When talking about Zen or Zen Buddhism, many people first think of calmness, meditation, harmonious living with nature, and Japan. For some, like me, Zen can go beyond religious concepts and it involves daily life activities such as flower arrangement, art, yoga, mindful eating, mindful walking, and reading.
It might be contradictory to what you know, but Zen actually has its roots in China. It was later introduced to Japan, where it became an important part of Japanese culture and spirituality.
Zen in China
Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), where it is known as ‘Chan’. It was influenced by various Indian and Chinese Buddhist traditions and later developed its own unique characteristics in Japan.
The word ‘Zen’ is derived from the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which is in turn derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana,’ meaning ‘meditation.’
Zen emphasises the direct experience of reality, rather than reliance on scripture or dogma. Nowadays, it’s practiced in both countries despite being more associated with Japan.
Zen in Japan
Zen was introduced to Japan in the 12th century by the monk Eisai, who had studied in China. He brought the teachings and practices of the Linji school of Zen back to Japan. Over time, Zen became an important part of Japanese Buddhism and developed its own distinct style and traditions.
Zen practice in Japan typically involves a combination of sitting meditation, chanting and ritual. Zen temples in Japan often have a distinct architecture and layout, with features such as rock gardens, meditation halls, and teahouses. One of the key practices in Japanese Zen is the use of ‘koans,’ which are paradoxical or enigmatic statements of stories that are used to challenge the student’s thinking and understanding of reality.
Zen meditation can also help individuals regulate their emotions, leading to greater emotional stability and resilience.
Zen emphasises the practice of meditation as a means of achieving enlightenment of awakening. Zen meditation, also known as ‘zazen’ or ‘seated meditation,’ is a type of meditation that is derived from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
While Zen meditation shares many similarities with other forms of Buddhist meditation, there are some key differences:
In Zen meditation, the posture is often considered the be of utmost importance. Practitioners are typically instructed to sit with the back straight, the legs crossed and a specific hand position.
This is intended to promote a state of stability and alertness.
Meditation is the most well-known Zen activity and it involves focusing the mind on a specific object or thought in order to achieve a state of calmness or clarity.
The use of koans is also a central part of the practice. A koan is a paradoxical riddle or story that is used to provoke deep introspection and realisation in a Zen practitioner.
Koans are intended to push the practitioner beyond the limitations of their intellect and into a state of ‘no-mind’ or ‘enlightened awareness.’
Zen meditation focuses on ‘just sitting’. This involves simply being present with one’s experience, without trying to change or control it.
It is a means of attaining inner peace and clarity of mind. It encourages the practitioner to let go of their thoughts and emotions and simply be present in the moment.
4. Direct experience
The importance of direct experience is largely emphasised in Japanese Zen. Instead of relying on concepts, beliefs or intellectual understanding, practitioners are encouraged to investigate their own experience and grow a deep understanding of reality through direct observation and contemplation.
Through the practice of zazen and the guidance of a skilled teacher, practitioners can experience reality as it is, without any preconceptions or judgments.
Zen and the Brain
Research has found that long-term Zen meditation practice, like many other forms of meditation, can increase grey matter volume in specific areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula.
Grey matter is the tissue in the brain that contains neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, and synapses. It is responsible for processing information, including perception, decision-making, and memory.
For example, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal found that Zen meditators had significantly thicker grey matter in the central brain region (anterior cingulate cortex) than non-mediators. This region of the brain is involved in a wide range of functions, including the regulation of emotions, empathy, and decision-making. Practicing Zen meditation could be helpful in general for pain management, for preventing age-related grey matter reductions, including any condition where the grey matter is damaged.
Another study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that regular meditation practice had more positive impact on local and global grey matter. The age-affected brain regions were more extended in non-meditators than meditators. Overall, their findings suggest less age-related grey matter degeneration in long-term meditators.
There’re many more studies confirming the positive impact of regular Zen meditation practice, including other forms of meditation practice, that leads to positive structural changes in the brain. However, if you’re not ready to sit in silence and ground yourself in meditation, there’re more Zen activities you can do that align with these principles and can help you cultivate a more Zen-like mindset. Here are a few examples:
- Mindful walking
- Mindful gardening
- Mindful cooking
- Drawing or painting
The key is to find activities that bring you a sense of calm and connection with the present moment. It can be a form of meditation in motion that involves focusing your attention on the sensations of your body, the beauty of imperfection and spontaneity, or the appreciation for the simple pleasures of life. It can be done indoors or outdoors, and it can be as simple or complex as you like. You can design your own Zen activities for the day.
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