What is Zen? (the simple question)

Zen is short for Zen Buddhism. It is sometimes called a religion and sometimes called a philosophy. Choose whichever term you prefer; it simply doesn’t matter.
Historically, Zen Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Around 500 B.C. he was a prince in what is now India. At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he renounced his privileged life to seek understanding. After 6 years of struggling as an ascetic he finally achieved Enlightenment at age 35. After this he was known as the Buddha (meaning roughly “one who is awake”). In a nutshell, he realized that everything is subject to change and that suffering and discontentment are the result of attachment to circumstances and things which, by their nature, are impermanent. By ridding oneself of these attachments, including attachment to the false notion of self or “I”, one can be free of suffering.
The teachings of the Buddha have, to this day, been passed down from teacher to student. Around 475 A.D. one of these teachers, Bodhidharma, traveled from India to China and introduced the teachings of the Buddha there. In China Buddhism mingled with Taoism. The result of this mingling was the Ch’an School of Buddhism. Around 1200 A.D. Ch’an Buddhism spread from China to Japan where it is called (at least in translation) Zen Buddhism.

What is Zen? (the real question)

This question basically asks “What is the essence of Zen?”. It appears in various guises throughout Zen literature, from “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” to “Have you eaten yet?”. The question cuts right to the heart of the matter and can only be answered by you. Perhaps the best answer is “practice”.
Why do people post such nonsense to this group?One of the central points of Zen is intuitive understanding. As a result, words and sentences have no fixed meaning, and logic is often irrelevant. Words have meaning only in relation to who is using them, who they are talking to, and what situation they are used in. Some postings are indeed nonsense; other postings appear to be nonsense at first but this is because the meaning is all between the lines. Zen and poetry have gone hand in hand for centuries.

Instructions For The Practice Of Zazen (Sitting Meditation)

This zazen FAQ is based (with modification) on the publication Shikantaza: An Introduction to Zazen published by the Kyoto Soto-Zen Center. Some sectarian differences are noted under Difficulties and Expedients. The main text is minimalist in aiming to present what is most common in as many teaching lines as practicable.

Terms for zazen portion of FAQ (see also glossary)

Gassho (Korean: hapchang): See under Hand Positions.
Hokkaijoin (Cosmic Mudra): See under Hand Positions.
Hondo: A formal hall for rituals and ceremonies. The altar is against a wall in a hondo.
Isshu: See under Hand Positions.
Kinhin: Walking zazen.
Rinzai: A Japanese (Chinese: Linji) sect of Zen Buddhism.
Shashu: See under Hand Positions.
Sodo: A formal hall for meditation, meals, and sleeping. The altar is in the center of a sodo.
Soto: A Japanese (Chinese: Caodong) sect of Zen Buddhism.
Zafu: A small round cushion used as a seat in zazen.
Zabuton: See Zaniku.
Zaniku: A large reactangular flat cushion placed under the zafu which cushions the knees.
Zendo: An informal hall for zazen is practice, which may combine the function and layout of a sodo and hondo.

Zendo Manners

In a zendo the altar is placed in either the sodo or hondo position.
Enter the zendo on the left side of the entry, left foot first.
Gassho and bow to the altar.
Walk forward across the room past the altar and go to a seat turning corners squarely (cross in front of the altar only during kinhin).
Gassho and bow toward the seat, greeting the people to both sides.
The people on both sides respond to greeting.
Turn clockwise and face front.
Gassho and bow to those directly across room, greeting them.
They respond with a gassho-bow in greeting.
Sit down on the zafu.
Turn clockwise toward the wall. (If in a Soto style zendo, Rinzai style is to sit facing in from the wall.)
Always turn or move clockwise as viewed from above the zendo.
Hand PositionsGassho is performed by placing the hands palm to palm slightly in front of the chest with the arms parallel to the floor.
Shashu is performed by placing the thumbtip of the left hand as close to the left palm as comfortable and making a fist around it. Place the fist in the center of the chest and cover it with the right hand. Keep the elbows away from the body with the forearms parallel to the floor.
Isshu is the same as shashu but with the left fist turned thumb side toward the chest. Left fist and thumb are parallel to the floor and not vertical as in shashu.
Hokkaijoin (Cosmic Mudra) is performed in the following manner. Place your right hand palm upward in your lap against the lower abdomen. Place the left hand palm upward on top of the right. The second joints of the middle fingers should be touching, and your fingers parallel. Raise the thumbs up opposite the fingers and touch the thumb tips lightly together; forming an oval between the thumbs and fingers. The thumb tips should join at the approximate level of the navel. In some Tibetan teaching lines the right hand is placed on top of the left.

