Meditation Cushions: A Dive into Their History, Origin, and Evolution

Meditation Cushions: A Dive into Their History, Origin, and Evolution

The meditation cushion, as integral to meditative practice as breath, often sits in quiet subtlety beneath us. But have you ever wondered about the profound history that this simple object proudly carries? It's no coincidence that your meditation experience feels incomplete without a cushion supporting your posture. 

Meditation cushions, also known as zafus, originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and were used by Chan (Zen) Buddhist monks. Originally filled with reedmace plant fibers, they were later filled with kapok in Japan due to their resilience. Zafus eventually became a standard item in Zen monasteries and has now spread worldwide, becoming an essential part of many forms of meditation. Today, various styles of zafus made from materials such as cotton, wool, or silk and filled with buckwheat hulls, kapok, or rice husks can be purchased for use during meditation practice.

The Ancient Origins & Evolution of Meditation Cushions

Meditation cushions have a rich history that spans centuries, originating from ancient practices in different parts of the world. While exact origins are difficult to trace, it is believed that the use of cushions for meditation dates back thousands of years. In ancient India, yogis and practitioners would sit on folded blankets or animal skins to achieve a comfortable posture during meditation. These makeshift cushions provided some support but were not specifically designed.

Zafus in China

As meditation practices spread to China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), the use of dedicated meditation cushions began to emerge. This period saw the rise of Chan Buddhism (later known as Zen Buddhism), which placed great importance on sitting meditation as a path to enlightenment. Chan Buddhist monks used round cushions called zafus to help maintain a comfortable and dignified sitting posture during long periods of meditation.

Meditation Cushions

Zafus in Japan

These zafus were typically filled with the downy fibers of the reedmace plant in China, which provided a soft and supportive cushion. Over time, zafus made their way to Japan, becoming an essential part of Zen monastic practice. In Japan, zafus were traditionally filled with kapok, a resilient material that offered durability and better support than reedmace fibers.

The evolution of meditation cushions continued through the centuries as different cultures and traditions adopted them uniquely. 

Meditation Cushions in Zen Buddhism and Their Significance

In Zen Buddhism, meditation cushions play a vital role in creating a conducive environment for focused practice. One of the key principles emphasized in Zen is maintaining proper posture during meditation, which includes having a stable base and open posture. Zafus serves this purpose by providing elevation and support to align the practitioner's spine.

  • When seated on a zafu, the elevated position allows the hips to tilt forward slightly, naturally aligning the pelvis and encouraging an upright spinal alignment. This posture not only helps maintain physical comfort but also supports alertness and mental clarity during meditation.
  • Furthermore, zafus enables practitioners to sit in cross-legged positions such as the lotus or half-lotus, where the legs are placed atop the other. These positions promote stability and grounding, which are essential for cultivating mindfulness and concentration.

Beyond their practical function, zafus hold symbolic significance in Zen Buddhism. They represent a sacred space for meditation, creating a designated area for focused practice. When a practitioner sits on a zafu, it serves as a reminder of their commitment to the path of awakening and connects them to the long lineage of Zen practitioners who came before them.

  • Just as monks gather on zafus in Zen monasteries, modern-day practitioners utilize these cushions in home altars or dedicated meditation spaces. The presence of a zafu becomes a visual cue that prompts one to enter a state of stillness and inner exploration.
  • Zafus have become an integral part of Zen Buddhist practice, supporting physical comfort and spiritual connection. Their history and continued use exemplify the deep-rooted significance of meditation cushions in facilitating meaningful meditation experiences.

Meditation Cushions

Traditional Materials Used in Meditation Cushions Creation

The creation of meditation cushions, also known as zafus, has a rich history rooted in ancient Eastern traditions. These cushions are meticulously crafted using various traditional materials to provide comfort and support during meditation.

In the early days of zafu production, one common material used for filling was reedmace. Reedmace, also known as cattail or bulrush, is a plant with downy fibers that were plucked and used to stuff cushions. The softness and resilience of the reedmace fibers made them an ideal choice for providing a cushioned surface that maintained its shape over time.




