes should remain focused on the ground at a 45-degree angle, overlooking all distractions during the meditation period.

At the end of kinhin, one bell ring signals the end of the meditation session. Three rings signal the beginning again of zazen if an extended meditation session is under way.


When the final zazen session is over, resume the gassho position while still seated and sway the torso from side to side and backward and forward gently at first with increased vigor as the body loosens up. Breathe deeply and straighten the legs slowly, flexing the leg and foot muscles. Do not hurry this step. When the legs feel strong enough, stand up, fluff the zafu back into shape, and quietly leave the meditation area.

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