Settling Into the Posture

Place a thick mat (zaniku or zabuton) in front of the wall and place a small round cushion (zafu) on it. Sit on it facing the wall. There are several positions for the legs. If not too cold sit with bare feet. Leave your wristwatch off.
The cross legged positions provide greatest stability. To sit in full lotus, place the right foot on the left thigh and then the left foot on the right thigh. To sit in half lotus place your left foot on your right thigh. Try to cross the legs firmly so that a stable tripod of support is provided by the knees and the base of the spine. The order of the crossing of the legs may be reversed. It is also possible to simply sit on the floor with one foreleg in front of the other or kneeling using a bench or a cushion. To sit in a chair, place the feet flat on the floor and use a cushion to elevate the seat so that the upper thighs fall away from the body and follow the rest of the applicable instructions.
Rest the knees firmly on the zaniku, straighten the lower back, push the buttocks outward and the hips forward, and straighten your spine. Pull in your chin and extend the neck as though to support the ceiling. The ears and shoulders should be in the same plane with the nose directly above the navel. Straighten the back and relax shoulders, back, and abdomen without changing posture.
Keep the mouth closed placing the tongue with the tip just behind the front teeth and the rest of the tongue as close to the roof of the mouth as comfortable. Keep the eyes at least slightly open cast downward at a 45 degree angle without focusing on anything. If closed you may slip into drowsiness or daydreaming.
Rest the hands palm up on the knees and take 2 or 3 deep abdominal breaths. Exhale smoothly and slowly with the mouth slightly open by pulling in on the abdominal wall until all air has been expelled and inhale by closing the mouth and breathing naturally. Hands still on the knees sway the upper half of the body left to right a few times without moving the hips. Sway forward and back. These swayings are at first larger and then smaller enabling you to find the point of balance of your posture.
Finally, place your hands in Hokkaijoin (Cosmic Mudra, the oval shape against your abdomen described above under Hand Positions).


Observe breathing during zazen, but do not try to manipulate the rhythm or depth of the breath. Breathe gently and silently through the nose without attempting to control or manipulate the breathing. Let the breath come and go naturally so that you forget all about it. Simply let long breaths be long and short ones short. On inhalation the abdomen expands naturally like a ballon inflating, while on exhalation simply let it deflate.

There are some additional remarks about breathing under Difficulties And Expedients.

In some Rinzai and Tibetan teaching lines it is recommended that one feel a sense of strength in the abdomen in breathing, that the exhala- tion be done in a very slow smooth and gradual way or a very slight contraction of the anus on exhalation (this should be so slight it may be more felt as an intention than as a physical contraction) be per- formed. While these recommendations have their origin in energy yogas (Kundalini and Qigong) some Tibetan and Rinzai teachers recommend their use. Theravada and Soto teachers in general do not recommend this approach. Soto especially emphasizes just observing the breath as it is without trying to improve it in any way. Specifically, Dogen states that counting the breath and following it are not quite zazen and recommends avoiding their use. Some lineages (mostly Rinzai) recommend a long period of breath counting before simply practicing zazen, others (mostly Soto) do not. Similarly, some recommend that if you are without a teacher, only practice breath counting not zazen, others encourage practice with or without a teacher.


