Dharma Talk – Beyond Mindfulness: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

Dharma Talk – Beyond Mindfulness: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

Here I present an alternative to mindfulness practice. I do this because I believe the concept of mindfulness – at least the way it is typically understood – may limit our spiritual development. It can become a dualistic trap that causes us to reject much of what we are as human beings.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself
What Mindfulness Is
Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness
Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind
Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence
Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)
The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment
Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency
How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?
Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself

Before I describe the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice and offer a different approach that has worked for me, I want to discuss the metaphor of fingers pointing at the moon. “The moon” stands for the truth, Dharma, Reality, or the essence of the matter. Teachings and practices are fingers pointing to the moon, and are therefore valuable only inasmuch as they manage to help sentient beings spot the moon. They are not the point in and of themselves.

Inherent in this metaphor is the suggestion that sometimes we can become too obsessed with a finger and forget about what it’s pointing to. It also invites us to consider that there are many different ways to point to the same moon. One finger may work for us, while someone in different position needs a finger that may appear, from our view, to be pointing in a completely different direction!

I think the teaching and practice of mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself – but first, a little more about the teaching and practice of mindfulness.

What Mindfulness Is

Mindfulness was taught and strongly emphasized by Shakyamuni Buddha himself, over 2500 years ago. The ancient Pali word translated as “mindfulness” is sati, and it can also be translated as “remembering” or “presence of mind.” We are practicing mindfulness when we remember to pay attention to our present experience and try to keep ourselves from forgetting again.

Mindfulness has also been described as our “non-discursive faculty of awareness” or as “bare attention.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, who over the last few decades has popularized the use of mindfulness techniques in secular settings, defines mindfulness as “continuous non-judgmental awareness.” More specifically, he explains, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally… It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”[i]

For most Buddhist practitioners, our initial efforts at mindfulness are challenging but also powerfully transformative. We become more and more aware of what’s happening in our minds. We notice our reactions. It can feel like someone has suddenly shined a light on our lives and there’s all kinds of things we can see for the first time. This allows us to make many changes, and facilitates greater understanding of how we function as human beings.

Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness

Isn’t the whole point of Buddhist practice just to be mindful – that is, “present in our lives?” How is mindfulness just a finger pointing at the moon?

Before I explain, I want to state that I think it is essential that we start our practice with mindfulness. We also benefit from returning to that practice again and again over the course of our days and lives. What I’m going to talk about here is how we move beyond mindfulness and avoid (or drag ourselves out of) the potential pitfalls of the practice. I discovered these pitfalls by falling into them, so, in part, this is a confession of my own struggles with mindfulness.

The first pitfall is that we conceive of pure mindfulness as a state without thoughts. When we’re “mindful” we’re just peeling the orange, just tasting the coffee, just walking. Rather than wandering off into the dream-world of thoughts, we are present for “reality” – which means only what is happening in this moment, in our immediate vicinity, perceptible through the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

We encounter the second pitfall when we try to sustain a state of mindfulness through the inevitable thoughts, feelings, and impulses that arise in the course of our lives. We admit to ourselves that our state of mindfulness is rarely pure – that is, free of thoughts – but we work hard to maintain a second-best state of mindfulness by staying identified with an internal “observer” who is aware of, but not involved with, the thoughts, feelings, and impulses. We think we need to maintain a detached self-consciousness at all times, allowing us to make internal comments like, “Oh, look, I am experiencing some sensations of anger.”

In the third pitfall, we divide our lives into two parts: one, where we are consciously aware of what’s going on in the present moment and are therefore “awake” and present for our lives, and two, the rest of the time when we’re caught up in the dream of thought and missing our lives as surely as if we were sleeping through them.

In the fourth pitfall, because the dreamy/sleepy/caught-up-in-thoughts parts of lives comprise over 90% of the time for most of us, we become burdened with a sense of sadness and inadequacy. We try harder but wonder why we still keep forgetting to be present. We suspect we misunderstand the teachings and practices. We figure we must be doing something wrong, because mindfulness teachers tell us that eventually we’re going to get better at this! And while it’s true that we got better at first, we’ve hit a plateau in our development of mindfulness that seems endless. Most of us resign ourselves to being half-assed practitioners in some respect and just lament how much of our lives we aren’t “present for.”

Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind

Okay, I confess: I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 20 years and throughout most of my day I’m not “mindful” – at least not in the sense I’ve been discussing. Maybe – on a good day – I manage to be mindful 20% of my waking hours instead of the essentially 0% before I started practice, but it still feels like most of the time I’m mindful for a moment – “Oh, here I am! I’m being mindful!” – and then off I go again. The second I think of something, plan something, engage in a conversation or a project, or get absorbed in work, reading, music, beauty, or entertainment, the apparently fragile state of mindfulness is lost.

Fortunately, mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. Please note: If you “find the moon” through mindfulness, super! If mindfulness has relieved suffering for you, if it’s a profound practice you rely on every day, keep practicing mindfulness and let what I’m going to say go in one ear and out the other. Try not to let it bother you at all.

Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

What I’m offering is a different way of pointing at the moon, one that may help you like it’s helped me. I call it, at least at this point in time, the “Radical Practice of Undivided Presence.” I call this practice “radical” not because it is revolutionary, but because it is (or can be) complete in and of itself and gets straight to the heart of the matter. Of course, it may very well be I have misunderstood “mindfulness” and what I describe here is exactly what the Buddha meant by “mindfulness.” If that’s the case, then it just proves my point: Both the Buddha and I are looking for the moon, and different words and practices are simply different ways of pointing at it. But let me tell you, encountering the right kind of pointing (for you) makes all the difference in the world.

Ironically, the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence begins with a moment of mindfulness.

I don’t have any problem with that first instant of mindfulness, which is basically when we wake up from the dream of thought and notice what’s going on. That’s the aspect of mindfulness reflected in the translation of sati, the Pali term for mindfulness, as “remembering.” That moment of remembering is so sweet! It is so precious! It’s what makes practice possible!

It’s also not something you can will yourself to do. It just happens. You are asleep one moment and then you wake up.

That’s not to say you can’t do anything to make it more likely you’ll wake up more often. That’s why we meditate and study. That’s why we cultivate aspiration and intention.

To make sure we wake up more often, we also need to treasure and celebrate the moments we wake up. Instead of beating ourselves up for all our previous forgetfulness the instant we become mindful, instead of seizing the moment of mindfulness with the determination to make it last, we can greet a moment of wakefulness with pure gratitude. This will help it last a little longer, and it will make mindfulness pleasant instead of associating it with striving and frustration.

Then we come to the next moment, when we seek to sustain – what? Mindfulness? Remembering to be present itself isn’t hard – it’s sustaining a state of mindfulness for more than a moment that’s hard, especially if you’ve fallen into one of the pitfalls I described earlier.

This is where I recommend a different approach. Instead of trying to sustain a state of mind in which you are consciously aware, and either thoughtless or taking the role of detached observer, you unify yourself. You take the opportunity to show up wholeheartedly for your life. You settle into your body and your direct experience, and refuse to be tricked into looking anywhere else (as if you could). You stop the internal struggles and own your body, mind, and heart.

Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)

This is all just more finger pointing, but this approach to practice may become clearer if I try to describe the moon itself. One way of seeing and understanding the ultimate point of Buddhism is as a Way of Being. It’s a liberated, authentic, joyful, centered, beneficial way of being a being. It’s not a point of view, a kind of understanding, a transcendent experience, or a code of ethics. It’s something you experience with your whole body, mind, and heart. It’s how you are as you meditate, speak, drive, eat, brush your teeth, and watch movies. It’s not limited to being thoughtless or self-consciously aware of being mindful. This Way of Being is how Buddhas are.

To further illustrate what this Way of Being is like, I’m going to ask you to imagine your whole body-mind-heart experience of a bunch of different scenarios. Each scenario is mean to evoke something in you – some aspect of a Buddhas’ Way of Being. A Buddha’s Way of Being isn’t limited to any one of these aspects, and it’s not dependent on external circumstances. However, because it’s so difficult for us to conceive of a Buddhas’ Way of Being, it helps to imagine situations we can conceive of.

Imagine you are in the embrace of your mother and she is offering you unlimited, unconditional love. (If your mother didn’t or doesn’t actually offer that, imagine a mother who could.) As you rest in her arms, probably sobbing gently as her love helps heal your inevitable wounds, you feel more confidence that you are acceptable just the way you are. With all your warts, foibles, tantrums, and limitations, someone sees you as precious, loveable, and worthy. Someone sees you as special without having to compare you with anyone else in the world. That ease, acceptance, and inner healing you feel? That’s part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you are facing incredible difficult and painful circumstances, but you are determined not to run away from them because you need to protect and take care of that which is most important to you – your children, loved ones, or deeply held values. Nothing has even been clearer to you than what you need to do right now. You feel no doubt whatsoever, but not because you’re right in some absolute sense. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it. The clarity, settledness, strength, determination, and willingness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine someone has you taste a new kind of food and then asks how you like it. You describe your experience and feelings – whether you liked the food and how much, whether you found it salty or sweet, crunchy or creamy. The person really wants to know what you think, so you speak freely. As you describe your experience, no part of you wonders if what you’re saying is true in some absolute sense, or whether you are really in touch with your “real” experience or not. That centeredness in your own direct experience, without it even being a big deal to be centered in your own direct experience? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you have reached the end of your life, and you lay there on your deathbed surrounded by loved ones. You know this is it. The story of your life is complete. No more can be done. You’re not without some sadness and regret, but you’re reconciled to things being as they are, and for the most part you’re happy and grateful. The long to-do list can be torn up and thrown away. The sense of peace and completeness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment

Fortunately, the practice of Undivided Presence does not involve imagining all of those scenarios and trying to create a certain kind of feeling or mind-state. It is more direct than that.

When you have a moment of wakefulness, come home to yourself. Notice the many ways you are resisting the way things are and let go of the resistance. Notice the ways you are rejecting certain things about yourself (such as your lack of mindfulness!) and hold yourself in that mother’s embrace of unconditional acceptance. Show up for your direct experience without questioning its validity in any way. Let go of the agenda of both the ego and the super-ego and ask yourself what you really want. Cast aside all effort to be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are, because your life needs you and you can’t actually be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are.

Essentially, this Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is bringing all of parts of yourself together. Your aspiration and your selfishness, your love and your lust, your inner lazy glutton and your inner ascetic. Your body, your thoughts, your hopes, fears, passions, and shame. Your projects, habits, opinions, perceptions, blood, bones, and mucus.

This is what it means to be wholehearted. To be half-hearted means to hold something back, or to do something without enthusiasm because you don’t really want to do it. In order to be half-hearted you have to be divided – part of you wants one thing, while part wants another. Of course, this kind of inner division is part of being human, and the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not about picking a winning side or pretending no inner conflict exists. Instead, to be wholehearted, we choose how to be in this very moment. We may be in the midst of huge inner turmoil or a prolonged decision-making process, but in this very moment we can be wholehearted with exactly that. No apologies.

In the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence we just say internally, “Now is the time.” Now is the time to show up completely. Now is the time to enjoy yourself. Now is the time to appreciate things fully. Now is the time to give yourself a break. Now is the time to say what you mean. Now is the time to open your heart. Now is the time to embrace your life wholeheartedly. We stop waiting to become someone else. We stop waiting to become enlightened, or to perfect mindfulness, or to finally gain access to the secret of complete happiness.

The most important aspect of my “Radical Practice of Undivided Self” is that I’ve found it much easier to sustain than “mindfulness,” at least in the sense mindfulness is a consciously aware state that’s either free from thought or involves taking the role of detached observer. Instead of trying concentrate on “only what is here and now” and avoid getting sucked back into the dream of thought, I try to inhabit this moment more wholeheartedly. After all, it’s just the bullshit in my mind about how “I’m not enough” and “this isn’t enough” that keeps me separated from my life instead of letting me be intimate with it. Basically, instead of making a practice of thinking about what I shouldn’t do (get lost in the dream of thought), I channel my passion into being as fully alive as possible.

Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency

At this point it’s very important to point out that the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not the Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want. The latter practice involves stories about yourself. It’s like getting egotistical because your mother thinks you’re great, or imagining yourself as a self-righteous martyr because you’re enduring some difficulty while simply doing your duty. It’s like describing what you think of a particular food and presenting it as Truth-with-a-capital-T because your sense of taste is so superior to that of others, or reaching the end of your life and congratulating yourself that so many people love you. The Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want is getting a taste of a Buddha’s Way of Being and then trying to bottle and sell it.

