Everything that happens in Zen is meditation in its true sense. One not only does zazen (Zen “sitting in meditation”) at formal meditation times, with his mind properly controlled he is also doing zazen while brushing his teeth or plowing the field.

The word Zen literally means meditation. It is the Japanese pronunciation of the written character for the Chinese Chan and Chan is as close as the Chinese can come to pronouncing dhyana, the words for meditation in the Indian Sanskrit and Pali languages. So Zen is the meditation sect of Buddhism, whereas other sects rely on philosophy, study of the scriptures, remembrance of the name of Buddha and even proper conduct for their principle practice.

“Things are as they are,” say the Zen masters. Generally, we do not see them that way. In our everyday lives our emotions color our responses and bring needless fear and tension – with resulting ill-health. We hear a high-pitched sound and distinguish it as a siren, then translate it into some form of disaster. Eating, we are worrying about tomorrow and miss the enjoyment of the food. Zen says the emotion and reason must be brought into balance, or there will be suffering. Zen wants us to see and hear and feel things as they are now without coloring the facts or over-reacting. A story may illustrate this point:

Tokusan, the Chinese Zen master, came upon one of his best disciples doing intense zazen in the meditation hall. The master cocked one eye at his earnest student. Looking up, the disciple shook his head despairingly. “A dark night and no travelers,” he commented, obviously discouraged. “Master, I am cold!” he complained piteously.

Instead of commiserating, Tokusan swung into action. Whirling quickly, he cracked first one, then the other hand across the sitting disciple’s face. The blows were unexpected, and they hurt. The disciple jumped to his feet and, as the master closed in to rain more blows on him, turned and ran down the corridor. Out of the meditation hall they went, master furiously chasing pupil. Down one path and up another they flew until, finally, the disciple, panting and perspiring, was cornered at a dead-end spot in the garden. He turned to face his attacker.

“Are you warm now?” snarled the master. A light dawned on the disciple; he was warm all right!

This is real teaching, though we may have a difficult time realizing it. The Zen way of thinking is not the usual chain of dualistic concepts. In the book, Zen Meditation: A Broad View, the author expounds this point at some length, indicating that we ordinarily think in either/or terms, whereas Zen’s way of thinking could be characterized as neither/nor. Quite logically we feel that, if it is not big, it must be small. If you don’t agree with me, you disagree. But Zen is not limited by these boundaries. A surveyor may see only one area of the mountain, but Zen wants us to take in the entire mountain at one time. This is real meditation. We are not limited by “yes” and not by “no”; all things are right in their way. An illustration:

The Chinese Zen master, Tokusan, was walking through his monastery with a young attendant. In the corridor he came upon two monks arguing bitterly, and he paused, waiting for an explanation.

The first monk began: “Yesterday you told us to do so-and-so, and I was doing as you instructed. This fellow misunderstands and I am trying to explain it to him. Am I wrong?”

Tokusan shook his head. “You are right,” was his pronouncement, much to the dismay of the other monk, who immediately began to offer his version of the misunderstanding.

“You are right,” agreed Tokusan, nodding his head in the direction of the second monk.

The young attendant was floored by this unexpected turn. “They can’t both be right!” he protested.

Again Tokusan nodded. “And I perceive that you, too, are right,” he conceded.

This is a good example of a higher type of thinking in operation, not bound by the narrow either/or, so habitual with us. Zen training, and Zen meditation, jolt us out of our comfortable way of looking at things. Why do we put up with this nonsense and forego our ease? Nobody forces us to do so.

Strangely enough, those who undergo the strict discipline of Zen usually report greater peace of mind, improvement in health and the onset of an irrational cheerfulness. Seemingly without enough sleep, sitting long hours with painful crossed legs, and occasionally stimulated by the threat of the master’s big stick, Zen practitioners tell of losing their neuroses and casting off their allergies. Strange. Why does one leave the “good life,” and luxuries and diversions available to the well-to-do, and seclude himself on a mountaintop, arising at 3:30 a.m. in the freezing snow to undergo the tortures of facing himself in the long meditation sittings? There must be an answer. Perhaps a fear of death, horror at the thought of all this impermanence and thirst for ultimate answers may somewhat explain the puzzling conduct. Just let there be some success in the practice and a great, unshakable joy comes over the aspirant. Let him experience even a mild Satori and he cries with bliss – his life is permanently changed. As the author’s friend, Zen writer Paul Reps, says, “It doesn’t make sense; it makes you!” Saint John of the Cross counseled that to have everything, we simply have to want nothing. Whatever one’s religious leanings, a taste of Zen will deepen them and contribute to one’s overall well-being.


In theory, it is best to sit in full Lotus position, with each foot turned up on the opposite thigh. Although we sit on a slightly raised pillow in zazen, this position, and even the half-Lotus (where one foot is turned up on the opposite thigh) are actually too difficult for most modern-day students; they generally sit in a cross-legged position with one leg flat on the floor and the other flat on top of it.

Eyes are kept slightly open, gazing down at the mat a few feet in front, and the head is set back on the shoulders (like a cadet’s) and just slightly lowered. The back is held straight and, in Japanese Zen, the lower chest is thrust out. (The Chinese sit in a more relaxed pose.) In Japan today the right hand is wrapped around the back of the left and the two thumbs meet in an extended arc, the base of the hands being pushed in against the belly.

