Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 14

The Experience of Zen Meditation
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , February 15, 2012
      index to series

In summary the method of Zen meditation described last week compares with the Buddha’s method as follows:

In Zen meditation also begins with the removal of distracting factors of the mind, which are the Hindrances for the Buddha, but which are more vaguely and inconsistently identified as any grasping or aversion and thoughts of mundane affairs in Zen.

  • Both methods involve the centering of the mind in the body. However, in Zen this is done primarily by attention to posture, for the Buddha by attention to the whole breath, but in neither case by focusing the mind narrowly on a single object.
  • Both methods involve attending to a theme of meditation. This ranges for the Buddha over various body contemplations, over feelings, over mind and over phenomena (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness). In Zen it seems correspond most closely to what the Buddha calls mindfulness of mind or of conscious awareness itself, the mirror mind.
  • Both encourage active factors of mind such as delight and investigation as critical components of meditation, roughly an active curiosity.
  • Each involves balancing various factors that arise in the meditative experience, particularly serenity and insight (samatha and vipassana or zhi and guan)

We conclude our subseries on Zen meditation by considering the fundamental qualities of the meditative experience..

Concentration in zazen is centered, not fixed. Recall that in fixed concentration the mind attaches unmovingly to a single meditation object into which the mind is absorbed.  In centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. The mind is pliant, open to everything that arises remains a while and falls, but what arises does not move the mind off center. The mind is calm and steady but sensitive and aware. The Buddha’s meditation and Zen both appear to be centered, not fixed. A method in either case which lacks a fixed object of mindfulness indicates that this would be the case. Sometimes this quality is called “sitting like a wall” or “wall gazing.”

A number of further descriptions of samadhi from the Zen literature suggests the broad opening of zazen to different levels of experience. Hongzhi wrote:

“Roam and plan in samadhi. Every detail clearly appears before you. Sound and form, echo and shadow, happen instantly without leaving traces.”

“Respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds.”

“Clear and desireless, the wind in the pines and the moon in the water are content in their elements”

The implication here is that nothing is suppressed as it impinges on consciousness, but neither is it entertained, sought after or engaged in a conventional manner.

A clear difference in the Zen approach to samadhi is that it has no metrics. The Buddha spoke of four graded jhanas and movement from one to the other, and in fact the word “jhana” is used with primarily reference to the degree or depth of samadhi. Zen (from Sanskrit “dyana,” Pali “jhana”) never refers to the four jhanas as such that I am aware of. Experience bears out that there are different levels of intensity of samadhi, but Zen seems uninterested in tracking which level the meditator is at. Even for the Buddha there is no indication that the meditator should set her sights on the highest jhana.

Investigation continues in samadhi. For the Buddha samadhi itself encourages the development of insight knowledge. This is also reflected in an early Zen text,  the Platform Sutra, in which the Sixth Ancestor is reported to have said:

Learned Audience, in my system Samadhi [Jhana] and Prajna [Wisdom or insight] are fundamental. But do not be under the wrong impression that these two are independent of each other, for they are inseparably united and are not two entities. Samadhi is the quintessence of Prajna, while Prajna is the activity of Samadhi. At the very moment that we attain Prajna, Samadhi is therewith; and vice versa. If you understand this principle, you understand the equilibrium of Samadhi and Prajna. A disciple should not think that there is a distinction between ‘Samadhi begets Prajna’ and ‘Prajna begets Samadhi’.

Learned Audience, to what are Samadhi and Prajna analogous? They are analogous to a lamp and its light. With the lamp, there is light. Without it, it would be darkness. The lamp is the quintessence of the light and the light is the expression of the lamp. In name they are two things, but in substance they are one and the same. It is the same case with Samadhi and Prajna.

Recall that with fixed samadhi there is little opportunity for developing insight except outside of samadhi. Here are some passages that describe the insight end of samadhi in Zen.