The moment you start drawing conclusions and telling stories, you’re no longer mindful (to use the term we’re all more familiar with). Your self is no longer unified, because no matter what the part of you that thinks “I’m great and can do no wrong” is saying, part of you knows you are terribly limited and intransigently self-interested. The Radical Practice of Undivided Self, on the other hand, denies nothing and assumes nothing. It happens in this very moment.

When, in the practice of Undivided Self, you ask yourself what you really want, you’ll find that you basically want happiness and not suffering. You’ll notice that how other people feel affects you, so you’ll know their fate is not independent of yours. You’ll find you want to be awake for your life. You want to be authentic and loved. Basically, you’ll find out you’re a good person who can trust yourself.

Sure, sometimes our habit energy makes us want to flirt with someone who’s not our partner, or to elbow in front of someone in line, or to eat too much chocolate cake. But if you do the practice of Undivided Presence you’re much more likely to connect with the part of you who treasures your intimate partnership, values the opportunity to be generous, and enjoys feeling healthy. As part of the process of unification, you make your self-righteous super-ego and your mischievous id sit down together like two petulant, squabbling kids required to put aside their argument in order for the family to have a peaceful dinner. There’s a chance the adult in the house will be able to make a wise and compassionate decision in the meantime.

How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?

When you’re practicing Undivided Self, you aren’t necessarily consciously aware of practicing Undivided Self. Sometimes you will be more aware of it than other times. It’s possible to be wholeheartedly engaged in something and have it take up all of your mental and emotional bandwidth so there’s nothing left for observing yourself being wholehearted.

So how do you know if you’re practicing Undivided Presence if you won’t necessarily be consciously aware of doing so? Upon reflection, you’ll know. Recollect a period time spent absorbed in thought or in some activity, and notice whether you were divided during that time. Chances are, you were, even if subtly. You were having dinner with friends but looking forward to it being over because you found it kind of boring, and then you felt a little guilty for being bored. You were wrapped up in project you love but periodically found yourself getting irritable when things didn’t work the way you wanted them to, revealing how part of you was more interested in the outcome of the project than in wholeheartedly doing it.

By the way, when you realize you haven’t been Undivided for a time, forget about it and simply Unify yourself right away! If you beat yourself up for not being unified, you may end up undermining the effectiveness of the practice to get you to the moon, a.k.a. a Buddha’s Way of Being, by making the whole process stressful and unpleasant.

When you’re doing the Radical Practice of Undivided Self, there is a certain kind of awareness present that otherwise isn’t. However, it’s kind of subtle, and it’s incredibly difficult to describe without inviting our minds to separate out “me” from “my awareness” from “what is going on,” and this Buddha-awareness is not divided. The words that most accurately evoke this awareness for me are “aliveness,” “sentience,” “wholehearted being,” or Uchiyama Roshi’s “the self doing self.”[ii] The awareness that is part of a Buddha’s Way of Being is basic, natural, and ordinary. It isn’t removed, thoughtless, rarefied, or limited to things in your immediate surroundings that you perceive through the five senses. In some situations it coolly observes, while in others it participates in leaping, laughing, crying, analyzing, and creating. This awareness will be present, but it won’t constrain activity.

Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

I beg Shakyamuni Buddha’s forgiveness, and the patience of all the great Buddhist teachers of subsequent generations, for my arrogance in implying I have found something new, or managed to improve on their teaching techniques. Still, I love my spiritual tradition for the fact that it invites all of us to point at the moon in our own way, using our own words, images, and approaches. When I turn to the ancestors to corroborate what I have discovered in the course of my own practice, I am pleased to read the words of Zen master Lin-Chi:

“Followers of the Way, the outstanding teachers from times past have all had ways of drawing people out. What I myself want to impress on you is that you mustn’t be led astray by others. If you want to use this thing, then use it and have no doubts or hesitations!

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[iii]

When Lin-Chi talks about the “mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something,” I don’t think he’s not talking about our tendency to think about stuff. That’s how I used to understand his words, but thinking is just part of being human (and frankly, it’s a great part of being human). I think Lin-Chi is referring to something deeper and subtler: the part of us that is looking for something else, to be someone else, to exist in a different world than we live in right now. That part drives the mind to go rushing about – sometimes even in the pursuit of some state called mindfulness. Can you go ahead and think, speak, and act without rushing about?

[i] http://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
[ii] Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama. Wisdom Publications, 2004.
[iii] The Zen Teachings of Zen Master Lin-Chi, translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1993.



Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE

Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE [2:05]
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects [3:55]
Teachings of Several Prominent Alternative Schools [6:19]
The Buddha’s Take on Transmigration, Karma, and Liberation [10:13]
A Disclaimer about Summarizing Buddhism in One Page [16:39]

Arising of Buddhism Part 2

Let’s start with a brief recap to set the stage for today’s discussion of Arising of Buddhist Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE. In the last episode, I gave you a brief overview of the history of civilization in India, and a sense of the dominant religious traditions of northern India from around 2000 BCE through the time of the Buddha. I then described the social and economic changes starting around 800 BCE that apparently paved the way for new schools of religious thought and practice, including Buddhism. Now I’ll continue that story by talking about these new religious movements, their major spiritual questions, and how they answered them. This should give you a sense of how Buddhism compared to the other new religions of its time, and how the Buddha’s approach differed from those of his contemporary spiritual teachers.

As I discussed in the last episode, northern India experienced significant social, economic, and political changes between 800 BCE and the time of the Buddha, who born somewhere between 563 and 483 BCE. Iron age technology increased agricultural productivity, allowing the formation of cities, bureaucracies, and armies. Expanded trade led to a development of a merchant class, and ambitious kings absorbed smaller political units; the traditional tribal or clan-based social structure was disintegrating. Concurrent with these disruptive social changes was the arising of the doctrine of transmigration – the idea that beings are reborn in the world after they die, over and over, for incalculably long periods of time.

The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects

Part of the religious response to changing social conditions at this time in India was the growth and proliferation of alternative religious movements, or sects. A followers of these sects was often called a sramana, which meant “striver.” The sramanas were seekers looking for spiritual fulfillment and answers, and they were generally suspicious of the Vedic religions – particularly the priests, or brahmans, who profited from the religious services they performed. Sramanas rejected the premises of Brahmanism, formulated new philosophies, and usually taught practices intended to liberate practitioners from the cycle of transmigration – or least relieve their concerns about it.

Many sramana groups were comprised of, or led by, parivrajakas, or “wanderers.” Parivrajakas renounced the restrictions of worldly life, including caste, social, and ritual expectations. They lived in forests, caves, or other humble conditions as mendicants without social status, and depended on alms. They devoted themselves full time to spiritual study and practice, either alone or within loose communities formed around teachers. (The Buddha himself followed this tradition, becoming a parivrajaka at age 29 and studying for six years with various teachers; more on that in subsequent History and Texts episodes.)

Most of the sramana sects focused on the big religious questions of the time:

  • Did the individual transmigrate through multiple lifetimes?
  • If individuals did transmigrate, could they affect their future rebirths? In other words, was there such a thing as karma, or the law of moral cause and effect?
  • If there was such a thing as karma, how did it work, and what could people do to increase their chances of happiness in future lives?
  • Assuming both transmigration and karma, is there anything people could do to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely?

Teachings of Several Prominent Alternative Schools

A brief survey of a few of the prominent sramana schools around the time of the Buddha will give you a sense of the variety of religious views being taught. The Lokayata, or “materialists,” denied the existence of anything immaterial. Therefore, the individual was annihilated at death, because no immaterial essence existed to be passed on to another life. It follows, then, that there was no transmigration, and no need to worry about future lives. The materialists taught that contentment can only be found in this life, and people were foolish to deny themselves pleasure, or to engage in moral behavior or altruism in order to affect their future rebirths.

The Ajivakas, or “lifeless ones” – probably a name applied to them by others – believed in transmigration but not karma. That is, nothing you did had any effect on the conditions of your rebirth. In fact, everything was determined by an entirely amoral, impersonal cosmic principle called niyati, meaning destiny, chance, or nature. Morality, the Ajivakas held, was a mere social convention. The way to peace was simply to accept the course of one’s life.

The Jains were led by Nigantha Nataputta, later known as Vardhamana Mahavira, or “The Great Hero,” and the Jain religion still exists. Mahavira believed in both transmigration and karma, and he had a very unique view of they operated. He taught that our immaterial life principle or soul, called jiva, is trapped within our bodies. In fact, everything that exists has some kind of soul enmeshed in it, including plants, animals, inanimate objects, minerals, bodies of water, drops of rain, wind, and fire. Karma is an impersonal, natural law that keeps souls captive within matter.

A Jain Monk

Jains believe selfish and careless actions generate literally “heavy” karma that more tightly binds the soul to matter. Causing harm to another living being brings about the heaviest karma of all – and this a serious matter if you believe everything in the universe is, in a sense, alive! Therefore, Jain monks take the practice of nonviolence – ahimsa – to extremes, adopting practices like eating as little as possible, wearing a mask to avoid inhaling insects, and moving slowly so as to minimize violence to the beings of the air (the featured image for this episode is a Jain monk). Lay Jains follow a prescribed discipline of their own to minimize harm in their everyday lives.

Mahavira taught that non-selfish actions generate light karma that dissipates quickly, but only suffering willingly undertaken burns off karma already accumulated. Therefore asceticism, penance, and fasting are a large part of rigorous Jain practice. If a practitioner is successful in destroying all of his karma, upon death his soul is finally freed from his body and – being lighter than matter – rises up to dwell eternally in bliss. However, the soul always remains a distinct unit; the Jains disagreed with the Upanishadic concept of Brahman, or the universal Being with which a personal soul, or atman, is eventually reunited.

The Buddha’s Take on Transmigration, Karma, and Liberation

So, how did Shakyamuni Buddha answer the popular spiritual questions of his time? I will go into greater detail about the Buddha’s teachings in subsequent episodes in this History and Texts series; here I’ll do my best to give you a brief overview of the Buddha’s take on transmigration, karma, and liberation so you can compare them to the religious traditions I’ve already discussed.

The Buddha (the term “buddha” means “awakened one”) incorporated the doctrine of transmigration into his teachings, although he treated it more like a background assumption than a focal point. He taught that karma was a very real force at work in the universe, and in some ways his view of karma was similar to that of Mahavira, teacher of the Jains. Jainism and Buddhism developed more or less at the same time, and it’s impossible to know whether one influenced the other, or the influence was mutual. In any case, the Jain and Buddhist views of karma are similar in two respects: 1) karma is presented as an impersonal, natural law of moral cause and effect, and 2) selfish and harmful actions a believed to generate negative karma – that is, to have a negative effect on the course of your rebirth. However, in almost all other respects, the Buddhist view of karma is very different from that of the Jains.

According to the Buddhist scriptures, on the night of his pivotal spiritual awakening, the Buddha experienced several critical insights about karma. First, he had a vision of countless beings enduring the cycle of transmigration, and this allowed him to observe how karma determines the circumstances of one’s rebirth. He also noticed that one’s state of mind when committing an action – one’s views and intentions – significantly influenced the results of the action. I will let one of my favorite scholars, the Theravadin monastic Ajahn Thanissaro, explain further (note, Thanissaro uses the Pali word kamma instead of karma; this passage is from the book The Wings to Awakening):

“The Bodhisatta’s realization in his second insight that kamma determines how beings fare in the round of rebirth caused him to focus on the question of kamma in his third insight. And, because the second insight pointed to right and wrong views as the factors determining the quality of kamma, he looked into the possibility that kamma was primarily a mental process, rather than a physical one, as the Vedists and Jains taught. As a result, he focused on the mental kamma that was taking place at that very moment in his mind, to understand the process more clearly. In particular, he wanted to see if there might be a type of right view that, instead of continuing the round of rebirth, would bring release from it.” (Thanissaro, The Wings to Awakening)

This process of thinking led the Buddha to observe, within his own mind, that particular views led to distress and suffering. When he dropped those views, the distress and suffering stopped. The most distressing and harmful view of all, the Buddha noticed, was the identification of your “self” with your body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness. (This was considered an exhaustive list of all the things that make up a human being, collectively called the skandhas, or “heaps.”) The skandhas are impermanent, and ultimately no inherent, independent, enduring self-essence can be found within them (or outside of them). That is to say, in Buddhist terminology, the self is “empty.”

