Zazen: There’s never been a better time to try a spot of meditation

By Rebecca Milner

Tweeting priests and YouTube videos of meditating monks have made Zen Buddhism more accessible than ever. At the same time, our lightning-speed lifestyles not only beg a moment’s pause—they may also be more conducive to practicing Zen.

“These days, we work more efficiently, we have more free time, and work is not as physically tiresome as it used to be,” says Gerhard Wolfram, a student of Zen since 1996. “This is a great advantage. Hundreds of years ago it would have been necessary to join a temple. But living in a city, there are teachers and places to practice.”

By practice, Wolfram means zazen, literally “seated meditation.” While this cornerstone of Zen Buddhism can technically be done anywhere, a teacher is crucial for getting started and separating authentic experience from attractive illusion.

Most Tokyo temples are not so much flummoxed by foreign faces as they are uncomfortable with the potential language barrier. Buddhist group Dogen Sangha, where Wolfram is now a teacher, is noteworthy for offering instruction in English. Their Saturday zazen sessions include 30 minutes of meditation followed by an hour-long lecture on Soto school Zen teachings.

A quick bit of history: Soto is one of the two main schools of Zen Buddhism, the other being Rinzai. While the former was traditionally (though not necessarily accurately) associated with common folk and the latter with the samurai class, for beginners the greatest difference between the two is likely to be the sitting style. Soto meditators face the wall, while their Rinzai counterparts face the center of the room.

“Zen needs to be experienced first,” says Wolfram. “In sitting, you reach a sense of balance. When you return to daily life, you encounter troubles that can throw off your balance. However, the more you practice, the less these things throw you off.”

The soft-spoken German, who works as a financial controller, says that one of his earliest stumbling blocks was his own goal-oriented personality: “You continue to sit, but it is still painful and nothing happens. ‘How do I see that I’m making progress?’ I asked, but the teacher didn’t answer.” Now, speaking from experience, he says he feels “not so much an achievement as a coming back to an original state.”

American Zen priest Brad Warner, an author of several books on Buddhism and pop culture, adds: “Buddhism is too often lumped in with a lot of New Age nonsense and seen as another escape from reality into some sort of mystical trance state. Buddhism is actually realism. It’s not mysticism and it’s not religion.”

Souin Fujio would probably concur with this. The Zen priest was born into a temple family and has been practicing zazen since before he can remember. “When I was a very young age, it had already become part of my life, like brushing my teeth and washing my face.” This is the goal, he explains: to make meditation a part of daily life—cleaning the mind the way one cleans one’s teeth.

Starting this year, Fujio has begun holding quarterly zazen sessions in English at Kencho-ji in Kamakura. This historic Rinzai temple, built in 1253, was Japan’s first Zen monastery and is home to a number of Important Cultural Properties. The beginner-friendly, 90-minute program includes three 15-20 minute meditation sittings interspersed with breaks for leg stretching, followed by a question and answer session with the English-speaking priest. Chairs are available for those who need them.

Fujio hopes participants can come away with the basics: breathing techniques and correct posture. “A straight back leads to good body balance. Medically speaking, this means lower blood pressure and improved circulation,” he explains. “After such deep breathing, the mind is refreshed and the mental condition is improved.”

Dogen Sangha meets at the Young Buddhists Association at Tokyo University: 2F Hongo Bldg, 3-33-5 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-3813-5903. Nearest station: Hongo Sanchome.

Kencho-ji will host zazen in English from 1:30-3 p.m.on Dec 15. 1,000 yen plus temple entrance. See website for registration details. Kencho-ji Ryoden, 8 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi. Tel: 0467-22-0981. Nearest station: Kita Kamakura.

The following temples in the Tokyo area also welcome international students. First-timers are advised to arrive at least 20 minutes early for introductory instruction.

-- Rinsen-ji: 4-7-2 Kohinata, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-3943-0605. Nearest station: Myougadani.

-- Seisho-ji: 2-4-7 Atago, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3431-3514. Nearest station: Kamiyacho.

-- Tosho-ji International Zen Center: 4-5-18 Yutaka-cho, Shinagawa-ku. Tel: 03-3781-4235. Nearest station: Togoshikoen (Tokyu-Oimachi line).