Downy fibers from the reedmace plant were used to stuff cushions due to their softness.


Kapok is a natural fiber derived from the seed pods of the kapok tree, offering buoyancy.

Buckwheat Hulls

Buckwheat hulls provide firm support and conform well to body contours.


Cotton is a breathable and durable material often used for cushion covers.


Wool provides insulation and comfort, suitable for cooler climates or those seeking warmth.

As zafus began to spread beyond their place of origin, other materials like kapok, buckwheat hulls, cotton, and wool were introduced into their construction.

Reedmace, Kapok, and Other Fillings

Among the traditional materials used for filling meditation cushions, reedmace has historical significance as one of the earliest choices due to its availability. However, as Zafus embraced innovation and gained popularity in different regions, other fillings entered the scene.

Kapok became an alternative filling material, prized for its buoyancy and ability to provide a supportive yet comfortable surface. Derived from the seed pods of the kapok tree, this natural fiber offered practitioners a soft yet firm, cushioning experience during their meditation practice.

Another popular filling choice found in many modern meditation cushions is buckwheat hulls. These small triangular shells offer strong support while conforming well to body contours, promoting proper alignment and comfort during extended meditation sessions.

It's essential to consider personal preference when choosing a filling material for your meditation cushion. Each option offers unique qualities, and what may work best for one practitioner may differ for another. Some may prefer the softness of kapok or reedmace, while others find comfort in the firm support provided by buckwheat hulls.

As meditation culture continues to thrive and evolve, materials such as cotton and wool have also made their way into modern zafu designs. The diverse range of available fillings ensures that practitioners can find a cushion that suits their individual needs and preferences.

The Transition from East to West: Meditation Cushions Usage

Meditation cushions have a rich history deeply rooted in Eastern cultures, particularly in countries like India, China, and Japan. Meditation has been prevalent in these regions for thousands of years, and practitioners have relied on various cushions to support their practice.

In the East, meditation cushions are often referred to as "zafus" or "zabutons." 

  • Zafus are round-shaped cushions with pleated sides, while zabutons are flat rectangular cushions. These traditional designs provide stability and comfort during long periods of sitting meditation.

Meditation Cushions

As interest in meditation practices grew in the West, particularly during the mid-20th century onwards, the usage of meditation cushions began to transcend cultural boundaries. Many individuals who embraced mindfulness and meditation sought to recreate the serene and peaceful atmosphere found in Eastern traditions.

In the transition from East to West, meditation cushions found their place in yoga studios, wellness centers, and individual homes. They became a symbol of tranquility and inner reflection. The availability and accessibility of these cushions also played a significant role in popularizing their usage.

Today, meditation cushions can be found not only in yoga studios but also in mainstream stores that cater to those seeking relaxation and stress relief. Their usage has become more widespread as people from various backgrounds recognize the benefits of incorporating meditation into their daily lives.

Modern Adaptations in Meditation Cushions Design and Filling

Over time, meditation cushions have undergone several adaptations to meet the evolving needs and preferences of practitioners. These modern adaptations often focus on enhancing comfort, durability, and aesthetic appeal.

  • One notable design adaptation is the introduction of adjustable cushion heights. Many meditation cushions now come with removable or additional layers of filling, allowing practitioners to customize the height to their specific comfort level. This feature is especially beneficial for individuals with different body types or requiring extra support due to physical limitations.
  • A meditation cushion allows you to add or remove layers of buckwheat hulls until you find your ideal sitting height. This adjustability ensures you can maintain proper posture and spinal alignment throughout meditation.
  • Another trend in modern meditation cushion design is the inclusion of ergonomic shapes. While traditional zafus and zabutons remain popular, cushion designs now encompass various shapes such as crescent moon, lotus flower, or even bean bag-style cushions. These innovative shapes offer enhanced support for different sitting positions and body contours.

Apart from design adaptations, there have also been advancements in filling materials. Traditionally, zafus were filled with kapok fiber, while zabutons often contained cotton batting. However, modern variations provide filling options like buckwheat hulls or memory foam.