In ancient China, and even in Japan, it is believed the hand positions were with the right hand folding over the left, the right thumb digging into the left palm, and the middle finger of the left hand pressed into the palm of the right. This position makes sense, as the thumb and middle finger link up the meridian channels (as in acupuncture) and allow the Chi to circulate freely during the sitting. This circulation is very important as the limbs will tend to become stiff and painful when the Zen aspirant first begins sitting. In the old days, when the pain in the knees was severe, a sitter might place one palm under the knee and one over it, or one under the sole of the foot and one on top of the knee, so as to allow the Chi to flow freely through the offending spot and relieve the pain. The sitter sits quietly, in full awareness, and does not move when the position becomes uncomfortable.


Although there is emphasis on formal sitting (whether in temples, zendos or at home), Zen talks most of “mind.” This mind is not to be confused with our thinking process, however. Actually, it is a translation of the Chinese word shin (kokoro in Japanese), which can mean heart, mind or spirit, with some overtones of consciousness. When other Buddhist philosophies speak of “mind only,” it is close to what we think of as “nothing but spirit.” However, Zen warns us against indulging in conceptions, and rigid phrases do build conceptual images. Zen is interested in the practitioner having the Zen experience, not in talking about it. “Only the taster knows if the water is hot or cold,” advises the Zen teacher. Zen implores us to know this mind; in fact, we are told to confront it face to face! This is what is meant when Zen demands that we show the teacher “our original face before we were born.” Until we rest in our True Nature we are fragmented and sick.

Although we must uncover ourselves, Zen strongly advises us to sit without conceptual thinking in zazen pose. It says the greatest benefits will accrue to us if we sit quietly this way. While the consciousness will not be acting in the ordinary manner for the experienced sitter – he will be hearing sounds, seeing sights and even having random thoughts, but not attaching to them and not reacting to them – there will be no trance state, no euphoric lassitude. Tests have shown that the pulse actually picks up during the sitting, though the experienced sitter may be as still as a dead man on the outside. Inside there is a heightened livingness; there is no other way to explain it. The meditator is in the state of the greatest attention and utmost awareness, though he is directing his awareness within instead of spending it on objects.

Zen speaks of sudden Enlightenment. This does not mean no training is needed! The experience itself does not come by degrees; it flashes like lightning and one is re-made. Driving from Los Angeles to the beautiful village of Carmel, California, one travels over three hundred miles, then comes to the top of a hill and suddenly sees the town set down against the ocean. It is an abrupt seeing after traveling three hundred miles.

The author’s Zen teacher spoke of two types of Satori experience, the first an overwhelming sense of Unity in which the feeling of Oneness erases all the differentiation in life, and the second in which one is able to observe his own Satori. The second is necessary so that we will not be hung up in an other-worldly state; if we had only the first, the mountains would no longer be mountains. But then we have the second, we make the full circle, and the mountain again becomes a mountain. Once again we can function in the world. The author has known a few who have had revealing spiritual experiences and become stuck in the awe of Oneness. Their way is thereafter quite difficult – completely idealistic. We must live in this world, and we learn to understand ourselves through relationships with others. If we think that because we are vegetarians and “pure” we are somehow better than non-vegetarians, we do not understand and we are not pure. When Zhuang Zhou spoke of the “fasting mind,” he meant to drop such accretions, as they are not natural. Only through the natural and spontaneous can we realize ourselves. We must never forget that to fast is to do without greed, anger and delusion. So we must make the full circle back to humanity and all beings.


The author is going to outline a little known four-part meditation taught by the Chinese Linji sect (Rinzai in Japanese). We work on it sitting in meditation pose, or we can contemplate it sitting on a train. Strangely, though it was a creation of Rinzai, and Rinzai Zen is dominant in Japan, this four-way meditation does not seem to be practiced there.

In the first part, we concentrate on the object only, completely eliminating the subject.

In the second part, our concentration is on the one meditating, the subject, and we eliminate any object.

In the third part, we concentrate on both the subject and the object.

Finally, we eliminate both the subject and the object – and just meditate.

This meditation is hard work, but not difficult to do. There are many practices of this sort in Zen, but we do not have to do them all. Rinzai’s four-part way is quite enough for us.


Zen speaks a good deal of Void or Emptiness. However, until we have the experience of this Shunyata, as it is called in all Buddhism, such words are just concepts. To intellectually grasp the Void is impossible; it is only known experientially. One teacher taught his disciple what the Void is by grasping his nose and almost twisting it off! Such “emptiness” one is not apt to forget.

Zen practice brings clarity of mind that is the best tonic. If we completely succeed, we do the impossible, like climbing a hundred-foot pole, then taking another step! In Soto Zen it is said that the practice itself is the Enlightenment. We seek nothing, and, like Saint John of the Cross, we then have everything.

The mind that is contented and not overcome with unfulfillable desires is healthy.

The one who sees things as they are is a realist, and yet he becomes a most spiritual figure. Self-pity melts with zazen; gratitude takes its place. Having nothing, we are grateful for it. A light dawns: we open our eyes and there it is. It is no wonder that many psychologists have been attracted to Zen practice. Becoming whole, we are healthy.

Knowing ourselves as we truly are, with all the warts and blemishes, we are healed.

This article is published in Meditation for Healing

Published On: January 21st, 2023Categories: Meditation For Healing

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