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

© Japan Today

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

"It's not mysticism and it's not religion" Baloney ... I did this for 20 years and it's very much a 'religion' in both the Soto and Rinzai traditions. My advice; don't believe a single word from these people as all they do is regurgitate the fancy talk they've read or heard about 'one mind' 'big mind' etc. Temples are full of foreign kids talking about this stuff and at the same time squabbling over who gets to light the candles etc. A total waste of good time and besides, it came from yoga which I now do and can see practical results in daily life without all the fancy quasi religious talk. Get a life people ...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sojiji Temple in Yokohama has English Zazen as well. Tomorrow 11 September at 9:00 a.m will be this month's session. The nearest station is JR Tsurumi.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I practice kyudo, and it's also a form of meditation (while moving) and very much zen. I do believe zen is not a religion, mistique, tradition but it becomes a way of life for the persons choosing it as so.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is becoming quite trendy for gaijin.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I got your spot, right here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Buddhism is one of the world's most important historical religious traditions. Zen, in particular, being generally agnostic and stressing a recognition and awareness of the mind, is not mysticism. Living in Kyoto I've been shocked at the number of Westerners who seem to harbor some resentment toward Buddhism, and most of them seem to be Freemasons. It is in fact Japan, and not Tibet, that is the home to the world's most longstanding and highly developed Buddhist tradition. If you find a higher degree of personal benefits from yoga than meditation, I don't think anyone would be offended. By it seems that you are wanting to take revenge on Zen because you spent 20 years in a delusional state not paying attention to anything? Not learning anything? It is highly errant to try and fault Zen, as if it were some mystery cult that deceived you. Begging your pardon, but the fault is not with Zen.

Moderator: Readers, please keep the discussion civil.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Zen has little to do with 'buddhism'. I use my eyes and observe practicioners. So pander yourself and practice as much as you want. If this is your religion, go for it but don't think for a minute that it's above criticism.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Two types of meditation, and the important one is not the Zazen. Zazen is a way of forcing yourself to focus. It can calm the mind, but will not bring awakening by itself.

What all these methods are aiming at is in essence 'awareness' - the ability to observe things for what they are, during daily life. Vipassana is what it is called in the Mahayana tradition, and this focusing on the breath is merely a way of approaching it. It is not the goal in itself. It's a boat to get you to the other side, but once you have arrived you would be a foold to carry the boat with you (I think someone pretty good at the old Buddhism thing once said that).

0 ( +0 / -0 )

And you could have added that the Zen school has a very dubious lineage, something they insist they are the direct inheritors from shakayamuni buddha of. The appeal is the 'mysticism' and the sought after "kenchos" which last a grand total of about a few hours. Plenty of people have these very same experiences watching sunsets or whatever. Let's think about the getting of wisdom, no little glimpses of enlightenment which absolutely nobody can agree on about what it is. Let's look for wisdom I say and forget this Zen business as it's largely fancy and far fetched story telling and the zazen doesn't really do much sorry to say.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

ubikwit "It is in fact Japan, and not Tibet, that is the home to the world's most longstanding and highly developed Buddhist tradition."

If your religion is Nihonjinron it is,,,,,

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

"Temples are full of foreign kids talking about this stuff and at the same time squabbling over who gets to light the candles etc. A total waste of good time and besides, it came from yoga which I now do and can see practical results in daily life without all the fancy quasi religious talk. "

Yes... it's quite sad. Everywhere you go, there are people who want to be acknowledged as important and will behave as such. As long as you know why you're there, it should be easy to ignore those who are only seeking material gratification or validation from others (especially those just going along with the latest fashion trends).

Your practice is what you make of it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's all about trying to imagine the sound of one hand clapping, and asking questions like "If a tree falls in the forest when no-one is around, is there a sound?". I'd like to try this meditation - but I've been told some of the Zen Masters are near sadists and beat the living daylights out of you with a bamboo stick if you don't maintain the lotus position for an hour...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

nutsagain, it took you 20 years to figure that out???

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's rather surprising how many comments this article caused.

May all living beings have peace, employment, housing, healthcare and education. May they live under a benevolent government, be free of natural disaster but have prompt rescue in case of disaster.

