More and more, in contemporary usage, zazen is considered one of the many methods from Eastern spiritual traditions for attaining objectives such as mind/body health, skillful social behavior, a peaceful mind, or the resolution of various problems in life. However zazen, as understood by Dogen Zenji, is something different, and cannot be categorized as meditation in the sense described above. It would therefore be helpful to look at some of the differences between zazen and meditation.

Dogen (1200-1252) was the founder of the Soto Zen tradition, and a meditation master par excellence…For Dogen, zazen is first and foremost an holistic body posture, not a state of mind. Dogen uses various terms to describe zazen, one of which is gotsu-za, which means “sitting immovable like a bold mountain.” A related term of great importance is kekka-fuza – “full-lotus position” – which Dogen regards as the key to zazen. However, Dogen’s understanding of kekka-fuza is completely different from the yogic tradition of India, and this understanding sheds a great deal of light on how we should approach zazen.

In most meditative traditions, practitioners start a certain method of meditation (such as counting breaths, visualizing sacred images, concentrating the mind on a certain thought or sensation, etc.) after getting comfortable sitting in full-lotus position. In other words, it is kekka-fuza plus meditation. Kekka-fuza in such usage becomes a means for optimally conditioning the body and mind for mental exercises called “meditation,” but is not an objective in itself. The practice is structured dualistically, with a sitting body as a container and a meditating mind as the contents. And the emphasis is always on meditation as mental exercise. In such a dualistic structure, the body sits while the mind does something else. 

For Dogen, on the other hand, the objective of zazen is just to sit in kekka-fuza correctly – there is absolutely nothing to add to it. It is kekka-fuza plus zero.

Meditation practices which emphasize something psychological – thoughts, perceptions, feelings, visualizations, intentions, etc. – all direct our attention to cortical-cerebral functions, which I will loosely refer to as “Head.” While most meditation tends to focus on the Head, zazen focuses more on the living holistic body-mind framework, allowing the Head to exist without giving it any pre-eminence. If the Head is over-functioning, it will give rise to a split and unbalanced life. But in the zazen posture it learns to find its proper place and function within a unified mind-body field. 

When zazen becomes zazen, shoshin-taza is actualized. This means “just (tan) sitting (za) with correct (sho) bodily (shin) posture,” with the “taza” emphasizing the quality of being whole and one in time and space. In shoshin-taza, while the body sits immovably like a mountain, the internal body is released, unwound and relaxed in every corner. Like an “egg balanced on end,” the outer structure remains strong and firm while the inside is fluid, calm, and at ease. Except for minimally necessary muscles, everything is quietly at rest. The more relaxed the muscles, the more sensible one can be, and the relationship with gravity will be adjusted more and more minutely. The more the muscles are allowed to relax, the more precise awareness becomes – and shoshin-tanza gets deepened infinitely. 

While we sit in zazen posture all of our human abilities, acquired through eons of evolution, are temporarily renounced or suspended. Since thee capacities – moving, speaking, grasping, thinking – are the ones which human beings value the most, we might accurately say that “entering zazen is going out of the business of being a human being” or that in zazen “no human being business gets done.”

What is the significance of giving up all these hard-won human abilities while we sit in zazen? I believe it is that, when sitting in zazen, we unconditionally surrender our human ignorance. In effect we are saying “I will not use these human capacities for my confused, self-centered purposes. By adopting zazen posture, my hands, legs, lips and mind are all sealed. They are just as they are. I can create no karma with any of them.” The body does not move in zazen posture. The mouth is closed and does not speak. The mind does not seek to become Buddha, but instead stops the mental activities of thinking, willing, and consciousness. By putting the Buddha seal on them, we place them in the service of our Buddha nature. 

– Rev. Issho Fujita