Unfortunately, we assume we have an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature, and are therefore obsessed with questions of – as the Buddha phrased it – “I, me, and mine.” We assume there is some kind of homunculus inside us who calls the shots, endures any frustration and discomfort, and can take credit for any success.

We become stressed and miserable when we base our lives on the premise of an inherent self, because our “self” is actually just a conventional designation for an unfolding experience based on countless causes and conditions. We are a flow, but we cause ourselves great trouble by trying to locate the self and either win territory for it or protect the territory we have. It’s a losing battle, and it makes us very self-absorbed. We tend to generate negative karma through ignorant and selfish actions, and if we are still obsessed with “I, me, and mine” when we die, we are drawn into another rebirth by our residual greed, anger, or ignorance.

Fortunately, the Buddha taught, we can get free of suffering and the cycle of transmigration. Through meditation, the practice of mindfulness, and study of the Buddha’s teachings, practitioners can perceive the truth directly and shed all incorrect views – including the assumption that we have an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature. If someone manages to drop all wrong views, the Buddha taught, they can achieve nirvana, or a sublime and blissful state in which all self-concern is transcended. At this point such people became buddhas (awakened ones) themselves, and upon death they are not reborn.

A Disclaimer about Summarizing Buddhism in One Page

The Buddhist teachings of no-self and emptiness are very subtle and easy to misunderstand even if you’ve been practicing Buddhism for a while, so don’t be surprised if what I just presented doesn’t immediately make sense to you! It’s also very challenging to summarize in few minutes the essential teachings of Buddhism or any of the other religions I’ve mentioned in this episode. Hopefully I least gave you a sense of how the religions compared to each other and were related.

I should also note that the Buddhist teachings I covered in this episode are those of original Buddhism. Many different sects, schools, and types of Buddhism have evolved in the last 2,500 years, and what I just described is not necessarily how all Buddhists would explain their foundational beliefs – especially when it comes to the concept of nirvana, or the emphasis on transmigration.



Embree, Ainslie T.   Sources of Indian Tradition, Second Edition.  Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. (Original copyright 1958.)
Mitchell, Donald and Sarah Jacoby. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku.  Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction.  Fifth Edition.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Snelling, John.  The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996.


Arising of Buddhism Part 1: Historical and Religious Context in India

Arising of Buddhism Part 1: Historical and Religious Context in India

This is the first episode in my “Buddhist History and Seminal Texts” series. I discuss the historical and religious context for the beginnings of Buddhism in India around 500 BCE. I give you a brief overview of the history of civilization in India, and a sense of the dominant religious traditions of northern India from around 2000 BCE through the time of the Buddha. Then I describe the period of social and economic changes starting around 800 BCE that apparently paved the way for new schools of religious thought and practice, including Buddhism.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Ancient Civilizations in Northern India [2:25]
The Religion of the Aryans and the Vedas [4:49]
Vedic Brahmanism [9:39]
The Upanishads [12:26]
A Time of Great Social, Economic, and Political Change: 800-500 BCE [17:30]
The Doctrine of Transmigration [19:08]
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects [24:22]

Ancient Civilizations in Northern India

Buddhism arose in north-central India in the 500s BCE, and there had probably been human civilization in the region for couple thousand years. In northwestern India, archeological evidence from what’s called the “Indus Valley Civilization” suggests these ancient peoples employed agriculture, trade, and the domestication of animals to form large, highly organized cities. The items left from this civilization that are assumed to have religious significance include many fertility symbols, and as a whole they suggest the people worshiped many deities.

The Indus Valley Civilization appeared to have lasted for over a thousand years, but eventually entered a period of decline around 1700 BCE. The decline may have been due to changing environmental conditions that decreased the productivity of their agriculture and therefore made the large cities less viable, but it probably also had something to do with the arrival of the Aryans, beginning as early as 2000 BCE.

The Aryans were nomadic, cattle-herding tribes from central Asia, who may have been wandering in search of good grazing land. “Aryan” was the term they used to identify themselves, and probably referred to the kingdom or area from which they originated. (Although the Aryans were lighter-skinned than the natives they encountered when they arrived in India, it’s only in recent history that this term has been appropriated by some to refer to race as opposed to a specific ethnicity.)

Over the course of several hundred years, successive waves of emigrating Aryan tribes came to dominate northern India. Many historians believe they held an advantage when they inevitably clashed with native peoples because the Aryans had developed the battle chariot. The Aryans also brought with them a three-part system of hereditary social classes – priests, warriors, and cultivators – that defined one’s role in the society. These three divisions eventually evolved into the 4-part Indian caste system.

The Religion of the Aryans and the Vedas

The Aryans also brought their highly-developed religion. They worshipped a pantheon of gods similar in some ways to ancient Greek and Roman ones. Aryan gods included Indra (warrior and king), Agni (fire god, priest of the gods, and the god of priests), and Varuna (administrator of cosmic law).

We know about the Aryan religion because of the religious texts they composed called the “Vedas.” “Veda” meant “knowledge,” and this collection of texts included mythical stories of the gods and hymns in their praise, instructions for elaborate ritual, and philosophical treatises. The Vedas are a vast and varied body of work composed between 1500 and around 600 BCE, so clearly many of them originated on Indian soil.

To give you a taste of the older Vedas, I’ll share part of a creation myth from Rig Veda, as translated by R.N. Dandekar in Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition. In it, a celestial being called Purusha offers himself for ritual sacrifice, and all of creation arises out of his body. Sacrifice and ritual was central to the Vedic religion, so it seems appropriate that this is what occurs in their creation myth. Also, note this is the earliest textual reference to four social classes: the brahman (or brahmin – priests, or literally pray-ers), the rajanya (warriors or rulers, later known as ksatriya), the vaishyas (merchants and landowners), and the shudra (laborers or servants). In this scriptural story, each social class arises from a different part of Purusha’s body. This myth had a great influence on the evolution of the caste system, because it states there are real, fundamental differences between the classes based on mystical provenance and physical lineage – and of course, the higher your origin on Purusha’s body, the better:

“The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, [the gods] sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation, the gods performed the sacrifice…

From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.

From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep…

His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra were born.

The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.

From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth, from the two feet was born the earth and the [cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds…” (From Rg Veda 10.90, translated by R.N. Dandekar, in Embree 1988)

Vedic texts were memorized and passed down orally by men in the priestly social class. Brahmins also conducted the requisite rituals, often involving fire and animal sacrifice, in order to intercede with the gods on behalf of their clients. These rituals and other priestly rites were also passed from father to son.

Vedic Brahmanism

The Vedic-based religion of the Aryans continued to develop on Indian soil, and eventually evolved into what historians call “Vedic Brahmanism.” New texts continued to be added to the Vedas as late as first century BCE, although some the newer texts added after about 600 or 500 BCE as adjuncts to the more ancient, core Vedas.

Over time, Vedic Brahmanism began to emphasize a particular aspect of the older Vedas: the idea that there is a cosmic law governing the whole universe, including gods, nature, and humankind. Vedic ritual reflected and harnessed that cosmic law – which meant properly performed ritual actually had power. Rather than simply appeasing gods, ritual and sacrifice could actually coerce them into behaving the way you wanted them to, because even the gods had to obey cosmic law. Naturally, this inspired the brahmans to emphasize the magical potency of their prayers, rituals, and spells – and thereby increase their own wealth and power.

Fascination with this kind of ritual power was probably part of the motivation behind the composition of new Vedic texts, Brahmanas, starting around 800 BCE. These were speculative and ritual texts, most of which were concerned with orthopraxy, or rules for correct liturgical and ethical conduct.

Eventually, curiosity about the cosmic principle underlying everything led to even newer philosophical texts. Of particular interest was the fact that ritually “naming” something – which required you to know its true name, or nature – was believed to give you access to it, or power over it. Therefore, if you knew the nature of the cosmic principle, it could give you immense power. Significantly, the next group of texts composed were the Aranyakas, or “forest books” – so named because they were probably the work of world-renouncing hermits who lived in the forest. The Aranyakas discussed the symbolic meaning of rituals, and implied that awareness of the meaning of a ritual was, in some ways, more important than its physical enactment.

The Upanishads

After the Aranyakas came the Upanishads, the last body of texts associated with the Vedic tradition. The Upanishads were composed over a long period between about 800 BCE and the first century BCE. Religious sects developed that were based primarily on the Upanishads, and they continue to this day. They view the Upanishads as being the final stage, or culmination, of the Vedic teachings, and therefore call their practice Vedanta, or “end of the Veda.”

The word “upanishad” meant “to sit near,” implying that these teachings were passed in-person from spiritual masters to their students. The Upanishads contain a wide variety of teachings, a diversity of opinions, and numerous contradictions. However, R.N. Dandekar (in Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition) writes that many of the texts examine older Vedic ideas and try to create “a more coherent view of the universe and man.”

Describing several themes that occur in the Upanishads will give you a sense of them, and of the religious tradition that grew out of them:

  1. There exists a Unity or Oneness out of which everything arose, which is referred to as Brahman (written with a capital B, not the same as the word for priest)
  2. Within the person is a true Self, called atman, which at advanced levels of spiritual mastery one realizes is identical with Brahman
  3. The apparent duality and separation the world is, in a certain sense, illusory
  4. “Spiritual” or “inner” sacrifice matters as much, if not more, than “material” or “outer” sacrifice
  5. Spiritual knowledge and understanding were more important than external behaviors, particularly the enactment of ritual and other orthopraxy

In this history series, I always like to give you an experience of the seminal – or important and influential – texts we encounter along the way, so here’s a brief excerpt from the Chandogya Upanishad. In it, a young man named Shvetaketu “lived the disciplined life of a student of sacred knowledge” for over ten years, but still didn’t understand the nature of the true Self. He returns home – and it turns out his father knew the answer all the time. Shvetaketu’s father explains:

“…in the beginning this world was being alone, one only, without a second. Being thought to itself: ‘May I be many; may I procreate.’ It produced fire. That fire thought to itself: ‘May I be many, may I procreate.’ It produced water… That water thought to itself: ‘May I be many; may I procreate.’ It produced food… That divinity [Being] thought to itself: ‘Well, having entered into these three divinities [fire, water, and food] by means of this living Self, let me develop names and forms.” [the phenomenal world]

Then Shvetaketu’s father demonstrates why his son can’t directly perceive that divinity, or Being, which produced everything. The father instructs the son to dissolve salt in water, and then asks the son to bring him the salt. The son answers that he can’t, because the salt has been dissolved. However, when asked to take a sip of the water, the son admits it tastes salty, and he thinks to himself, “That salt, though unperceived, persists in the water.” His father explains:

“‘Verily, my dear, you do not perceive Being in this world; but it is, indeed, here only: That which is the subtle essence – this whole world has that essence for its Self. That is the Real. That is the Self. That are thou, Shvetaketu.’” (From Chandogya Upanishad, 6.1-3, 12-14, translated by R.N. Dandekar, in Embree 1988)

A Time of Great Social, Economic, and Political Change: 800-500 BCE

The next stage in the development of Indian religion takes place within a society experiencing significant social, economic, and political change. Iron age technology appeared as early as 800 BCE. This technology allowed efficient clearing of wide tracts of land for agriculture, and a significant increase in agricultural productivity with use of the iron plow. Fewer people had to devote themselves to farming, leading to the development of more and larger cities, increased trade, and a prosperous merchant class. The general prosperity meant even the peasants and laborers probably enjoyed lives that were relatively comfortable compared with those of the lower classes at other times in Indian history.

Traditional tribal structures began to break down, and the age-old reverence for older forms of authority were questioned. Whereas Indian society has previously been divided into smaller tribes or clans ruled by aristocratic or religious elites, ambitious kings supported by the merchant class, property owners, bureaucracies, and armies began absorbing smaller groups and consolidating their power. By the time of the Buddha in the 500s BCE, countless tribes and clans in central and northwestern India had been incorporated into approximately 16 city-states.

