What is a zafu?


When you meditate, you must, almost invariably, sit on something. Thus the idea of a meditation cushion was born: an inconspicuous accessory that can not only improve posture, but also offer a modicum of comfort. Whether you practice Buddhism or are merely dipping your toes into meditation, you are likely to encounter a squat, circular cushion known as a zafu. But what is a zafu?

Well, here is everything you’ll ever need to know about these unassuming cushions. We’ll delve into the origins of the zafu and its evolution into a modern-day meditation accessory. 

What is a zafu?

The zafu is a traditional meditation cushion that is often, though incorrectly, said to be Japanese in origin. While the word “zafu” is in fact Japanese, the history of these cushions goes back to China, where they were called putuan

Zafu translates from Japanese as “sewn seat.” However, the translation could also literally mean cushion made from the reedmace plant, also known as a cattail.  Originating in China, the zafu eventually migrated to Japan, as did Buddhism. In Japan, the history and cultural significance of the zafu have become deeply intertwined with Zen Buddhism.

Crafted as a supportive cushion for seated meditation, zafus are typically about 14 inches wide and 5-7 inches tall. They are circular, with sides that are steep enough to allow the legs to rest lower than the sit bones. Initially filled with reedmace down, modern zafus often use kapok, a natural cotton-like fiber derived from the seed pods of the ceiba tree. Zafus have also evolved over time to incorporate alternative fillings like buckwheat hulls and cotton batting, catering to individual preferences and comfort levels.

Significance of the zafu in Buddhism:

Zafus are most commonly associated with Zen Buddhism in Japan. If you peek into any zendo (meditation hall), you will see rows upon rows of them where monks take their seats.

But as Buddhism has traveled to the west, these cushions have become ubiquitous here as well. Today practitioners of different backgrounds and spiritualities use zafus.

In Buddhism, a zafu is typically paired with another cushion called a zabuton, which is a thick rectangular cushion. The zabuton is the base, upon which both the zafu and the individual then sit. Put together, the zafu and zabuton provide a stable, comfortable seated position that naturally brings the body into alignment from the head to the feet.

Mini Zafu buckwheat meditation cushion stack in mediation setting

Modern-day meditation cushions

Today, zafus are the most popular type of meditation cushion. They come in many different sizes, materials, and styles to fit individual tastes. Some zafus may be more rounded; some more flat; some wider than others, but the essence of the zafu largely remains the same. 

Other popular meditation cushion options  include the gomden, a firm, rectangular cushion that originated in Tibet. 

From traditional round zafus to innovative crescent-shaped cushions, practitioners today have access to a variety of options tailored to their individual needs.

Person Holding Bali Blue round zafu meditation cushion

Zafus available from Still Sitting

Still Sitting is proud to offer a selection of high-quality zafus that we handmake here in the state of Washington. 

Our zafus include:

  • Traditional Round Zafu: a time-tested design that will last a lifetime. We offer an array of beautiful color and design options as well. 
  • Crescent Zafu: a broader cushion that providers additional support to the knees and hips. If you’re worried about your legs falling asleep during meditation, this is a good option.
  • Mini Zafu: A lightweight and portable option that travels well, allowing you to practice meditation on the go.

Most of our zafus allow you to pick your filling material:

  • Kapok: a lightweight material that makes for a firm but buoyant cushion.
  • Buckwheat: the hulls from one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world provide firm support that will contour your body.

If you need help figuring out which zafu is right for you, check out our handy guide on choosing the right zafu.

Happy meditating!

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