What Zazen Is and Is Not

Why begin sitting zazen?

People sit for a variety of reasons. “Zen meditation” may be encountered these days in a variety of settings and presented with a variety of meanings.

While these are all realistic and quite natural motivations for meditating, in this course we are approaching Zen meditation as a way of addressing our questions of "Huh?" and "So?"

What zazen is not

Let’s start by being clear about what zazen is not. It is not

  • shutting things out.
  • a state of blankness.
  • a state of extreme passivity.
  • a self-improvement program.
  • thinking about something.

Zazen as meditation

“Meditation” is something of an umbrella term for practices some of which are similar and some of which very different. For now it’s important for you to hear that in Zen meditation we’re not trying to shut out the external world, nor are we trying to manipulate our minds artificially to obtain some state of consciousness.

This may seem a bit confusing. Remember that I described Buddha as sitting under the Bodhi tree “... too busy questioning.” How do you question without thinking?

So for now, let’s say that zazen is studying yourself but not thinking about yourself (or anything else).

Meditation is a great deal more than simply concentration. Although concentration is an important part of the zazen and you will learn techniques for zazen that require concentration, it is not the discipline itself.

Think of times when you have been truly focused. It may not be a smashed thumb. Perhaps it's playing a musical instrument, playing sports, caring for a child, listening to music... Try to recall that concentrated experience.


The first practice in learning to sit zazen is to calm and quiet the mind.  This practice enables you to pay attention for extended periods of time without being constantly interrupted by your stream of consciousness, thoughts, memories or emotions. You develop an ability to simply sit still, like a cat watching a mouse hole, waiting patiently without expecting anything.

The goal of zazen is the maintenance of this steady, calm, quiet state.  In this state you experience an attenuation of the tendency to either identify with the contents of your mind or to comment upon it, either jugementally or analytically.

Reaching this goal requires the investment of time and energy to the practice of concentratiton. Over time wih concentration you build a kind of mental muscle that allows you to experience your internal and environemental worlds as one thing, without either identifying with the contents of our mind or playing with them in the form of internal commentary.


What is zazen? The word is a Japanese rendering of the Chinese tso-chan which is in turn a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyana – which is usually translated as meditation. As za means sitting, zazen is sitting zen.

Zazen is also referred to as sitting meditation. Dhyana, however, has meanings beyond what we usually think of as “meditation.”

Dhyana can also mean stillness – a dynamic stillness – and from that perspective zazen is more than an activity (“meditating”), it is also something one is.

Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest. Zazen is not thinking good, not thinking bad. It is not conscious endeavor. It is not introspection.   Dogen Zenji

Dhyana also refers to a state beyond dualities, beyond subject and object, a state in which one apprehends unity in the presence of what we normally experience as difference.

Because the term “meditation” is used in so many different ways by different people, in this course we will use the word zazen, which encompasses the states of dhyana I’ve mentioned which soon we’ll explore a bit more.

But please hear this right now, at the beginning of this meditation course: while much of this course is instruction on sitting Zen, zazen is not just sitting.

Dogen Zenji isn’t just giving a lecture on how to do zazen; he is, in fact, really urging everybody to do it.    Taizan Maezumi Roshi

The same is true for this course.

Remember Bodhidharma's words about Zen:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
Depending not on words and letters;
Pointing directly to the human mind;
Seeing into one's nature, one becomes a Buddha.