Comparison of common cushion fillings

Filling Material


Kapok Fiber

Lightweight and resilient

Cotton Batting

Soft and conforming

Buckwheat Hulls

Adjustable firmness and breathability

Memory Foam

Contours to the body shape for personalized support

As we can see, modern adaptations in meditation cushion design and filling have diversified options for practitioners, making it easier to find a cushion that suits individual needs and preferences.

Choosing Your Comfort: Meditation Cushion Types

When it comes to meditation cushions, there is a wide array of options available to suit different preferences and needs. Understanding the different types of meditation cushions can help you choose one that provides optimal comfort and support during your practice.

  • One popular type is the zafu meditation cushion, a traditional round cushion used in Zen Buddhism. Originating from China during the Tang dynasty, zafus were initially filled with the downy fibers of the reedmace plant. In Japan, they began using kapok as a filling material due to its resilience. Zafus are typically about 12 inches in diameter and 4 inches thick, making them suitable for practitioners of various heights. They come in different materials, such as cotton, wool, or silk, and their fillings can include buckwheat hulls, kapok, or rice husks.
  • Another option is the zabuton, which is a supportive base cushion for the zafu. The zabuton is larger and rectangular, providing cushioning for your knees and ankles while sitting on the floor. It also helps distribute weight evenly and reduces joint strain during longer meditation sessions.
  • For those who prefer a more versatile cushion, crescent-shaped meditation cushions are worth considering. These cushions support a kneeling posture by relieving pressure on the shins and ankles. They provide comfort by allowing your legs to rest between two pads without compressing delicate areas.

If kneeling isn't comfortable for you, there are options like meditation benches or seiza benches. These benches provide an elevated seat that takes pressure off your knees and allows for a more upright posture. They often come with angled legs that promote proper alignment of the spine.

Ultimately, the choice of meditation cushion depends on your preferred posture and body type. Some may find that a zafu and zabuton combination provides the ideal support, while others may prefer the versatility of a crescent-shaped cushion or meditation bench. Experimenting with different options can help determine which cushion type enhances your comfort and overall meditation experience.

Personal Preference and Comfort Considerations in Selecting a Cushion

When it comes to selecting a meditation cushion, personal preference plays a crucial role. Everyone's body is unique, so finding a cushion that aligns with your comfort needs is essential for an enjoyable and sustainable practice.

  • Consider factors such as the firmness of the cushion.Some prefer firm cushions that provide stability and structure, while others find softer cushions more comfortable. It's important to choose a cushion that allows you to maintain a relaxed yet supported posture.
  • The height of the cushion also matters. The goal is to have your hips slightly higher than your knees when seated on the floor. If you opt for a zafu or crescent-shaped cushion, ensure its height allows you to achieve this alignment. Additionally, if you use a zabuton as a base cushion, ensure enough padding to ensure comfort during extended meditation sessions.
  • Let's say you're someone who experiences discomfort in your knees or ankles during prolonged sitting. In this case, incorporating a zabuton as extra support could make a significant difference in alleviating strain on those areas.

Furthermore, take into account the material used in the cushion's construction. Breathable materials like cotton or wool are often preferred as they allow for proper ventilation during longer periods of meditation. Consider any sensitivities or allergies when choosing the fabric for your cushion.

When were meditation cushions first used for meditation practices?

Meditation cushions were first used for meditation practices around the 6th century BCE in ancient India. The earliest recorded evidence of their use can be found in Buddhist scriptures, which describe sitting on elevated surfaces made from grass or leaves to maintain a stable and comfortable posture during meditation. Over time, these early cushions evolved into the more elaborate designs we see today, with various shapes and materials catering to different meditation postures and preferences.

How have meditation cushions evolved?

Meditation cushions, also known as zafus, have evolved significantly over time. Initially used as simple mats or pillows, they have diversified in shape, materials, and designs to enhance comfort and support during meditation. Traditional round-shaped zafus made of cotton or kapok filling remains popular for their stability and ease of use. In recent years, ergonomic designs with memory foam and adjustable features have emerged to cater to individual preferences.