For thousands of years, the zafu cushion has played an important role in Japanese and Chinese culture as a cushion used for seated meditation. In Japanese, the word “zafu” is translated as “seat made of cattails”, which is how they were made for a very long time.
Today’s Zafu cushions are generally stuffed with buckwheat hulls or natural kapok fiber and covered with a silk canvas or natural cotton. While this meditation cushion can look somewhat awkward, it is actually quite comfortable. Sitting on a zafu promotes a straight spine during meditation, which encourages the proper circulation of the body’s spiritual energy, or life force.
The zabuton, which is often paired with zafu cushions (shown here), is a kapok-filled rectangular cushion that is often placed beneath a zafu cushion, providing comfort and stability during seated meditation. The Kanji characters for “zabuton” are literally translated as “seat cloth sphere”, and are often found in Japanese homes. Besides being used for meditation, they are also used for eating, reading, watching television, and many other daily activities.
Zen practitioners use the zafu and zabuton as utilitarian accessories, but they are also symbols of zazen practice. For example, before practitioners sit or rise from the zafu, they perform a “gassho” bow to the cushion, to the teacher, and to fellow practitioners. While walking in the meditation hall, or zendo, there is a proper way of respectfully handling the zafu.
In Rakugo, a form of Japanese storytelling, performers cannot rise from the seiza position on their zabuton during their skit. In Sumo wrestling, it is a tradition for audience members to throw their zabuton cushions into the ring after a particularly good match.
High quality meditation cushions are an important investment for every serious student of meditation. For long periods of meditation, yoga, sitting or simply relaxing, the zafu and zabuton offer unmatched comfort and stability.