Do not concentrate on any particular object or attempt to control thoughts, emotions, or any modification of consciousness. By simply maintaining proper posture and breathing the mind settles by itself without fabrication. When thoughts, feelings, etc. arise, do not get caught up by them or fight them. Simply permit any object of mind to come and go freely. The essential point is to always strive to wake up from distraction (thoughts, emotions, images, etc.) or dullness and drowsiness. Letting go of any thought is itself thinking non thinking.
Arising From ZazenBow in gassho. Place hands on the knees and sway the body slightly and then more so. Take a few deep breaths and unfold the legs. Arise slowly especially if the legs are asleep and do not stand abruptly. Return your sitting place to its original condition. (Plump up the zafu and brush it off with your hand.)


Walking ZazenPlace the hands in shashu (or isshu). Walk clockwise around the room so that your right shoulder is toward the altar in the center of the zendo. The posture from waist up is the same as in zazen. Walk taking a half step for each full breath, slowly, smoothly, and noiselessly, without dragging the feet. Always walk straight ahead and turn to the right. Rinzai kinhin is often much faster and the pace may vary. Match your pace to that of the group.

Difficulties and Expedients

The art of right awareness may seem difficult and the description given above is idealized. If you are finding difficulties invent your own way. In zazen we each must find our own way. If you find you are struggling and need a suggestion as to what to do, it is possible to follow or count the breath among other things.
Counting the breath may be done on inhalations, exhalations or both depending on what you find useful. Count from one to ten and then simply start over again at one. Be aware of the count and the breath and try to maintain continuous awareness of both. If you find that you are constantly losing the count, try counting to five.
Following the breath is done by watching the rise with inhalation and fall with exhalation of the abdomen with each breath. The abdominal wall is viewed as a leaf slowly waving in response to the in and out breaths. Maintain awareness of the entire posture as much as possible and watch the breath reach and leave the lower abdomen.

Please note that opposite breathing (abdomen in on exhalation, out on inhalation) is a Taoist Qigong (energy yoga) method and is not appropriate to do with zazen since it has a specific, health related purpose.

Keizan Zenji recommends settling awareness in the abdomen if bothered by distracting thoughts and above the eyebrows or at the hairline if bothered by drowsiness. Others recommend watching contact of the air with the nostrils or upper lip if drowsy. Dogen Zenji mentions only the palm of the left hand as a point of concentration in difficulties. Hakuin Zenji also mentions slowly scanning the attention from the top of the head downward throughout the body, like following a slowly melting substance as a specific remedy against excess nervousness in zazen. These are mentioned here only as examples of the expedient devices that have been adopted by others. Remember these are only for use in difficulty, the norm of awareness for zazen is to be awake without preference to everything in the universe regardless of whether it is inside or outside the body. Be awake to everything over and over again, that is the essential art of zazen.

Glossary, some terms related to Zen Buddhism briefly defined

Unless otherwise noted or obvious the Japanese form is given first.
The Pinyin romanization of Chinese will be used.
Ch = Chinese, J = Japanese, K = Korean, P = Pali, Skt = Sanskrit Ango (J):