“To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” – Dogen, Kenjokoan

In Dogen’s writings he typically identifies this mind with awakening itself. Here is Hongzhi, a master of images from nature.

“A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountains appear. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains interpenetration without bounds.”

“When silent illumination is fulfilled, the lotus blossoms, the dreamer awakens, A hundred streams flow into the ocean, a thousand ranges face the highest peak.”

The transition from vipassana, investigation and insight, while in samadhi to the higher attainments and ultimately to awakening is mysterious. There is no recipe.  I am always reminded of the proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink it.” Samadhi leads the horse to water, and things as they are are neatly arrayed before you, yet we do not know how get the horse to drink the water, how the mind will  click into deeper understanding beyond concepts.

Here Zen seems more interested than the Buddha in tracking these intermediate sudden understandings for which it often applies the word “kensho.”  An interesting aspect of Zen is concern with seemingly arbitrary factors that can trigger kensho.  Two well-know examples of such triggers from the early Zen literature is the sound of a pebble striking bamboo as a Zen student was sweeping  and a Zen student suddenly noticing his reflection in water and wondering which one is real.

There seems also to have developed in Zen a pedagogical art understood by some Zen masters of contriving such triggers in order to evoke kensho in their students. I think this has no counterpart in the Buddha’s methods. Traditionally in Zen teacher and student develop a very intimate relationship over many years of intense zazen and mindfulness practice and the student is said to acquire the mind of the teacher. Zen koans are full of instances in which the teacher shouts, kicks or hits the student at just the right time, seemingly in anticipation of a felicitous result. Dogen refers to such methods in Fukanzazengi, listing some of the triggers famous in the early Zen literature:

“… the bringing out of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a whisk, a fist, a staff or a shout, cannot be fully understood by man’s discriminative thinking.”

I don’t know of clear examples in my own experience of teachers being adept in this skill. Rinzai teachers probably have a unique opportunity for triggering kensho (or for them, satori) as they work intimately with students in interviews accompanying meditative koan introspection practice, though my training does not qualify me to say much about this.

This method  of contriving conditions for insight seems to be found even in the Zen arts,  The following instance of clever modern Japanese landscaping perhaps serves to illustrate the method: This involved a path that lead high up a mountain from which there had at one time been a continuous magnificent view of the ocean. However the landscaper planted a hedge along the path that obscured this view, except at one point in which he provided a low break in the hedge. He placed a modern drinking fountain at that spot. At the moment the weary wanderer leaned over to sip the water the gap in the hedge is suddenly revealed and he sees a vast ocean of water at the moment he begins to take water into his own body. This is apparently an attempt to contrive an experience intended to evoke insight, much as an adeptly executed shout, thwap or tweak of the nose.

In conclusion, Zen meditation has some very distinctive qualities, and yet seems to retain the most essential elements and the internal logic of the Buddha’s method. Let me conclude with a moving quote from Dogen, who clearly was very excited about the potential of zazen with respect to awakening:

“When one displays the Buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this Samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes Buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment. Therefore, it enables Buddha-tathagatas to increase the dharma joy of their own original grounds and renew the adornment of the way of awakening. Simultaneously, all living beings of the dharma world in the ten directions and six realms become clear and pure in body and mind, realize great emancipation, and their own original face appears. At that time, all things together awaken to supreme enlightenment and utilize the Buddha-body, immediately go beyond the culmination of awakening, and sit upright under the kingly bodhi tree. At the same time, they turn the incomparable, great Dharma wheel and begin expressing ultimate and unfabricated profound prajna.”

Next week I will begin to consider Theravadin methods of meditation.

11 Responses to “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 14”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:


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  2. Alan Cook Says:


    Zen, like all Mahayana traditions, can be described as “the path of the Bodhisattva” as opposed to “the path of the Arhat.” The goal of meditation is variously described as “realizing the Buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha, bussho)” or “awakening bodhicitta”. You’ve offered a lot of insight into the differences and similarities of the two methods, but not so much about the goal. Any thoughts on that?

    (I haven’t been reading this blog very regularly; so if you’ve discussed this elsewhere, just point me there.)


    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      Your question is a good one. However, I have intentionally limited the scope of the discussion to meditation and touched on doctrine as little as possible.I have assumed throughout that the goal at least includes direct seeing of the way things really are and the loss of taints, unskillful mental habits.The first in Zen is often described as seeing the emptiness of all things.

      I will probably write about the paths of the bodhisattva and arahant in a future post. I have for a long time thought that the difference in terms of actual practice is not so great: There are many Theravada bodhittvas; all Buddhism emphasizes the development of compassion. Nonetheless the concept of the bodhisattva is one that the Buddha did not himself explicitly discuss, but has great appeal throughout the Buddhist world, and even made its way into Theravada thinking via the very influential borrowed Jataka stories. Recently I am beginning to think more explicit to the Bodhisattva path as opposed to the Arahant path does made a difference to how people think and behave. This is something I am slowly exploring myself.

      Thanks for bringing this up.


  3. Diane James Says:

    I’m new to reading about Buddhism, but I very much liked your description about the placement of the drinking fountain so that the person would view the ocean while drinking water. I think meditation is a lot like that. For me, after meditating, often a realization comes while doing a simple task like that. I wonder about the difference between Jewish and Buddhist meditation. R. E. Sherman writes in Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link? that he believes that Buddha may have been influenced by Solomon’s proverbs (http://www.buddha-christ.info).


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I do not know anything about links between Judaism and Buddhism, though it would not surprise me to find some. There seems to have been more communication between India and the Mediterranean lands than is generally recognized. For instance, there are many parallels in the Buddhist Jataka tales and Aesop’s Fables.


  4. aparna Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I had long wondered at the two terms Arahant and Bodhisatva. I have heard that people take the ‘bodhisatva vow’, to work towards becoming a bodhisatva and helping all beings. Perhaps there are others who set out to be Arahants. My question is, are these different paths for becoming these two different things — attaining to these states? Or are they variations of the same thing — or just the same thing, like samadhi and prajna, as you discussed earlier? Is it possible to set paths in meditation and become something? Or do you just let the path take you where it will? I am sorry if this question sounds too nit-picking or too childish, especially after the serious discussion earlier.

    Also, why are the Jataka tales ‘borrowed’?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      This might make a good next topic for my blog. I have generally held that these are not two paths, Arahant and Bodhisattva, but two different ways to describe the same thing. The common Mahayana view is that the Arahant path is selfish, concerned with one’s own salvation. But that does not make sense, because salvation entails letting go of any sense of self as separate from others. And compassion is introduced as a part of Right Resolve, as an essential ingredient of the way to do that. On the other hand for those still on the path it is very helpful to be reminded of the importance of compassion. I have always appreciated the language of the bodhisattva; it does entail an shift in emphasis, and probably one that Buddhism needs. Our teacher, Sitagu Sayadaw, a Burmese Theravada monk, and very much an engaged Buddhist, has taken on this language as well. Scholars seem to be agreement that the Jataka tales, except for a couple mentioned in early Suttas, constitute a later addition to the scriptures, but one that once introduced enjoyed wide-spread popularity and readily borrowed from one tradition to another. It highlighted the idea of the Bodhisatta, represented by the Buddha in previous lives. I read somewhere the claim that they originated in the Sarvastivadin School, which I believe developed around Kashmir. If I write a series on Bodhisattvas I will check all my facts.


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  6. La meditazione del Buddha e le sue varianti (XIV): L’esperienza della meditazione Zen – Cintita Dinsmore « Lokanātha Says:

    […] prossima settimana inizierò a trattare i metodi di meditazione del Theravada. [Continua] Articolo originale Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore (1949, San Francisco), al secolo John David Dinsmore, è un monaco che […]


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