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Over 2,500 years ago Shakyamuni sat in meditation under the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya, and on the morning of the eighth day experienced full enlightenment. This was the true beginning of Buddhism.

Sitting in meditation is known as zazen in the Zen School, with za 坐 meaning “sit” and zen 禪 meaning “meditation.” The seated posture is one of stillness and relaxation, and expresses a tranquil mind and a settled body. In the practice of zazen, one maintains the body in a position free of tension and movement, and focuses the mind on a single object of attention. The state is one of union of body and mind deepened through the relaxation and regulation of the breath.

The zen of zazen is the Japanese pronunciation of the character 禪, pronounced chan in Chinese. Chan is an abbreviation of the word channa 禪那, which, in turn, is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana. Dhyana is interpreted in various ways, but in Chinese Buddhism it means meditative practice in general. Dhyana brings about a nondualistic state of consciousness through the deep harmonization of body, breath, and mind, a state of unification and profound stillness known as samadhi. Although profoundly still, samadhi is not a state of passivity, unconsciousness, or trance. The stillness of samadhi is vibrant and dynamic, arising from a mind that is completely clear, aware, and open. In this state of awareness the ordinary world is seen in a new light, in which the unexamined “common sense” view of a dualistic world is transcended and the underlying unity of all existence is clearly experienced. This perception of the world through the awakened consciousness gives rise to prajna, “enlightened wisdom.” In Zen there is the expression joe enmyo 定慧圓明, meaning that samadhi invariably gives rise to prajna and prajna is always rooted in samadhi, and that the two act in perfect clarity as one integral whole.

The purpose of Zen is to awaken to the bodhisattva within us. This perception, also called kensho 見性 , “seeing self-nature,” opens the way to a true Zen life lived in unrestricted liberation. To attain such freedom, one must strive in all of one’s activities to live in accordance with the Bodhisattva Vows:


Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them.
Desires are inexhaustible: I vow to end them.
The Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to master them.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable: I vow to attain it.


This does not mean, however, that Zen shuts its door to those whose aspirations are not quite so high. A person can only start from the place where he or she is at that time. Zazen has many benefits for those seeking physical and mental wellbeing, for example. As an ancient saying puts it, “The Great Way has no barrier; there are a thousand different ways [to enter].”  Zen is not a system of defined beliefs, but a path to clarity and awareness. As such it has no conflicts with science, and can enrich the inner life of followers of any religious tradition. East, west, north, or south, all are welcome. From wherever one enters, the path to the bodhisattva mind unfolds.

This may make it sound like Zen has no clear goal, but that is not the case. One is free to enter the path to “seeing the bodhisattva within” from whatever gate one wishes, but the ultimate objective is the same: to attain liberation, then to help others according to their needs to attain liberation themselves. This, in Buddhism, is known as bodhicitta, the mind that strives “above, to seek enlightenment, below, to awaken all sentient beings.”