A period of practice and training typically 1-3 months long.Arhat (Skt): One free from the ten fetters to freedom. Used both to criticise an individual who practices only for self benefit and to praise an accomplished adept. In the latter sense, one of the Ten Names of a Buddha.Avidya (Skt, P: Avijja): Ignorance although unawareness and unconsciousness are also good translations. Most simply it is manifested as attachment to greed, anger, and delusion.Bodhisattva (Skt): A Buddha to be who may be delaying his/her own enlightenment to continue a practice benefiting all beings. As praise, it is for selfless practice, as criticism for insufficient attention for one’s own practice.Buddha (Skt): an enlightened one.
Gassho (K: hapchang): A hand position in which palms are placed together vertically in front of the body. (See Hand Positions in zazen FAQ.)
Hokkaijoin: Cosmic Mudra the oval hand position used in zazen.
Hondo: A formal hall for rituals and ceremonies. The altar is against a wall in a hondo.
Isshu: Similar to shashu but with a horizontal fist. (See Hand Positions in zazen FAQ.)
Karma (Skt; Kamma P): Literally deed or phenomenon. Also short for the law of karma, or cause and effect. Actions have foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences.
Kensho: An experience of seeing into one’s own nature.Kinhin: Walking zazen usually practiced between sittings but may also be practiced on its own.
Koan (Ch: kungan): Literally, a ‘public record’ pointing to realization in a Zen teaching context, usually involving interaction. Short Example: A monk asked Joshu, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’Joshu replied, ‘Mu.’ (literally: without or lacking)Koans may be used discursively or as objects of meditation.
Nirvana (Skt, P: Nibbana, J: Nehan): An aspect of the world expressed as oneness, stillness, and exhaustion of desires.
Rinzai: A Japanese (Ch: Linji) sect of Zen Buddhism.Samsara (Skt & P): An aspect of world expressed as differentiation, change, becoming, impermanence and desires.
Satori: An experience of enlightenmentSesshin: Literally to inspect the heart-mind, a period of intense practice, typically approximately a week.
Shashu: A hand position with the left fist vertically against the chest and covered with the right. (See Hand Positions in zazen FAQ .)
Sodo: A formal hall for meditation, meals, and sleeping. The altar is in the center of a sodo.
Soto: A Japanese (Ch: Caodong) sect of Zen Buddhism.
Sutra (Skt; P: Sutta): The teaching discourses of the Buddhist canon, most are presented as the words of the historic Buddha.
Tathata (Skt): Thusness, the as-it-is-ness of the world.
Tathagatha (Skt): The thus-come-thus-gone one, an epithet of the Buddha.
Ten Fetters (Skt: Samyojanas): Illusion of an ego, skepticism, belief in magic as solving the problem of life, sensory delusion, ill-will, desire for formed existence, desire for formless existence, arrogance, restlessness, and ignorance of the true nature of reality.
Wato (K: Hwadu, Ch: Huatou): The head word of a koan, as in the example under Koan ‘Mu’.
Yongmaeng Chongjin (K): Intensive retreat (more literally, “fearless practice”).
Zafu: A small round cushion used as a seat in zazen.
Zabuton: See Zaniku.Zaniku: A large rectangular flat cushion placed under the zafu which cushions the knees.
Zazen (Ch: Zuochan): Sitting meditation.
Zen (K: Son; Ch: Chan; Skt: Dhyana; P: Jhana): Meditation.
Zendo (K: Sonbang): An informal hall for zazen is practice, which may combine the function and layout of a sodo and hondo.

On The Use Of Words

“Bodhisattavas never engage in conversations whose resolutions depend on words and logic.” These words, attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha 2,500 years ago, embody the attitude Zen has towards the use of words. Truth and Meaning have existence beyond and independent of words. Words may or may not contain truth. Ultimately the awakening to our fundamental enlightened mind, is beyond descriptions possible in words. Words are convienient tools or sounds limited by the both the nature of sound itself, and the minds of both speaker and listener.

Ever try explaining how a certain food tastes to someone who’s never tasted that particular food before? When you were finished did you think they really knew the taste? Could they honestly, just from your description, say they’ve tasted it?
No they couldn’t. But you could, through the use of language, build motivation in the person to taste the food for themselves (at which point they they’d probably be more than happy to tell you how your description was lacking!)

In that exact same way, Zen Masters use words only to coax, prod, push, or drag a person to enlightenment, both as an experience and a way of life. Zen has little use for words which don’t precipitate or point to, Awakening. Even logic must take a far, far, second place to the all important task of a personal realization of the unborn, undying, pure wisdom source which is the birthright of every human.

For more specific and philosophical discussion on the use of words refer to the Surangama and Lankavatara Sutras. You can find both these sutras in “A Buddhist Bible” (the first book on the reading list).

Introductory Reading List

The following short list of books is meant to help the beginner gain, not only a philosophical understanding of Zen, but also, at least, an intellectual understanding of why the practice of Zazen is the primary practice of Zen. There are many other good books available, so many that space on this FAQ does not permit anything close to a comprehensive list. Instead we give this short list which covers most fundamental aspects of Zen, Zen practice, and Zen Buddhism. Most of the writers in this list have written more than one book, so if you like your first taste of a particular author, you are encouraged to pick up other titles by the same author. There are also many other wonderful writers and books on this subject, this list is introductory only. You are encouraged to use your intuition when selecting material to read (or not).
May these books be the starting point of your own path to Awakening.

Two Books On Buddhism

A Buddhist Bible Edited by Dwight Goddard:
This is the classic work which began many of the beatnik Zen practioners of the sixties (including Jack Kerouac) on the path. There are certain books which are considered gateway books, that is to say, books that introduce whole generations of people to Zen and this is one of them. Even if you would like to practice Zen without being a Buddhist, it is important to understand the practical and philosohical ties between the two. This book serves this purpose well, while keeping a Zen slant. In addition to the two sutras mentioned earlier, this book also has translations of the Diamond Sutra, Dao De King (more popularly known as Tao Te Ching), the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch (See NOTE) the Awakening of Faith Shastra, solid fundemantal discusions of the historical Buddha and his teachings. The latest reprint has a foreward by Aitken Roshi.
NOTE: This particualar translation of the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra is worded in a way which might be easier understood by reading other translations.

Buddhism; A Way of Thought and Life By Nancy Ross Wilson.
A simple, clear, accurate overview of the Buddha’s teachings, with chapters specifically on Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism.

Nine Books On Zen

The Three Pillars of Zen By Roshi Phillip Kapleau:
Another gateway book. This book covers Zazen practice, common questions and problems, and the enlightnment experience. Written by an American who studied in Japan for 15 years, this is classic work by a modern western master.

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind By Shunryu Suzuki:
This book covers Zen practice with especially good comments on bringing practice from the sitting experience into each minute of our lives. It is written in simple style which still manages to convey the deeper meanings of Zen and its practice.

Questions to a Zen Master By Taisen Deshimaru:
Except for the excellent chapter on Zazen (Soto style) this book shows many basic religious and philosphical implications of Zen. With a heavy taste of the “just sitting” Soto Zen style, Master Deshimaru covers frontiers of the mind in an easy reading style that maintains the integrity of Truth.

Every Day Zen By Charlotte Joko Beck:
Another American Master, Beck, speaks in a way easily understandble to the western mind, with especially good advice on sitting practice and relations between people, along with some insightful comments on how Zen history means.

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha By Sueng Sahn:
This book by the Korean Master is written in a question and answer style. It covers main points on practice, finding a teacher (and why you should bother), and basic koan practice. Also shows excellent exchanges between master and student.

Taking the Path By Robert Aitken.
Written in a no nonsense western style, this book is another gateway book. Aitken Roshi has knack for making esoteric or difficult concepts, easier for those unfamiliar with Zen or those whose practice is just starting. Aitken Roshi is an American master who heads the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii.

The Miracle of Mindfulness By Thich Nhat Hahn.
This Vietnamese Zen Master has had intimate contact with the west since the 60’s when he campaigned for peace during the war (in spite of opposition from both U.S. and North Vietnamese, Governments). His life has been exemplary and his skill as an essayist is only rivaled by his ability to bring Zen intimately into our daily lives.

About this FAQ (editors note)
This FAQ is a compilation of efforts by some denizens of alt.zen. It is intended to provide what a FAQ might be expected to provide, some answers to frequently asked questions. To my knowledge none of the contributors to this FAQ (especially not its editor) are Zen masters or even particular authorities on Zen. Perhaps the best way to view this FAQ is by seeing it as “what Zen has done to some other folks.”

The present incarnation of this FAQ has no credits (although some of the contributors have taken to making sly references to each others work). This gives me the freedom to make editorial changes (usually minor) without going through the tedium of approvals. It also saves us all the effect of an imagined alt.zen hierarchy of some sort. I can only hope and beg that no one attaches any sense of authority to me because of it. (I may be forced to start making puerile jokes if this happens!)

Finally, the items in this FAQ are here because I decided they should be. I wouldn’t have posted it otherwise. By even choosing what to include I am biasing this FAQ. It is my hope that this bias will not be great. The problem of life and death is already great enough.
Frequently Asked Questions about ZEN from alt.zen