When you hear the word “zen,” what comes to mind? You’ll likely think of words like peaceful, serene, meditation, and calm. For others, they might picture a nature scene, garden, or even someone meditating. But where does “Zen” come from?
Zen 101: A Brief History of Zen
Although “Zen” is the Japanese word for “meditation,” Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, is largely viewed as the founder of Zen Buddhism (1). Zen Buddhism is an Asian religious school of thought that originated more than 1000 years ago. Bodhidharma is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to China in the 5th century, although Buddhism itself had likely been known in China for centuries before.
Zen Buddhism spread to Korea in the 7th century, and then to Japan by the 12th century. In 1004, Daoyun, a Chinese Buddhist monk, wrote Records of the Transmission of the Lamp which is viewed to be one of the guiding books of Zen Buddhism (2).
Although Zen Buddhism had been introduced to European cultures before the 1800s, Japanese scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki helped to popularize its philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century (3).
Core Principles of Zen Meditation
The core of Zen Buddhism is based on these 4 tenets from Bodhidharma’s writings:
A special transmission outside the scriptures.
Not relying on words or letters.
Pointing directly to the human mind.
Seeing true nature is becoming a Buddha (2).
Koshin Palley Ellison, a Muse Meditation Teacher, Co-Founder and Co-Guiding Teacher of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, explains that practicing Zen meditation is to “take refuge in awakening, receptivity, and connection. Don’t practice for yourself. Practice for the benefit of all beings.”
The main practice of Zen Buddhism is sitting meditation or zazen. On the surface, the practice of zazen is quite easy—it consists of many hours of seated meditation. Zazen may sound simple, but anyone who has meditated knows how difficult it can be to remain still for five minutes, let alone several hours a day.
“Zen meditation focuses on posture: open shoulders, upright spine, soft belly, and on the ground (chair or cushion). We follow the breath. One inhalation and one exhalation at a time. Each time a thought arises, we just don’t follow the thought and return to the breath.”
– Koshin Paley Ellison
In the beginning, you are likely to experience intense feelings of physical (and mental) discomfort, experience boredom, doze in and out, lose sight of your breath, and so forth.
However, in the consistent practice of zazen, the belief is that the awareness experienced during meditation will eventually extend into all activities, whether it’s eating, washing dishes, or walking.
Zen Meditation vs. Other Forms of Meditation
Most people lump all meditation and mindfulness practices into the same category, but there are actually some pretty interesting differences. Some of the more common schools of meditation include Zen, mindfulness, and Transcendental Meditation (TM).
The differences come in not only the actual practice of meditation but also in the changes noted in brain waves. Zen meditation includes some controlled focus meditation, where the focus is directed on something like one’s breath. Interestingly, beta and gamma waves are often observed on electroencephalogram (EEG) during a controlled focus meditation.
Gamma waves are the fastest moving brain waves and are present in an active and alert state. This is particularly so when you are highly focused and in deep concentration. They are believed to help process information and are involved in problem-solving (4). Controlled focus meditation is believed to require the strongest amount of mental effort (5).
Different mindfulness practices and certain forms of yoga are considered open-monitoring meditation. These are observation-based mindfulness practice that nurtures the skills of self-observation without judgment (5). Theta waves are often at work in this state and when you are in a deep state of relaxation.
Transcendental Meditation is the most common form of self-transcending meditation. It is viewed as more of an “effortless” form of meditation. In Transcendental Meditation, alpha waves are predominant on EEG scans. Alpha waves are mostly seen in a state of relaxed wakefulness. The premise of TM is that no concentrating, mind monitoring or conscious mindfulness is really required, which is why it is often viewed as the form of meditation that requires the least amount of mental effort (5).
Zen Collection on the Muse App
Already a Muse user? Great! Maybe you’ve already perused our collection of guided Zen meditations on the Muse app. If you don’t have a Muse device, not to worry! You can still access the Zen Collection on the app. Feel free to keep track of your progress by writing down some of your challenges, thoughts, and successes in the “Journal” section after your meditation session.
- Fischer, Norman. Lion’s Roar. What Is Zen Buddhism and How Do You Practice It? https://www.lionsroar.com/what-is-zen-buddhism-and-how-do-you-practice-it/
- Bodiford, William. Encyclopedia Britannica. Zen. September 10, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zen
- BBC website. Zen Buddhism. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/zen_1.shtml#:~:text=web%20of%20words.-,History,in%20the%206th%20century%20CE.&text=Zen%20spread%20to%20Korea%20in,in%20the%20West%20before%20that.
- Larson, Jennifer. Healthline website. What to Know About Gamma Brain Waves https://www.healthline.com/health/gamma-brain-waves#benefits
- Transcendental Meditation website. Comparing Meditation Techniques. https://ca.tm.org/en/meditation-techniques