The Doctrine of Transmigration

These social, economic, and political changes in northern India between the 700s and 500s BCE were more or less concurrent with the spread of the doctrine of transmigration. This teaching first appeared in the early Upanishads, and subsequently had a profound influence on almost all native Indian religious traditions. The doctrine of transmigration held that beings are reborn in the world after they die. Some soul or essence of individuality passes from a dying body into a new embryo or fetus, and is born into another life. This process of birth, death, and rebirth was believed to extend into the past and future for incalculably long periods of time. Previously, people in most religious traditions believed in various kinds of permanent afterlife conditions you would experience after only one lifetime.

When the teaching of transmigration first appeared, it was presented as an esoteric instruction for advanced disciples, and was presented in a mostly positive light. However, the idea of transmigration quickly became fairly pessimistic: Everything you gain in this lifetime will eventually be lost, and upon rebirth you’ll have to start all over again. Because of your ignorance of past lives, you repeat the same mistakes over and over. Your circumstances may be favorable in this lifetime, but you might end up extremely miserable and unlucky in the next. You’ll have to experience all the difficult aspects of human existence – disease, old age, death, loss – over and over again, infinitely many times.

Why did the doctrine of transmigration arise? As mentioned earlier, social upheavals of the time may have led to existential unease that was reflected in the transitory, unstable worldview of transmigration. Alternatively, or in addition, transmigration may have been part of a deliberate departure from the strict Brahmanical tradition, or it may have been an idea long present in the lower classes that eventually caught on with the elites. My favorite theory is that belief in transmigration coincided with the birth of Indian astronomy: After observing the movements of planets, astronomers recognized incomprehensibly long, repetitive cycles. Perhaps this shifted the society’s view of time and space, and human beings suddenly seemed relatively small and powerless within the inexorable heavenly revolutions?

Whatever brought about the concept of transmigration, the teaching caught on quickly and spread. By the time Buddhism arose in the 500s BCE, transmigration was widely assumed to be the way the world worked. Non-Brahmanical religions became obsessed with understanding the mechanisms of rebirth and how to influence the kind of circumstances you could expect to experience in your next life. The process of causation affecting your fortune in this life and the next was called karma, which literally means “action” or “deed.” Negative karma contributed to an unfortunate rebirth, while positive karma helped ensure you would be reborn in circumstances conducive to happiness.

Spiritual teachers and seekers of the time also began to conceive of a permanent, timeless state of being that could be attained through rigorous spiritual practice. In other words, escape from the cycle of transmigration entirely was presented as a higher – and ultimately more desirable – spiritual goal than simply working for a good rebirth. For example, later Upanishadic teachings focused on practices that would cleanse, overcome, or destroy your karma entirely and allow you to fully realize and internalize the unity of atman (the true Self within) and Brahman (the One, or Ultimate Reality, from which everything arose). Once you realized this, you would be liberated from the cycle of transmigration.

(Note: The practices employed by followers of the Upanishads to achieve realization or liberation were called yoga, which literally meant “yoke,” “bond,” or “restraint.” The term described a mental or physical discipline undertaken for spiritual development. In the West, the term “yoga” is primarily associated with practice of physical postures for health, but in the yogic tradition such posture are just one of many kinds of disciplines.)

The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects

Part of the religious response to changing social conditions at this time in India was the growth and proliferation of alternative religious movements, or sects. I will describe these movements in the next episode, but as a teaser I’ll tell you the four main spiritual questions they were concerned with:

  • Did the individual transmigrate through multiple lifetimes?
  • If individuals did transmigrate, could they affect their future rebirths? In other words, was there such a thing as karma, or the law of moral cause and effect?
  • If there was such a thing as karma, how did it work, and what could people do to increase their chances of happiness in future lives?
  • Assuming both transmigration and karma, is there anything people could do to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely?

Each new religious sect had their own answers to these questions, and learning about them will help give you context for the Buddha’s take on transmigration, karma, and liberation. See the next episode for the continuation of the story!



Embree, Ainslie T.   Sources of Indian Tradition, Second Edition.  Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. (Original copyright 1958.)
Mitchell, Donald and Sarah Jacoby. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku.  Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction.  Fifth Edition.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Snelling, John.  The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996.


Zazen Part 2: How to Deal with Thinking, Stay Engaged, and Maintain a Practice

Zazen Part 2: How to Deal with Thinking, Stay Engaged, and Maintain a Practice

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to listen to Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part One: What Zazen Is and How to Do It before this episode.

In this episode, I cover how to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s essentially doing nothing, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen
Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting
“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy
Having Something to Do in Zazen
Returning to Our Natural State
Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen

If you’ve tried zazen (or any other kind of meditation), you’ll know that even if you really want to meditate, and you fully intend to be present without agenda for the whole period of meditation, you’re still liable to get caught up in thinking – usually many, many times over the course of a meditation period. What can you do about it?

In zazen, when we realize we’ve been caught up in thinking, we try not to react at all. We just return to wholeheartedly sitting. A classic analogy for this is trying to hold a bowl of water very still. If you shake, or the wind blows, the water will be disturbed, but there’s nothing you can actively do to make the water calm again. Any motion you make, like patting the surface of the water, will only make things worse; the only thing you can do is hold still. Stimulus-independent thinking is like the turbulence in the water, and absorbing yourself in just sitting is like holding the bowl still. Patting the surface of the water is analogous to evaluating your meditation and mulling over how to improve it, feeling frustrated with your mind or with yourself, judging thinking as being bad, or even trying to hold your mind on something in rigid way in order to brace yourself against stimulus-independent thinking.

Another analogy – one that works better for some people – is sitting on the shore of a river with the intention of simply relaxing enjoying the scenery. As you sit, boats pass by on the river. You enjoy just watching, but every once in a while you get excited, jump on one of the boats, and ride away on it. In this analogy, simply sitting and experiencing is zazen, the boats are your thoughts, and jumping on a boat is getting “carried away” by your thoughts. Even if there are lots of boats going by on the river (thoughts passing through your mind), that doesn’t have to disrupt your intention. And when you find that you’ve ridden a boat for a while, you just get out and return to your spot by the river.

The second you realize you’ve been caught up in thinking, that’s great – you’re no longer caught up! You’ve woken up to what’s happening in the present! Even if you had totally forgotten you were even meditating, even if you spent 15 minutes planning an elaborate meal you want to cook next week, simply be grateful that you remembered your intention to meditate and let go of past as quickly as possible. Forget about your previous mind-wandering as if it doesn’t matter at all, and throw your energy into just sitting. It may seem like it will help to strain harder, feel regret, or try to figure out what’s wrong with your zazen, but those things just make it worse.

This “forget about it and keep sitting” approach may seem foolhardy – as if you’re working on a practice but forbidden how to learn how to get better at it. But zazen isn’t ordinary effort; it’s more about not doing than doing. When you realize you’ve been doing (thinking, striving) all you can do is not do. More doing (such as thinking about how to meditate better) isn’t going to help at all.

It’s often observed in Zen that our brain keeps generating thoughts like a gland produces hormones. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a problem for our zazen. It can be frustrating, but in practice, the moment of letting go – of realizing you were off in la-la land, letting go of worrying about that, and just returning to the simple act of wholeheartedly sitting – is quite relaxing and profound. If you can do this just a few times over the course of a meditation period, it is very beneficial.

Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting

Part of the reason your mind wanders during zazen is because your mental habit of engaging in stimulus-independent thinking is very strong. I described stimulus-independent thinking in the last episode; basically, it’s thinking unrelated to what you’re experiencing at a given moment, and you’re liable to engage in stimulus-independent thinking whenever you’re not actively engaged in a task or being entertained.

As we sit zazen, we’re very inclined to think, “Eh, nothing is happening,” or “I know what’s going to happen next, I’ve experienced this a million times,” or “I don’t really need my mind for a task this simple.” Then we check out and think about other things.

How can you keep yourself mentally engaged in just sitting? To some extent, you need to answer this question for yourself, through the process of trial and error. What motivates me to pay attention may be something different than what motivates you. But think about it – there are certain times and tasks where you don’t have any trouble at all paying attention. When you find something interesting, exciting, unexpected, pleasurable, challenging, or useful, you naturally concentrate on it.

The traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment is to contemplate impermanence. You’re aware, intellectually, that your life may end at any time and everything you love is slowly but surely (or not so slowly) changing. If you allow yourself to contemplate this reality deeply (without getting morbid or depressing yourself), this very moment ends up seeming much more interesting and valuable than it usually does. Imagine the attention and appreciation you would give to your direct experience if you knew this was your last day on earth! Even things you usually think are boring or even annoying would be strangely precious.

It may also be helpful to think of your act of paying attention to your present experience in zazen as an act of devotion. We usually filter all of our experiences through our self-concern. We think, “Is what’s going on relevant to me? Is it pleasurable, or is there some advantage I can gain by paying attention?” We tend to tune things out or anticipate things based on our self-interest, and neglect working on our ability to be aware and present with whatever life is bringing us at this moment. Your life is sacred – in the sense that it’s worthy of great respect and reverence – just as it is. Each moment of it has value in and of itself, regardless of how it contributes to your overall goals and desires. Spending time in zazen is an acknowledgment of that fact.

“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy

Unfortunately, when doing shikantaza, it’s easy to fall into the trap of complacency or dullness. If we’re really just sitting – not even hoping to feel calm, happy, thought-free, or whatever – we’re inclined to check out. Rather than being taut with energy and interest, living this moment as if our life may end tomorrow, we go slack. Our bodies remain propped up in the seated posture but we daydream or tune out.

The good thing is, just physically sitting there still has benefits! I fell asleep every time I sat zazen for the first several years I practiced it. Let me assure you, I was not doing anything the least bit useful on the meditation cushion! Strangely, the practice of zazen still made a big difference in my life. Go figure! This leads me to believe that regardless of how focused our meditation is, it’s deeply transformative to take some time every day – or every few days – to literally put everything else aside and, at least technically, just sit.

That said, deepening your zazen can make it more enjoyable, and it can also help you gain insight into your life. In an essay on zazen, twelfth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen wrote, “Mindful of the passing of time, engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.” That is, sit as if your hair is on fire and wholehearted zazen is the only way to put it out. (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi) How you do “nothing but sit” with that kind of energy and determination?

In order to deepen your zazen, you have to find a way to grasp your will without bringing an agenda into your sitting. It’s very tricky, but you need to make great effort without ruining your zazen by trying to make something happen or trying to get something out of it.

Having Something to Do in Zazen

It helps us as human beings to have something to do – some place to put our effort and energy, or some direction to aim. In shikantaza we are trying to do nothing, so in a sense we can put great effort into trying to do less and less and less. Our “just sitting” can get more and more refined as we recognize all the subtle ways we’re still separating ourselves from our direct experience, or still clinging to agendas and concepts, and let them go.

However, it’s usually not very motivating to tell yourself to “do less.” That might work for you – go ahead and try it! For me, the invitation to “do less” invites me to let up on my effort and go slack.

Here’s another, somewhat more positive or proactive way to channel your effort: Can you sink below the level of thinking and become aware of your direct experience of each and every moment, without wavering? So you don’t miss a thing? Not one sound, or sensation, or passing thought?

Sinking below the level of thinking is not dullness, where your awareness is dispersed or sleepy and you don’t really even notice what you’re doing. Rather, to sink below thinking is to pay attention to your somatic experience of sitting there, using your faculty of awareness. Your ability to be aware in this way doesn’t depend on thinking at all. The great thing is, as long as you’re aware in this way and not caught up in thinking, you don’t care about agendas or the passage of time. If you can settle into that way of being, you don’t need to motivate yourself to pay attention. You just are, in a very vital, calm, present, appreciative way.

In Zen practice, we aim to become more and more familiar with this aware-but-not-thinking way of being, which is zazen itself. We aim to be able and willing to rest here for longer and longer periods of time. And yet – and this is tough! – we aim without creating an agenda, without conceiving of a goal (such as, “I want to spend x amount of time in this state each meditation period,” or even, “I want to spend more and more time in this state”). When we create an agenda or conceive of a goal – as much sense as that seems to make, as tempting as it might be – we just create obstacles to zazen.

I know, it’s crazy. To deepen our zazen we have to try really hard (as if our hair is on fire!), aim to sink below the level of thinking, and then stay there, aware of our direct experience without missing a moment – but we can’t care how well we’re doing at this task!

Returning to Our Natural State

Zazen is difficult, but not for the reasons we think. We think it’s difficult because we’re not trying hard enough, or we’re haven’t figured out the right way to do it yet. But it’s difficult precisely because in zazen we’re aiming to return to a natural state of simple, open awareness.

