Zen is closely associated with many Japanese arts. Nowadays, this word is known all over the world. However, its real meaning is often misunderstood. Recently, it became easier to discover in Japan this branch of Mahayana Buddhism, including the sitting meditation that comes with it, known as zazen. Additionally, temples all around Japan are opening their doors to foreign visitors. The cost is usually negligible, from free to a modest contribution.
Zen’s Roots: From China to Japan
The roots of zen Buddhism trace back to the 12th century, when it is said to have been brought to Japan by Buddhist priest Myoan Eisai after a visit from China (he is also credited as introducing green tea to Japan as well). While what is known today as “Zen” has undergone many transformations over the ages, the basic principles remain true to tradition.
Three Main Schools of Zen
There are three main traditional schools of Zen in Japan, each with its own background and specificities.
The Soto Sect
Soto is the largest of the sects. Historically practiced by the lower classes, artists, and poets, the Soto sect emphasizes the practice of sitting meditation known as zazen. Practitioners face a wall or a curtain during this meditation.
The Rinzai School
Traditionally practiced by the samurai caste, the Rinzai School include the presence of Koan, a kind of short and paradoxical sentence that cannot be solved intellectually. However, those are usually introduced only after good posture and concentration were achieved during the seated meditation.
The Obaku Sect
The smallest of the sects, the Obaku sect was formed by a small group made up of Buddhist masters from China and Japanese students at the Manpuku Temple (Manpuku-ji). To this day, those in the Obaku sect continue to chant sutras in the Chinese language.
A Daily Practice
In the zen meditation, posture is everything. For a first-timer, it requires being in good health and fairly flexible, as it can be quite challenging for those who are not used to it. Indeed, it requires sitting during several periods of 15 minutes on a big flat zabuton and on a zafu, two types of Japanese cushions. However, for people with knee problems some alternatives can sometimes be found, such as sitting on a chair.
But what to do exactly when sitting? Actually, this is where zazen differs from other types of meditation. While the latter might encourage practitioners to think of an image or focus on a unique thought, zazen requires nothing except keeping a good posture and breathing: there is no goal or aim attached to it. This is why the word in itself means “seated meditation”. During this meditation it’s important to be mindful of your breathing. Being aware of your own posture and what’s going on around and inside you, without focusing on it, might seems easy to say, but it takes years before achieving perfect concentration.
Japanese Zen in Western Culture
The popularity of Zen has even spread to the Western World. A pivotal point was when the Japanese monk, Soyen Shaku visited Chicago in 1863. This opened many people’s eyes to the practice and culture of Zen. It has since become the subject of many books written by Westerners, as well as the inspiration for a number of American Beat poets. Why not try it for yourself?