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An Introduction to Zen Buddhism: What is Zen?

Online Zazen Experience

Zen meditation (zazen) and mindfulness have only recently become popular in Europe and America, but they have been practiced in Asia for centuries.

Nowadays, many of the world’s biggest and most successful companies, like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo!, include mediation and mindfulness in their employee training. At Apple, Steve Jobs was a lifelong follower of Zen.

Before you learn Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk, let’s look a little at the history and fundamentals of this ancient practice.

The History of Zen

Zen’s ultimate origin is the origin of Buddhism itself. About 2,500 years ago, when a man named Shakyamuni in India achieved enlightenment through meditation and became who we now call the Buddha.


Buddhist teachings were transmitted, developed, and argued over for thousands of years. For the story of Zen, the next main figure is an Indian monk called Bodhidharma, or Daruma in Japanese. He is said to have brought Buddhism to China around 520 CE. Buddhism combined with Chinese religions and philosophies like Taoism to form Zen.

Bodhidharma is thus traditionally considered the first Zen Patriarch, and the founder of the tradition. He is still venerated today in Japan, especially in the form of bright red dolls, also called daruma.

The Zen tradition began to decline somewhat in China around the 13th century, and many Zen monks came to Japan as a result. Like many aspects of Japanese culture, Japanese Zen has its roots in China.

A Temple in Kyoto
A temple in Japan

The military governments of the Kamakura Period (1185–1333) and Muromachi Period (1336–1573) introduced the Chinese Gozan (‘five peaks’) system of temple ranking, placing five temples at the top. This allowed greater control over rapidly expanding Zen influence, and allowed religion and governance to become closely intertwined. Many aspects of samurai philosophy came from Zen as a result, all the way up to the abolition of the samurai system at the end of the 19th century.

Zen Buddhism gained popularity in America in the 1960s thanks to figures like Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, who translated Japanese and Chinese texts and introduced its concepts to a Western audience. Nowadays, some of its tenants are familiar to people all over the world, even if they don’t realize it.

Practice, not Theory

A monk of the Soto Zen sect in Kyoto

Zen focuses on the essence of Buddhism. Accordingly, Zen is usually concerned far more with practice rather than theory. In the Zen tradition one achieves enlightenment through wisdom from the depths of our own consciousness, not through blind obedience to doctrine.

The Soto Zen sect is one of the strongest adherents to this principle. They describe zazen meditation as follows.

Zazen is the foundation of the Soto Zen sect. This is because the Buddha achieved enlightenment by devoting himself to the practice of zazen. ‘Zen’ is the true nature of things, the way things are, and the ability of the mind to recognize and respond to them. Through just sitting down, you can stabilize your body, focus your mind, and balance your senses.

Soto zazen meditation is “just sitting” (shikantaza). There is no goal, and no way to “achieve” zazen. Instead, the posture and shape of zazen is the shape of the Buddha, and thus the shape of enlightenment. In our daily lives, we are often swayed by selfish desires, but when practicing zazen we are not bound by any thought or desire.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, found that all activities, not just zazen, can be practiced as a form of Zen. Thinking of Zen as a form of training separates it from the rest of our lives, when in fact it is the actions we perform every day that constitute the practice of Zen.

Instead of focusing on the supposed goal of meditation or study, a focus on the meditation itself is believed to lead to a mind unbound by thoughts or desires – an enlightened mind. It is for this reason that all Zen sects, and Soto Zen in particular, focus greatly on the practice of meditation, rather than the formal study of documents and doctrine.

Now you know a little of the theory, why not practice Zen meditation yourself? With Wabunka Experiences, you can experience zazen online from a Buddhist monk, live from a temple in Kyoto.