Issho Fujita sensei (see the show notes for a link to his writings on zazen) offers this analogy: Imagine you’re holding a bamboo stick by the ends and then applying pressure so the stick bends. If you want to allow the stick to return to its natural state, all you have to do is release the pressure you’re applying. This bent state is our ordinary way of operating; we think it’s the way we have to be, the way things need to be, but it isn’t true. Our conscious efforts, self-interest, and discriminative thinking are extra things we add to our experience, like bending the bamboo stick. In order to allow our minds to return to a natural state of awareness, all we need to do is relax the extra effort we’re making.

But we all know it’s not so easy to “relax” or “be natural!” Habits are strong. For example, what happens when someone tells you to breathe naturally? It becomes more difficult to breathe naturally! So relaxing into our natural state of open awareness is not so easy for us. This is why zazen is difficult and requires almost Herculean effort – but not our usual kind of effort. If we strive harder, if we try to make something happen (or not happen), we are just applying more pressure to the bamboo stick. A significant part of our Herculean effort is becoming more and more subtly attuned to our experience so we can begin to recognize the extra things we are adding to our experience, and learn to let them go.

Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

First, where and when should you do zazen, and for how long? Generally speaking, it’s best to do it in a quiet, private space that’s not too warm or too cold. Your surroundings definitely don’t have to be silent, but it can be difficult to do zazen, especially if you’re a beginner, if you can overhear music, television, or conversations. In terms of timing, ideally you can find a time of day when you’re not too tired, and you won’t be interrupted. If you’re busy you may not have a lot of choice about when you do zazen, so just do your best. A daily meditation period of 30-40 minutes – or even longer – is ideal, but this is like exercise: Better to do a little of it than not to do it at all because you think you don’t have the time! Even 5-10 minutes a few times a week is good.

Second, don’t worry too much about whether you’re doing zazen “right.” An incredibly important part of the process of zazen is getting to know your own, unique mind and how you can manage to get yourself to settle below the level of thinking for a while. We keep learning about, developing, and strengthening our zazen over a lifetime. In this sense, zazen is like a martial art or some other kind of discipline – there are many levels of mastery, but the practice of the art is valuable all the way along. If you do your best and engage it with energy and curiosity, there’s no way to do it “wrong.”

Third, consider sitting zazen with others, if you live anywhere near a meditation group. Just as a gym membership or regular yoga class can keep you exercising, participation in a group can help motivate you and keep you practicing. Also, most groups have a teacher you can ask about your zazen; most of us who practice it regularly need some personal guidance. If you don’t live anywhere near a teacher, feel free to send your questions to me through Zen Studies Podcast website!

Finally, your conscious evaluation of your meditation – whether you’re good at it, or whether it makes you feel calm, or whether you like it – doesn’t matter all that much. Zazen affects you at many different levels, including physical and subconscious. The best thing is to make a regular practice of it and see what difference it makes in your life.



Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part 1: What Zazen Is and How to Do It

Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part 1: What Zazen Is and How to Do It

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

What Is Zazen? [1:10] When the Body Sits but the Mind Wanders [3:56] The Practice of Being Present [5:44] Physical Posture: Why It’s So Important [8:20] Spinal Position Is the Most Important Thing [10:46] Sitting on a Cushion, Bench, or Chair [13:10] Position of the Arms, Hands, Eyes, and Mouth [15:56] Staying Still and Dealing with Discomfort [17:47] Finally, What Do You Do with Your Mind in Zazen? [19:46]

What Is Zazen?

The term zazen comes from Japanese. It’s usually translated as “seated meditation;” “za” means seated (or sitting), and “zen” means meditation. Zazen is the central practice of the Zen school of Buddhism, which originated in China in the 4th and 5th centuries (where it was called Ch’an; for more, refer to my first episode, “How Zen Fits into the Context of Buddhism as a Whole”).

Buddhism began with the practice of meditation – Shakyamuni Buddha achieved his enlightenment through meditation over 2,500 years ago, and the practice of it was central to his teachings – but over the millennia, certain Buddhist schools have emphasized other kinds of practices, such as textual study, devotion, or ritual. The Ch’an, or Zen, school is a type of Buddhism that very deliberately takes meditation as its central practice.

There are two different kinds of zazen. The one I will be discussing here is called shikantaza, or “just sitting.” The other kind of zazen is “koan introspection,” where you focus your meditation on a traditional teaching story, or koan. If you’re interested in koan introspection, a practice typically associated with the Rinzai school of Zen, I recommend the book Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection, edited by John Daido Loori. (Ultimately, I don’t think there’s as much difference between koan introspection and shikantaza as it might first appear, but I won’t go into that more here because it’s a big topic.)

Back to shikantaza: A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen offers this translation of the term: “nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za).” Nothing but precisely sitting. When we’re doing shikantaza perfectly, we’re just sitting there. Really. If you’re anything like me, even when someone tells you this, you’ll still think in the back of your mind that there must be something else – something special – going on in Zen meditation. But no, it really is just sitting.

But what does this mean? If you’ve tried any meditation, you know that “doing nothing but precisely sitting” is not as simple as it sounds. (Note: From here on out, I’ll simply refer to shikantaza as “zazen.”)

When the Body Sits but the Mind Wanders

Usually our minds are wandering. While trying to do zazen, our bodies may be “just sitting” there, but our minds are on just about anything except sitting. In modern psychological research, this mind-wandering is called “stimulus-independent thinking” – thinking that has little or nothing to do with any stimulus you are receiving from your environment in the moment. You make plans, mull over memories, imagine future scenarios, and analyze – it’s really quite remarkable the kinds of complicated, abstract things the human mind can contemplate. For example, you can imagine what might have gone on in the mind of your friend if you had responded differently to her last week. You can design and execute a whole project in your head!

Research has shown that when you’re not engaged in an absorbing activity or being actively entertained, your mind uses what you see as “spare time” to engage in stimulus-independent thinking. We spend so much time doing this, psychologists have dubbed this our “default mode.”

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with stimulus-independent thinking. However, sometimes our habits of thought become so strong that we can’t disengage from them even when they’re dysfunctional, repetitive, or stressful. For example, has anyone ever told you something like, “It isn’t worth worrying about?” but you can’t stop worrying anyway? In addition, when your mind is wandering, you miss what’s going on around you. It’s difficult to fully appreciate your everyday life when you’re always thinking about something else.

The Practice of Being Present

In his famous book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” Thich Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

In a way, we practice zazen in order to gain some freedom from the habit of stimulus-independent thinking we’ve developed and strengthened over a lifetime – that is, thinking about the past, future, abstractions, or somewhere else instead of directly experiencing our lives right here, right now. For the period of time that we’ve devoted to our zazen, however long it is, we aspire to sit in appreciative simplicity. This actually ends up being a very challenging practice.

Ironically, we naturally knew how to do this when we were kids! At some point, we were young and simple enough to sit in some sunny spot somewhere, with no agenda at all, just enjoying our direct experience. We weren’t planning what to do next, analyzing what happened last week, evaluating how likeable or successful we were as people, or imagining exciting alternative scenarios. We were hardly aware of the passage of time, and we certainly weren’t congratulating ourselves on how well we were “just being present in the moment.”

Significantly, Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have chosen the style of meditation he would use to attain enlightenment when he recalled a natural meditative state he spontaneously entered into when – you got it! – he was a child, sitting under a tree, waiting for his father to finish working (Maha-Saccaka Sutta). He had learned and practiced many styles of meditation, but in the end, he decided to return to the simple, profound method he naturally experienced when he was a kid.

So, how do you do zazen?

Physical Posture: Why It’s So Important

Zazen instructions usually start with physical posture. This isn’t because we’re picky about exactly how you look when you’re meditating, or because there’s something magical about a particular posture (although it does matter). We emphasize physical posture for two reasons: 1) we want you to be comfortable and not hate meditation; 2) zazen is a somatic practice.

Just Sitting

I use the term “somatic” in the sense it is used in the field of somatics, which includes various kinds of what is sometimes called “body work,” including yoga and Alexander Technique. In the field of somatics, the word “soma” refers to the body as experienced from within, as contrasted with the concept of the “body” as a physical object that can be observed from the outside, or directed to move by a separate entity called the “mind.” “Somatic” in this context means focused on your experience of soma, or tuned into your experience as an embodied being. For more on zazen as a somatic practice, see the writings of Rev. Issho Fujita, a Japanese Zen priest and teacher who first inspired me to think about zazen this way.

To translate this in terms of zazen: When we practice shikantaza, or just precisely sitting, we are wholly engaged in the activity of sitting, including all of our imagined “parts:” body, mind, heart, volition, etc. Body and mind are not actually separate; in zazen we don’t settle our body into a physical posture like a lump of clay and then leave it there while we engage in some meditative technique with our minds. Sitting is our meditation, so when we describe zazen posture, we regard each aspect of it as very central to the practice.

Physical Posture: Spinal Position Is the Most Important Thing

When you sit, the most important thing is not – as many people believe – getting down on the floor. By far the most important thing is to sit with the correct spinal position, even if it means you need to sit on a meditation bench or chair.

Spinal Position in Zazen

The correct spinal position is one where your spine and neck are straight and erect. Imagine the top of your skull is suspended from the ceiling by a string, and then let your vertebrae hang naturally in a row, so you end up with a sense of your spine being elongated but not stiff. There will usually be a slight concave curve in your lower back, and your chin will be slightly tucked instead of jutting out. Your ears will be lined up with your shoulders.

You can discover the right spinal position for you by playing around with the position of your pelvis. Keep the bottom of your pelvis (your “sit bones”) on the seat of your cushion or chair, and tilt your pelvis backwards. If you tilt far enough back, you’ll notice you slouch, your neck bends, and your chin juts out. Now tilt your pelvis way forward. You’ll notice you back gets over-extended and stiff, your chest sticks out, and your neck stiffens backwards. The right position for you is perfectly in between these two extremes; you can rock your pelvis forward and back using smaller and smaller motions until you find it; it shouldn’t take much muscular effort to remain there.

Achieving the correct spinal position is much easier if you are sitting with your knees at least a little bit lower than your hips. This tilts your pelvis forward just a little, and makes it much less likely that you’ll slouch. Classic meditation postures on a cushion on the floor involve a fair amount of flexibility; your sit bones end up on the raised cushion, but your knees ideally reach the floor. If you sit down on a cushion and your knees stick up in the air, I strongly encourage you to sit in a chair instead! Your spinal position is much more important than sitting on the floor.

Physical Posture: Sitting on a Cushion, Bench, or Chair

When people do meditate on the floor, they typically use firm, round cushions to sit on. In Zen these are called zafus (z-a-f-u) and you can buy them online (they work much better than a pillow or couch cushion because they are round and very firm). You sit on the very front edge of the cushion so it doesn’t press against the back of your legs and restrict blood flow or pinch nerves. All the cushion does is elevate your pelvis above your knees, tilting you forward just bit so it’s easier to sit up straight.

Then cross your legs in front of you, but not in the way people usually do, with both feet tucked underneath (See illustrations). If you sit like that, one of your legs is pressing down hard on the other and the bottom leg will usually go to sleep if you sit for longer than a few minutes. Instead, place one of your feet either on the calf (quarter lotus position) or the thigh of the opposite leg (half lotus position); this creates a space for your second foot to be tucked underneath without getting smushed. You can also simply place one leg in front of the other, so your calves are parallel and neither leg is on top of the other (Burmese position).

You can also sit on a kneeling meditation bench, or seiza bench. They’re 6-10 inches high, and you use one by kneeling with your knees close together, placing the bench over your ankles like a little bridge, and then sitting down on it. They are very popular with meditators – they don’t require as much flexibility as sitting on cushion does, and they make sure your knees are lower than your pelvis and that you’re sitting nice and straight.

Don’t hesitate to sit in a chair if you don’t feel comfortable on a cushion or a bench. When you sit in a chair, you would ideally not lean against the back of the chair, and would place something on the chair, if necessary, so your pelvis still ends up slightly higher than your knees. This is because the same guidelines about the spine apply when you’re sitting in a chair. If you need the support of the back of the chair, make sure you’re still sitting upright. Many chairs cause you to lean slightly backwards; if this is the case with your chair, put a cushion behind your back.

Whatever you’re sitting on, make sure you’re not leaning over to one side; it can help to rock back and forth in smaller and smaller motions until you’re centered and balanced. Then take a full breath of air and feel your spine, back, and chest expand. Let out the air, but don’t allow your body to shrink down; keep that expansive, energized feeling.

Physical Posture: Position of the Arms, Hands, Eyes, and Mouth

Hold your arms loosely at your sides, without slouching or squeezing the shoulder blades together too much. Rest your hands together in your lap; place your dominant hand on the bottom, palm facing up and fingers pointing toward the opposite side of the body; place your other hand in the palm of the first hand, using the same position – palm facing up and fingers pointing toward the opposite hand. Touch the thumbs of each hand to each other, touching lightly, so the hands form a little oval shape (see pictures).

Traditionally, we keep the eyes open in zazen and face something that’s not too distracting, like a wall or an open area of floor. This helps you stay alert and present. Some people are surprised by this and say that closing their eyes helps them concentrate, but in zazen we’re simply trying to be fully present in our act of sitting, not enter into some kind of altered state. As long as you’re not facing anything too distracting (like a bunch of books, or a mess, or a scene with lots of activity), it’s good to try to keep your eyes open in zazen, at least most of the time. You can allow your eyelids to gently lower about 1/3 of the way so your eyes don’t water too much, and keep your gaze angled down at about a 45-degree angle. As much as possible, keep the eyes fixed on one spot instead of letting them move around (although allow your gaze to be soft and unfocused, so you don’t wear your eyes out staring at one spot).

If you can breathe through your nose, that’s best; then you don’t have to worry about salivating and swallowing. If you need to keep your mouth open a little, though, that’s fine. Allow yourself to breathe naturally; in zazen we do not try to change our breathing pattern.

Legs Crossed Incorrectly

Quarter Lotus Position

Half Lotus Position

Burmese Position

Sitting on a Seiza Bench

Sitting on a Chair without Leaning Back

Sitting on a Chair If You Need Support for Your Back

Physical Posture: Staying Still and Dealing with Discomfort

In zazen, you want to stay as still as possible. Mind and body are not really two separate things, and when you physically fidget, which means reacting in some muted way to restlessness or discomfort – your mind will fidget too! Rather than staying absorbed in the activity of just sitting, your mind jump into stimulus-independent thinking. On the other hand, if you can sit still through minor physical discomfort, you also strengthen your ability to remain calm through mental or emotional discomfort.

This may seem like a lot of emphasis on physical posture, but remember that mind and body are not actually separate. In ideal zazen posture, we upright, calm, and dignified. We don’t lean toward anything or back away from anything, and for a time we give up trying to accomplish anything. Just sitting this way for a while has a profound effect on you.

How do you deal with physical discomfort during zazen? It’s sad to think how many people have given up on zazen or other kinds of meditation because it is physically uncomfortable! Don’t let this be the case with you. If you don’t like zazen, fine – but there is almost always a way for you to adjust your sitting so you don’t experience too much pain. A good rule of thumb is to think of a stoplight: Green is no pain, which of course is fine; yellow is the kind of discomfort you experience when you try something new, or give yourself a good workout, and for the most part yellow is fine, too. Red, however, is real pain – especially pain that seems to be caused by the meditation posture and lasts after you get up. Don’t make yourself experience red – talk to a meditation or yoga teacher about ways to change your meditation posture.

Finally, What Do You Do with Your Mind in Zazen?

Having discussed physical aspects of zazen, we come at last to the question of what you should do with your “mind” in zazen. As I was discussing earlier, in zazen – at least in shikantaza, just sitting – our only task is to sit with our whole body and mind, without dividing our experience up into categories like “mind” and “body.” Practically speaking, what that means is that you try to pay attention to your direct, somatic experience of sitting. Fortunately, this isn’t as boring as it might sound.

Maintaining the correct meditation posture is actually an ongoing process rather than a static thing, so you can always be aware of the position of your body. While sitting, you continue breathing, and perceiving with all of your senses – sights, sounds, smells, sensations… Anything you experience while doing zazen is part of your sitting experience, including the thoughts and feelings that pass through your mind as you sit! However, what you try to do in zazen is rest in your direct experience of things while remaining still; you refrain from mentally grabbing on to things that interest or attract you, or mentally pushing away or arguing with things you’d rather not experience. You let everything come and go as you continue just sitting.

Most meditation techniques involve mentally concentrating on something, so in this sense we don’t employ a meditation technique in zazen. You might call concentrating on “just sitting” a technique, but ideally when you do zazen, you engage sitting as wholehearted, undivided activity. As much as possible, you let go of a sense of separation between the “you” who is meditating, the “mind” which is being disciplined by concentrating on what the body is doing, and the “body” which is being concentrated on. It’s all you, and you’re just sitting.

Also, in shikantaza we don’t concentrate on any one aspect of our experience, even our breathing (which is a classic meditative object in many contemplative traditions). We let everything be part of our experience as a whole. However, it’s fine if you find yourself wanting to choose one thing to pay attention to, like the breath, or sound, if being aware of “your experience as a whole” seems too vague or challenging. If you concentrate very deeply on one aspect of your experience, you’ll eventually discover that you can’t actually separate it from everything else – that there’s no fixed boundary around it – and that the experience of it is one of ever-changing flow. At some point it may feel natural to let your awareness open up to include everything.


Now Give Zazen a Try!

I hope that’s enough to encourage you to give zazen a try! Just find a place and time where you can have some uninterrupted quiet, and sit down! You have everything you need to begin.

In my next episode, I’ll go more deeply into the practice of zazen. I’ll suggest ways to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s potentially pretty boring, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.



The Three Treasures of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

The Three Treasures of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

For over 2,500 years, in every form of Buddhism, you formally become a Buddhist by stating, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.” Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are therefore known collectively as the Three Refuges, Three Treasures, Three Jewels, or the Triple Gem.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

The Three Treasures in the Time of the Buddha [1:26]
The Meaning of “Refuge” [3:45]
Refuge Does Not Mean Blind Faith [6:28]
Why We Need Refuge [11:00]
Refuge in the Buddha [13:08]
Refuge in the Dharma [17:57]
Refuge in the Sangha [20:57]
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha at Different Levels of Meaning [26.02]

The Three Treasures in the Time of the Buddha

Throughout the Pali Canon, a source of the oldest extant Buddhist teachings first written down over 2,000 years ago, students of Shakyamuni Buddha proclaim their intention to follow his teachings by saying out loud that they take refuge in the Three Treasures. Here’s one example from the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65):

[This is after Shakyamuni Buddha, who is referred to here as “lord” and as “Blessed One,” gives a teaching to the Kalama clan. They respond:] “Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May the Blessed One remember us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.” “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

In a way, “taking refuge” for these first Buddhists was simpler than it was for subsequent generations. They were stating that they were intending to follow a particular person – Shakyamuni Buddha, who discovered a path to awakening, liberation, and peace of mind. They were impressed by what he said and how he acted, so they were going to listen to him and ask him questions. They were going to try following his guidance to see if it allowed them to realize and manifest what he had realized and manifested.

By extension, then, they were also going to trust the teachings he gave, which in Pali are known as the “Dhamma” (in Sanskrit and other languages, this is “Dharma”).

The people who were seen as the most learned and practiced in the Dhamma were the Buddha’s monastic disciples, who were (ideally) leading exemplary lives and were qualified to teach the Buddha’s path of practice to others. Buddha’s community of monks and nuns was called the “Sangha.” Thus, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha were pretty specific when Shakyamuni Buddha was alive.

The Meaning of “Refuge”

What did it mean when people said they were going to the three treasures “for refuge?”

Here’s a passage from the Dhammapada, one of the most ancient collections of teachings attributed toShakyamuni Buddha. (These are verses 188-192):

“They go to many a refuge,
to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That’s not the secure refuge,
not the supreme refuge,
that’s not the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Sangha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths —
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.”

“Buddhavagga: Awakened” (Dhp XIV), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

The idea behind refuge is that the world can be a tough place, particularly if you’re working on spiritual practice. If you want to awaken, face delusion, let go of attachments, get past your obstructions, become more wise and compassionate, etc. There are a lot of temptations, distractions, practical worries, and, generally speaking, not a lot of understanding or peer support for your efforts.

But – this isn’t just about your external circumstances. The main point of the Buddha’s teaching is that your experience of life – whether it is relatively peaceful and unselfish, or whether it is miserable and destructive – depends largely on the state of your own mind and heart.

The real dangers – the things that threaten your happiness no matter what your external circumstances – are greed, hate, and delusion (a.k.a. craving, aversion, hatred) and all the problems that flow from them (pride, envy, anger, hypocrisy, dishonesty, stinginess, complacency, etc.). The Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha can help protect you from these internal dangers, which are seen by Buddhists as being even more significant than external ones, at least most of the time.


Refuge Does Not Mean Blind Faith

When you hear “take refuge” in the three treasures, you may be inclined to think it means a Buddhist places blind faith in Buddhist teachers, or that we hold Buddhist teachings in a dogmatic way, but Shakyamuni Buddha himself actually counseled against that kind of blind faith, and against dogmatism.

An often-cited example of this aspect of Buddha’s teaching comes from the same scripture I cited earlier, the Kalama Sutta (forgive me as a read this passage – it’s little long because it was passed down through oral tradition, but it gives you a good sense of the flavor of the original Buddhist teachings… remember “the Blessed One” refers to Shakyamuni Buddha):

As they sat there, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One, “Lord, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other brahmans & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

 [The Blessed One replied] “…Kalamas: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them…’

 “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

 So the Buddha tells the Kalamas to verify things for themselves, and to believe only when they know for themselves the results of a particular teaching or practice. He even tells them not to believe just because their teacher says it! The Kalamas know the difference between harm and suffering on the one hand, and welfare and happiness on the other. The Buddha encourages them to trust their own experience in deciding whether someone is a legitimate spiritual teacher, or whether a particular teaching is beneficial.

The Buddha also emphasized that after his death, his followers should take refuge in his teachings, and that they no longer needed him. According to the Pali Canon’s “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), when the Buddha was 80 years old and dying, one of his foremost disciples, Ananda, was upset and wondering what the Buddha’s followers were going to do once he was gone. The Buddha replied:

 “…Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

“Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

The Dhamma is the teachings of the Buddha, which clearly include verifying things through your own direct experience. So taking refuge is not about blind faith or dogmatism, and it’s not about surrendering our will to, or seeking something from, a guru or a revered figure in the past. It’s not about surrendering our intelligence or personal responsibility.

Why We Need Refuge

And yet… we still need refuge, according to Buddhism. I’ll say more about the value of taking refuge in the Sangha later, when I talk specifically about that refuge, but this passage from Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, touches on the importance of refuge: He says,

 “Sangha is the fourfold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, as well as the other elements that support our practice… In my country, we say that when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowlands, he will be caught by humans and killed. When a practitioner leaves her Sangha, she may abandon her practice and ‘die’ as a practitioner. Practicing with a Sangha is essential.”

The basic idea behind taking refuge in the Three Treasures is that it can be hard to practice. Let’s say your aspiration is something along the lines of developing greater awareness, wisdom, compassion, selflessness, appreciation for your life, and freedom from afflictive emotions. To work on this aspiration is going to take time, diligence, and effort. You’re going to have to be willing to face your delusions and give things up, and to try new ways of being and perceiving. In the midst of such practice, it’s hard not to get waylaid by doubt, discouragement, distractions, laziness, confusion, and misunderstanding of the teachings. You can also be foiled by your own internal fears and agendas of which you may not even be aware.

Going it on our own may be much better than not practicing and studying at all, but according to Buddhism we’re unlikely to achieve our full spiritual potential without taking refuge in the Three Treasures.

Refuge in the Buddha

Now to unpack the concepts of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha a little, which might make “taking refuge” make more sense. You’ll notice that the Three Treasures have many different levels of meaning, from the concrete to the profound.

Starting with the Buddha: Obviously, once the historical Shakyamuni Buddha is dead – what do we do? Is refuge about faith that he lived? For some people, this may indeed be the case. Many Buddhists find it very inspiring to think that someone, at least one person, was completely and totally enlightened. However, refuge does not necessarily have anything to do with the historical existence of Shakyamuni Buddha, or about believing that he – or anyone else – achieved a rarefied state of perfect Enlightenment that’s beyond the imagining of most of us. After all, the existence and level of insight of Shakyamuni is not something we can verify for ourselves (as the Dharma instructs!).

Refuge is about faith that Buddhahood – or at least some significant level of awakening – is possible. That there have been Buddhas – or people at least approaching the liberated, awakened state of Buddhahood – in the past, or there might be some alive even now.

What does it mean to be “enlightened” or “awakened?” These terms may sound rather grand or esoteric, but the Buddhist concept of enlightenment is very similar to the ideal of the saint or sage in many other spiritual traditions:

  • Free from self-centeredness; self-transcendence; awareness of – and living in harmony with – the truth that all beings are interconnected; free from what Buddhism calls obsession with “I, me and mine”
  • Moral – taking responsibility for one’s own behavior, recognizing the fact that actions have consequences and seeking to bring about benefit instead of harm
  • Generous, compassionate, patient
  • Possessed of equanimity – having a larger perspective, insight into the nature of life that allows one to be less at the whim of afflictive emotions like anger, fear, envy, etc.

In Buddhism, the idea is that these ideals are not just describing special people who by nature were especially wise or saintly. Through spiritual practice any of us can approach – and eventually attain – a way of being that’s much more “enlightened.” (Even if we don’t know if we’ll ever attain perfection, in a way it doesn’t matter, because we know we can improve, at least a little.)

When we take refuge in “Buddha” we’re really taking refuge in – relying on – this potentiality within ourselves. Ideally refuge goes beyond simply cultivating faith in it, although faith helps (and interacting with people we feel embody this ideal better than we do can help inspire faith). Zen and many other forms of Buddhism encourage you to work toward a direct experience of your own buddha-like nature, and your own natural interest in being selfless, responsible, compassionate, and at peace.

Typically, in Buddhism, refuge in Buddha also means taking refuge in teachers – that is, people who seem wiser and more compassionate than you happen to be at the moment. Sometimes such teachers communicate with us through writing… so we may be able to take refuge in a teacher we’ve never even met. Also, someone doesn’t have to be a perfectly realized, enlightened “Buddha” in order to teach us something. If we turn toward wisdom wherever we find it, we may end up learning from a neighbor, or child, or from nature.

Refuge in the Dharma

Moving on to the refuge of Dharma: Note that there are different uses and meanings of the word “dharma” before/outside of/and within Buddhism, including “right way of living” (in Hinduism) and “phenomena” in Buddhism (generally spelled with a small “d”). In Buddhism, Dharma with a capital D, in the most literal sense, refers to Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, and to the teachings of his disciples. Over the centuries, Dharma came to refer to all kinds of Buddhist teachings, judged on whether they relieve suffering and bring welfare and happiness, as the Buddha said to the Kalamas, and to some extent also whether they were consistent with certain foundational Buddhist teachings like impermanence, no-self, and karma (more about these concepts in future episodes).

At a deeper level, though, Dharma is about is about a deeper truth – an underlying Truth or pattern in the universe, kind of like the Tao. This is the kind of truth that’s not dependent on a particular religion or set of teachings. The Dharma is the truth of interdependence; the benefit of compassion and the fact that selfishness leads to suffering even for the one being selfish; that our action have consequences, visible and invisible; that there are forces at play in the universe much larger than our own individual wills and concern; that phenomena tend to fall into certain patterns, and we are far from a random collection of elements spewed out of the Big Bang.

The premise of Buddhism is that we don’t need an external authority to tell us what is True. We instinctively, intuitively know the different between suffering and happiness, just like a seed knows the difference between up and down when it sprouts. In general, actions out of accord with the deeper Truths of existence cause suffering, while actions in accord bring peace and happiness. Of course, this is over the long term. We can fool ourselves in the short term, when we let greed, hate, and delusion control us (this is what practice is for).

Taking refuge in the Dharma, then, is relying on the Buddhist teachings to guide you, but even more importantly it is relying on your own ability to recognize Truth. We have to be willing to look carefully, and question ourselves – so in a way this isn’t about taking refuge in a bunch of teachings outside yourself, it’s a vow search for the truth within your own experience.

Refuge in the Sangha

That brings us to the treasure of Sangha. As the Thich Nhat Hanh quote I read earlier suggests, Buddhists think Sangha is essential.

Originally, in the Pali Canon, the term Sangha was used in two ways, according to Thanisaaro Bhikku (“Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013). The “conventional” use of the term referred to Shakyamuni Buddha’s ordained disciples (monks and nuns). The “ideal” use of the term referred to any of the Buddha’s students, lay or ordained, who had attained a certain level of awakening. This meant the two definitions overlapped but were different; there might be ordained disciples who weren’t yet awakened, and non-ordained disciples who were.

In the Pali Canon the Buddha also referred, however, to the “four-fold assembly,” of ordained men, ordained women, lay men, and lay women. Over time, particularly in Mahayana traditions, the term “Sangha” came to be applied to the four-fold assembly.

At the most literal level for us, in Zen – especially for modern practitioners – the term “Sangha” refers to the community of people, lay and ordained, who study and practice Buddhism together. The Sangha is the people with whom we share spiritual aspirations, and with whom we work to understand and manifest the teachings and practices of Buddhism.

When I first encountered Zen Buddhism, Buddha and Dharma made sense, but I wondered why Sangha was necessary. Did I really need other people in order to meditate and study the Dharma? In time I came to appreciate Sangha deeply, although no group of people is ever perfect! With Sangha you don’t have to explain why you spend your vacations in silent meditation retreats staring at walls. You don’t have to convince fellow Sangha members that lying and cheating is a bad idea. You generally don’t have to ask them to value silence. At least you don’t have to ask twice. For the most part you can count on Sangha members to take responsibility for their own actions and reactions.

Such community creates an environment in which we can relax – in which we see practice modeled, get inspired and challenged to greater aspirations, feel safe enough to explore vulnerability as we engage the practice deeply. Ideally anyway. When Sangha doesn’t work this way, then we get to learn from our efforts to heal and take care of Sangha, because a harmonious Sangha doesn’t stay that way without some care and attention.

I like to think the treasure of Sangha is an acknowledgement of the fact that we are social animals. In part, we come to know who we are through our relationships with others. People serve as support, teachers, friends, and mirrors (helping us see our own behaviors and tendencies). Buddhists also fully admit people are also training opportunities – which means, essentially, that people tend to bug one another. A famous Zen analogy compares a bunch of people training together in a Sangha as sharp rocks bring thrown against one another in a rock tumbler: Eventually, all the rocks get polished by smashing into one another!

Even if we feel we don’t need other people in order to awaken, we definitely need other people to test our realization. In Buddhism it is said, “It’s easy to be enlightened in a remote cave.” You can realize all kinds of profound things about the nature of self and the universe in your meditation and study, but how does that realization hold up when you’re back in traffic? How does it hold up when you’re with your family of origin, or with your siblings, or at work? If your “spiritual awakening” doesn’t manifest as greater compassion, generosity, patience, etc. in real life, it isn’t much good. We test ourselves within our relationships – and some of the easiest relationships to start practicing with are our Sangha relationships, where at least in theory we share common aspirations and a language to describe our practice.

At an even deeper level, however, all living beings are part of our Sangha. Taking refuge in Sangha in this way is about waking up to and taking refuge in your interdependence with all life.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha at Different Levels of Meaning

To return to the Three Treasures taken together: There’s a beautiful description of how the Three Treasures have many different levels of meaning in the version of the Soto Zen scripture the “Kyojukaimon” that is transmitted in my Zen lineage. (The Kyojukaimon includes the Zen moral precepts, which someone promises to follow when they formally become a Buddhist). Anyway, here it is:

“We take refuge in the buddha as our true teacher; we take refuge in the dharma as the medicine for all suffering; we take refuge in the sangha as its members are wise and compassionate.

In the three treasures there are three merits.  The first is the true source of the three treasures; the second is their presence in the past, the foundation of our tradition; the third is their presence at the present time.

At the source: the highest truth is called the buddha treasure; immaculacy is called the dharma treasure; harmony is called the sangha treasure.

In the past: those who realized the truth completely are called the buddha treasure; the truth realized is called the dharma treasure; those who have transmitted this dharma are called the sangha treasure.

In the present: those who teach devas and humans in the sky and in the world are called the buddha treasure; that which appears in the world and in the scriptures, becoming good for others, is called the dharma treasure; they who release their suffering and embrace all beings are called the sangha treasure.”

To wrap things up, I’ll summarize the reasons modern Buddhists take refuge in the three treasures, interpreting each treasure at two different levels:


You need teachers – real human beings who are further along the path of practice than you are, who share their wisdom with you through their writings and teachings, or in person;

You need, ultimately, to take refuge in your own internal teacher – your own intuitive wisdom – and have faith in your ability to change, and to become more selfless and compassionate;


You need teachings – most of us wouldn’t have been able to forge an effective spiritual path all by ourselves; the teachings of Buddhism and other great spiritual traditions are from the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations, thousands of people;

You need to learn how to recognize Truth, trust yourself, and take refuge in Truth – that is, be willing to face the Truth and then act in accordance with it as best you can;


You need other people – social support, the context of community, insight into your blind spots, challenge;

You need to transcend self and realize your interdependence with all beings – or even, all Being.

How Does Zen Buddhism Fit Within the Context of Buddhism as a Whole?

How Does Zen Buddhism Fit Within the Context of Buddhism as a Whole?

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

It All Begins with the “Awakening” of Siddhartha Gautama [2:40]
What the Buddha Awakened To [5:40]
Buddhists Since the Buddha [8:58]
Emergence of the Zen (Chan) School of Buddhism [11:40]
Zen Versus Other Kinds of Buddhism [13:45]
Five Things That Make Zen Zen [17:25]

Zen is a type of Buddhism, which is a 2,500-year-old tradition. When and how did Zen Buddhism arise, and what is unique about it?

It All Begins with the “Awakening” of Siddhartha Gautama

Over 2500 years ago in India, somewhere around 500 BCE, a man named Siddhartha Gautama was born. We don’t have much hard evidence about who he was or the kind of life he lived, but he later became very famous so we have all kinds of stories – myths, if you will – about him and the things he did. According to the traditional stories, he belonged to the warrior caste and his father was a wealthy ruler.

Despite growing up in luxury, Siddhartha was dissatisfied with life. Even though he was young, healthy, and fortunate, he noticed the suffering of others – in particular those suffering from old age, illness, and death – and realized that everyone, even he, would eventually experience those kinds of things. Basically, he got a strong case of existential angst: What does it all mean? What is it all for? Are we just doomed to enjoy things for a little while, but then eventually lose everything? Isn’t there something we can do besides just wait for the ax to fall?

Obsessed with these kinds of questions, Siddhartha took the radical step of running away from home. OK, he was a grown man by the time he did it, but his father wanted him to stick around and take over as the local ruler. Instead, Siddhartha followed a marginalized and yet somewhat traditional path for that time in India: that of a homeless, ascetic spiritual seeker who lived in the forests, survived on alms, and devoted himself full-time to practices meant to bring about spiritual perfection, insight, or liberation. Siddhartha lived this kind of life for six years, and according to the stories he was one of the most devoted and ascetic of them all, mastering several different kinds of practices and starving himself until he looked like a skeleton. Still, he didn’t find the answers he was looking for.

Eventually he remembered a simple kind of meditation he had spontaneously entered as a child, and decided to give up the ascetic practices in favor of something he called “the middle way” between asceticism and indulgence. He then experienced a great awakening, which gave him insight into human suffering and how to end it. Because of this experience, Siddhartha came to be known as the “Buddha” – Buddha meaning “awakened one.” Specifically, he was called Shakyamuni Buddha – Shakyamuni meaning “sage of the Sakya clan.” (Click here for a full story of the Buddha’s life.)

What the Buddha Awakened To

Now, there are many different ways to describe what the Buddha realized – and many of the episodes in this podcast will be devoted to unpacking that realization and what the Buddha subsequently taught to others – but I like to phrase the essence it like this: your experience of life depends largely on the state of your mind. This was contrary to the teachings of most of the spiritual traditions of his time, which said that your experience – whether it was pleasant or miserable or somewhere in between – depended on the circumstances of your birth (such as which caste you were born into), your performance of rites and rituals in a prescribed manner in order to appease the gods and spirits, your fate, or the devotion with which you dedicated yourself to processes of purification. Instead, the Buddha’s insight essentially parsed out into three essential points:

  1. The effects of your actions – on yourself and on others – depended largely on your intention when you did them. For example, the effects of causing the death of another living being were very different if you did so by accident, because of perceived necessity, or in order to advance your own self-interest.
  2. You will inevitably feel the effects of your actions, but the nature of that experience will be very different depending on your state of mind at the time you experience them. For example, if you are full of hatred and ill-will, the experience of losing your job will be much more excruciating than if you feel deep gratitude for what you still have.
  3. Because your state of mind is so important both to the effects of your actions and to how you experience things, the best way to liberate yourself from the inevitable suffering life brings is to work on your own mind.