That's what Zen has taught me.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

And no, the Zen masters I've met are not sadists who beat you for not maintaining the lotus position. Practitioners request a wack by bowing. The monk hits muscles so as not to cause damage, it sometimes stings but then goes away. The point is to maintain concentration and not fall asleep or into daydreaming. It's best to try it or don't, but not talk too much about it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Zen masters (dubious word) were pretty much all having a sexual affair with a student or two, or three, or four. Some were alcoholics and all were unchallenged. The trick with this is this; if something either doesn't look or sound quite right, speak up. Think for yourself. Don't trust people just because they're advertising or letting themselves be advertised as 'masters' They're people, guys, ordinary joes just like you and me. The whole 'master' thing is the crux of the problem.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

SKB41: You're obviously still fairly new at this, no disrespect intended. I (there is no I, right?) have done tons of sesshins and wasted hundreds upon hundreds of hours with early morning sittings and I say only this: get thee a life while you still can. Be spiritual rather than a zennist for it's there you'll most likely find real wisdom. But lastly, DO be a seeker as it's important but don't fall for the zen master thing as it's downright dangerous.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I never said anything about 'zen masters.' I'm doing my own Buddhism while listening to what practitioners have to say. I take what works and reject what doesn't. Your 9:18 posting was actually pretty spot on, by the way. And no, I'm not new at this, no disrespect taken. Get me a life? You wanna walk a mile in my shoes, mate? I think not. You're right, though, be a seeker. Buddhism is seeking I think... Why such a debate? Christians and Muslims are at each other's throats about burnings; Zen is quite insignificant. Anyway, I hope you'll have peace and prosperity. I'll traverse the zen buddhist path in my own way. Big up.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

nutsagain: Zen has everything to do with Buddhism. No one here is opposed to a little constructive criticism, but you apparently you consider yourself to be superior to the Zen masters you portray in a highly derogatory manner. It's not criticism say that you use your eyes and observe practitioners. All I hear is unfounded resentment, and a holier than thou attitude...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@susano: well, it's impressive to hear a term like "Nihonjinron" here, however, that is rather far off the mark. without going into details, just try googling "Japanese Buddhism", Tibetan Buddhism", and Princess Wencheng". That should provide a rough sketch of the timelines when Buddhism arrived in the respective countries: Buddhism arrived in Japan at least 200 years before it was introduced in Tibet.

But beyond the timelines is the question of diversity and cultivation. I would say that a greater number of "schools" have been transmitted to Japan, and a number of teachings that died out in China have been revitalized and transformed in Japan.

Moreover, the Japanese actively sought out teachings directly in China. Kukai was recognized as the head of the schools of esoteric Buddhism he learned in China at the beginning of the 9th century.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It all depends on your mindset and what you're looking for. Zen can be much more philosophical than religious. But that doesn't mean it can't be rather religious as well. A lot of western Zen seems to focus more on the philosophical aspect of it. As far as the comments on yoga, it can have the same 'fancy quasi religious talk' as well. It depends on what form of yoga you get into and how you approach it as well. Yoga is a part of Hinduism so it has it's religious aspects as well. But a lot of yoga that people come across now tends to have a lot of the more religious aspects watered down. Unless you live in India. By the way I practice and appreciate both.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

All that sitting around sure got them wealthy. Claiming not to be a religion, as in an organized spiritual body, is just so not true. While I feel the fashionable interest of now is good for some people, you'd need to have some spare time. And then, because it is a religious body- how do they even handle birth, marriage,death; if they're sitting around so much. Anyway, I thought the most enlightened position in buddhism was lying down? I guess they're just putting everyone who joins 'in their place'.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Part of this problem for want of a better word, is that we in the West are too quick to elevate these people into positions they don't deserve. The Japanese on the other hand keep pretty much all buddhist priests at arms length. And rightly so, they have a lot of experience with them whereas we don't. Bottom line, Zen masters are just plain folk and often very ignorant about the West and this is particularly so with Tibetan lineages. I found them to be quite condescending to Westerners and touted their own country's history and culture as superior. Bollix ... Tibet was and still is a backward medieval theocracy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Zen enthusiasts - - or rather, people who imagine Zen is "for them" - - would probably rank at the top of my list of Most Insufferable Foreigners You Can Encounter in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Zen, and therefore Zazen, is the ultimate practice in futility.

Got troubles at work? Other matters weighing on your mind?

A spot of whiskey will calm you down faster than a spot of meditation (a'la Zazen)...

I'm all for meditation, but remember this: someone can teach you to sit "Zazen" style, but nobody can "teach" you how to meditate in it's truest form.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites