How to practice Zen

What is Zen about?

The core of personal Zen practice is without doubt, sitting in deep meditation, Zazen. Through the sitting in stillness, the focus on the Hara and the observation of our breath, we come to know our true self. Our incessant thoughts become less important and we start to experience life undefined by the usual desires of our grasping ego, an experience of connection instead of aloneness; this is known as Samadhi. In addition, there are other aspects of Zen practice, which are practiced throughout the world, not only by monks and nuns in monasteries, but also by lay practitioners who practice in Zendôs and Dôjôs.  To these belong sutra recitation, prostrations and bowing, walking meditation, Dokusan (interview with the teacher), the discipline of the Dôjô and Samu, working whilst maintaining the meditative focus. In the following paragraphs I will explain in more detail these aspects of practice.

Reciting Sutras:

Sutras und Dharanis (the oral teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha together with esoteric mantras) are recited multiple times a day in Zen monasteries, and before and after the zazen in the Dôjô. Sutras are often chanted in Sino-Japanese, a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters.  There are English and German translations of the Sutras and Dharanis, and it is worthwhile to study them, however, the focus of chanting is much less the meaning and much more the importance of engaging in our breathing and intonation. We chant with power from the Hara whilst focusing exclusively on the chanting itself. The effect of this type of breathwork is amazing. Tensions, worries, frustrations and fears fall away through dynamic, powerful chanting.

Bowing and Prostrations:

Bowing is not only a greeting form within the Dôjô but is also practiced many times before Zazen when we prostrate ourselves before the altar and in front of the participants in the Zendo. We prostrate ourselves before the altar and raise the Buddhas feet above our heads.  This expresses itself in that we give up our personal ego, i.e., our preferences, inclinations, wishes, apprehensions and prejudices in the service of something bigger: the practice of Zen, the community, the teachings of Buddha, the original nature i.e., from where we come. As during chanting, the physical action, the actual participation in embodied reality, is of upmost importance. This bodily expression is much more significant than simple conceptualisation. It enables us to remain flexible and capable of adapting to all possible situations so that we can react appropriately to the requirements of the situation in a compassionate way.

Kinhin, moving meditation:

Between the periods of sitting meditation we engage in moving meditation, walking in a single line whilst maintaining full focus and meditative concentration. We hold our hands in front of our chest with our right fist in the left hand. Similar to Zazen, the left hand both covers the right hand and is also at rest in it. The left half of the body is controlled by the right half of the brain and the right half of the body by the left half of the brain. The left half of the brain is associated with logical intellectual thinking and the speech functions. The right half of the brain is associated with intuition and emotions. With the practice of Zazen and moving meditation we allow our intuition to assert itself, whilst the usually dominant intellectual side of the brain recedes into the background. The focus on our Hara, the centre of our body strengthens our intuition.

During Kinhin it is possible to go to the bathroom. We leave the line with a bow and join again with a bow, entering at the same place as before.


Dokusan, also known as Sanzen, describes the 1:1 encounter with an authorized teacher.  In the Rinzai Zen tradition, (advanced) students are given so called “Koans” which the students must solve or break through. In Dokusan the students present their insight and experience in working with the koan to the teacher. By means of their own insight, the teacher discerns the quality of the student’s experience, and will guide and encourage them accordingly. Students are also able to ask questions concerning their personal practice.

General discipline:

The room in which we practice zazen is free from unnecessary gossip and tittle tattle. We move with focus and intention. It is forbidden to yawn in the zendo and even if we feel tired or sleepy, we earnestly attempt to stay awake by focusing our attention on our Hara.  In the zendo we wear understated and dark clothing wherever possible and dispense with makeup and perfume. This discipline helps us to break free from the domination of our «I-fixation» and allows us to awake to a universal awareness.


Samu is often translated as work however it denotes much more. It is the continuation of meditation whilst we are working. No unnecessary conversation or gossip is permitted during the work period and concentration and focus are maintained during activities, irrespective of whether we enjoy them or not. Our work is carried out with mindfulness, equanimity and drive, ensuring that every action is fulfilling. All these separate elements of Zen influence our daily life in myriad ways. With time, measured in years and decades, disappears the separation, the difference between Dôjô-Zen und daily life and we enjoy the focus and concentration of every new day. Every day becomes a good day.

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