Basically, the rest of Buddhism is about how you work on your own mind. Admittedly, I’ve radically simplified basic Buddhist teachings here; to further study this first teaching of the Buddha in more detail, click in these links: Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path. (I’ll also be doing whole episodes devoted to each of these topics in the future.)

Buddhists Since the Buddha

Ever since the Buddha’s death, Buddhists have been figuring out – and arguing about – the best ways to transform your mind so you’re less likely to commit harmful actions, and you’re more likely to be compassionate and generally at peace with life. The Buddha himself recommended meditation and mindfulness – basically, two ways to see life more clearly, so you’d recognize your mind states, learn how they arise, and therefore learn how to change them. You’d also eventually see through your delusions about the way life is – the delusions that make you selfish, greedy, and fearful – and thereby be freed from them.

Over the centuries, though, people explored all kinds of practices meant to lead to the kind of liberating awakening the Buddha himself experienced: study of philosophy or scripture, devoted prayers, chanting and bowing, visualizations, elaborate rituals, and strict moral behavior. Most forms of Buddhism included some kind of meditation, but they varied widely in how that meditation was done and what the perceived goal if it was. All along, there were usually bands of practitioners outside the mainstream who devoted themselves primarily to meditation, but they didn’t organize themselves into a separate school or sect.

Fast forward to China in the 500’s and 600’s. There were many schools of Buddhism in China by then, and in the interest of royal patronage and popular support, schools needed to define what was unique about themselves. They produced scriptures, philosophical treatises, and polemical literature – that is, literature that pointed out the shortcomings of other schools and argued why a particular school or approach was the best. Some schools focused on philosophies transmitted from India; others focused on particular scriptures that they revered above all others; another taught secret rituals thought to be especially effective in transforming the mind. There was also a movement of Buddhists who advocated devotion to the Buddha Amitabha, who presided over a Pure Land where followers could go after death, and where everyone was assured of enlightenment.

Emergence of the Zen (Chan) School of Buddhism

Gradually, the Zen school emerged as a loose collection of fervent meditators strove to differentiate their path of practice from those of others. Actually, the eventual name of this school was Chan, not Zen – Chan being the Chinese word for dhyana, the Sanskrit word for meditation that was used in India. (Note that Zen is the Japanese word for Chan, so it only came into use when this school spread to Japan.)

Some Chan teachers focused on the practice of meditation to the exclusion of all other practices, while many included other Buddhist practices in their teaching but always emphasized the primacy of meditation. The Chan school came to be known as, “the transmission outside of the scriptures” – pointing out how practitioners of Chan could awaken to the same realizations as Shakyamuni Buddha without having to study and master lengthy and complicated texts or obscure philosophy. This approach appealed to many Chinese as much more egalitarian than the scholastic or scripture-based schools of Buddhism, which generally required someone to be a monk, study for many years, and be part of an exclusive system.

Eventually Chan spread to Japan, Korea (where it became known as Seon [sun/son]) and Vietnam (where it was known as Thiền [tien]). Chan was gradually spread further by Asian immigrants, and in the 20th century teachers brought Chan, Zen, Seon, and Thiền to the West, where converts from other cultural and religious backgrounds began practicing and studying them.

Zen Versus Other Kinds of Buddhism

That’s enough history for now. If you’re interested in Buddhist history and its development and spread, refer to episodes in my Buddhist History and Seminal Texts series.

How does Zen differ from other kinds of Buddhism in practice? As a Zen teacher, I get this question a lot, when people come to my Zen center because they’re generally interested in meditation, or maybe in Buddhism, but they’re new to this ancient and complex tradition.

I usually start out by telling such visitors that all forms of Buddhism are more less aiming at the same thing: the relief of suffering. I should take a moment here to clarify that in a Buddhist context “suffering” is not just physical, mental, or emotional anguish. The original Pali term, “dukkha” can be translated in many other ways, including disatisfactoriness, or unease. It’s the sense so many of us human beings have that something isn’t quite right. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Or, if things are great, we worry about how their inevitably going to change. So – all kinds of Buddhism seek to address dukkha, and help us find a way to get free from it the way Shakyamuni Buddha did.

The many different kinds of Buddhism simply differ in how they recommend relieving dukkha and finding lasting peace of mind. I mentioned earlier how different Buddhist practices and approaches evolved in China – and now imagine the same proliferation of teachings and techniques happening as Buddhism spread throughout SE Asia, Indonesia, and Tibet. Each type of Buddhism has ended up with a distinct character and flavor. To make crude generalizations, Theravadin Buddhism in SE Asia tends to be fairly rational, down to earth, and focused on the practice and attainments of monks. Tibetan Buddhism tends to be colorful, populated by many iconographic images of different buddhas (that’s right, there’s more than just Shakyamuni) and other important religious figures, and focused on using the messy aspects of human existence as fodder for spiritual transformation.

To make a crude generalization about Zen, I’d say it tends to be intuitive, poetic, filled with apparent paradox, and focused on getting each person to concentrate on their own direct experience. Oh, and of course it also involves lots of silent meditation.

Apart from the various polemical battles between sects of Buddhism throughout history as they strove to gain influence and primacy in one setting or another, for the most part different schools of Buddhism tolerate and even respect one another. As practitioners, we acknowledge the old adage “different strokes for different folks” and marvel at how a particular Buddhist teaching or practice can work like magic for one person, while the next person is completely turned off or confused by it.

Still, it’s nice when we secretly think our way is the best. Heck – that means we’ve found the right path for us, right? So I’ll finish up with five things I love about Zen – specifically, things that are fairly unique to Zen, or that I think Zen conveys especially well.

Five Things That Makes Zen Buddhism Zen

First, Zen emphasizes the original Buddhist message that your experience of life depends largely on the state of your mind to what you might call an extreme. Zen doesn’t say life can ever be free of pain – that is, physical, mental, and emotional pain when we encounter things like loss, trauma, injustice, old age, illness, and death – but we differentiate between pain and dukkha – that extra misery we add to our experience because of how we think about it. It’s actually possible to live an ordinary life, without hiding out from the tough stuff that’s bound to happen eventually, but still feel fundamentally okay with everything (because you know how to let go of the thinking that leads to dukkha). Some other Buddhist schools get a little more down on this world of inevitable change, loss, and pain – called the world of samsara – and are sometimes more escapist in flavor.

Second, and this follows from the first: samsara and nirvana – that is, the state of peace and bliss attained by a Buddha – are one and the same thing. What? How can that be? Surely when you experience misfortune or pain, that’s not peaceful and blissful! Well, according to the Zen teaching, the problem lies in how you see yourself, your life, and the rest of the world – not how these things actually are. This a profoundly optimistic approach, even if it’s difficult to get your mind around. Some Buddhist schools more or less agree with Zen, but many would adamantly deny that the world of suffering and the state attained by Buddhas are the same thing; awakened beings transcend the ordinary human state, and even then are only completely liberated when they physically die and pass entirely out of this troubled world.

Third, Zen emphasizes that what gets in the way of your seeing everything the way a Buddha does is just extra crap you’ve created in your own mind. Your natural state is that of a buddha – clear-seeing, calm, compassionate, selfless, generous, even joyful. This is good news. If you created the stuff in your mind that gets in the way, you can get rid of or change it. Essentially, the obstacles between you and a fully awakened life are an illusion. A very convincing illusion, it’s true – so Zen practice is by no means easy – but what you’re searching for is actually right in front of you and nothing substantial obstructs you from experiencing that – even your limitations, or past harmful deeds. Some other Buddhist schools present awakening as a much more gradual process: slowly but surely you need to purify your own mind and heart, develop powers of concentration, gain insights, and let go of your attachments. (Zen recommends these things as well, but not as a means to an end.)

Fourth, Zen acknowledges that there are all kinds of delusions (that is, illusory stuff you’ve created in your own mind that gets in the way of your real happiness), and that Buddhist practice can help you see through them, but it insists that there is one delusion that “rules them all.” Call it the “master delusion” which exacerbates all other delusions: The master delusion is your conviction that you have an inherently existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Basically, as human beings we have consciousness of time and are aware of the continuous nature of our lives; we realize our bodies and minds change somewhat over time, but we assume that there is some essence within us that travels through time and defines who we are. Consequently, we compose a dramatic narrative about our lives in which we play the leading role.

It would take more time than I have in one podcast episode to explain fully why this belief in an inherent self-nature is such a problem. Later I will devote at least a whole episode to it, and it’s a major recurring theme in Zen. For now, let’s just say that the life-narrative we compose based on an idea of inherent self-nature tends to make us extremely self-absorbed and worried about how “numero uno” is going to fare in the drama. Everything is impermanent and therefore impossible to hold on to, so life can often be very anxiety-producing or depressing.

Zen’s point is that we don’t exist the way we usually think we do, and if we can wake up to our true self-nature we will be liberated from a great deal of trouble. In reality we exist as a flow of causes and conditions. Only this very moment is real, although we are the result of previous causes and conditions and the choices we make will affect future causes and conditions. The narrative we compose about our life can be very useful as we navigate our daily lives – and make sure we pay our own rent and not our neighbor’s – but it is not inherently real. The narrative is a provisional gloss, open to interpretation, not the ultimate truth.

Other forms of Buddhism, in contrast, may teach that our delusion about self-nature is an important thing to see through and let go of but, as far as I know, no other school places such a priority on doing so. Other schools emphasize that there are many insights to gain, abilities to perfect, characteristics to cultivate, and attachments to let go of. Again, Zen agrees with them but teaches that if you manage to see through the delusion of inherent, independent, enduring self-nature – that is, see the “emptiness” of self – you will be forever changed, and your subsequent work will be much easier.

Fifth, the central practice of Zen Buddhism, zazen, appears to be meditation, but it’s not. In fact, one of the most important historical Zen masters, Dogen, specifically wrote, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” Wow! How do you like that? The dharma gate of joyful ease sounds pretty great, but what does Dogen really mean? It’s awfully hard to describe – it’s something you have to experience directly, and even then it’s not as easy as it sounds – but this basically means that when we sit in zazen, we are allowing ourselves to settle into our natural state. We don’t do anything special with the mind. We don’t discipline ourselves to concentrate, or change the content of our mind, or contemplate great spiritual matters. We let go of all agendas and just allow ourselves to be.

Of course, when we try to do this, we realize that we’ve forgotten how to be natural. We’ve forgotten who we really are – decades of dramatic narrative get in the way. But what’s cool is that, at a certain level, we do know how to just be in a natural way – we knew how to do it as children! At some point in your life you were able to just sit in the grass in the sunshine and hang out – without wondering about who you really were, or thinking about all the stuff you need to do in order to achieve real happiness. You were just completely content, without any notion of time. Remember how Shakyamuni Buddha tried all kinds of spiritual practices, but then finally returned to the simple kind of meditation he had spontaneously experienced as a child? That’s it! (See Episode 3: Zazen – The Central Practice of Zen for more.)

Most schools of Buddhism that include the practice of meditation teach a form a meditation – particularly to beginners – that is similar to zazen. The meditator is instructed to sit still and calm the mind by keeping their awareness focused on something very simple, such as the breath. However, in other Buddhist schools this kind of meditation is usually seen as a way to settle the mind in order to do other kinds of meditation. (One exception to this is the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which ends up sounding uncannily like Zen – as if the two independent traditions simply happened upon the same thing.) Anyway, in Zen, just sitting in zazen is seen as the practice for beginners, masters, and Buddhas alike.

I could go on about what makes Zen uniquely Zen (it’s definitely not limited to the 5 things I just described), but I should wrap up by relating Zen back to Buddhism. While Zen has its own emphases and practices, it does not deny anything that came before it. You can follow a line of teachers and teachings from the arising of Chan in 7th century China back to Indian Buddhism, and then back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself – and Zen includes all of it. A particular Zen teacher may or may not make much reference to older teachings, but the truth and relevance of those older teachings is a background assumption – in a way, they form a foundation on which Zen builds.[/DAP]