Zazen vs Vipassana

Continuing the discussion from How to turn your fears and anxieties into positivity and productivity with cognitive reframing:

Zazen is largely an “open awareness” practice without a focus on anything specific.

Vipassana mindfulness practice focuses on sensory clarity, concentration, and equanimity. As a result, mindfulness meditation makes a lot of use of body scanning, paying attention to body sensations (focusing on them), paying attention to sensory phenomena, and often using noting with labels for phenomena as they arise.

My primary teacher, Shinzen Young, has an article on What is Mindfulness available. His, rather comprehensive, manual of how he structures practice is also available (though it needs updating).

@awjt, just because the origin of the word “Zen” comes from a word for “meditation” does not mean all meditation techniques are the same or, often, even similar.


@albill, is Vipassana similar to Tonglen? They seem to have similar outward-facing attitudes.

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Not really. Tonglen is a specific Tibetan technique that, as you say, it outward facing. Most Vipassana techniques that are taught are inward focused (on the person) but that includes the person’s external senses, not just emotions, mental chatter, or visual thoughts.

Shinzen has some other materials up as well if people care:

I also really do recommend Michael’s book as he isn’t a religious partisan and presents stuff in a secular way, which works for a lot of folks.

I call BS. I’m more of an NLP/The Secret/Scientology adherent. I like to hook myself up to the e-meter while lighting up a fat spliff and then anchoring positive thoughts into the troposphere to resonate my personal aura with the ambient spectra of financial gain, sexual prowess and subjugation of the weak.

Just kidding. Carry on.

I agree with your assessments. I also love this book, which has been very helpful through the years, and is free. Mindfulness in Plain English


Bhante G’s book is wonderful, as are all of his books.

Amusingly, Shinzen is more of a “What happens if a serious Zen guy decides to do and teach Vipassana” as he was a Shingon priest in Japan but did a lot of retreats at the Zen temple (occasionally to the chagrin of his Shingon abbot, I believe). I like his style because he’s been practicing for 40 years and is very specific in how he teaches technique. This is the opposite of most Zen teachers I’ve known, who just point you at a cushion and give almost no instruction.

There are lots of good Vipassana/Mindfulness folks out there and they seem to have less focus on some of the superficial “We’re in a Dharma center!” crap that gets old.


Yes, Vipassana is much more accessible than Zen. Japanese stuff, in general, while wonderful does seem to need to maintain this air of exclusivity. To really get it, you have to be on the inside and all y’all outsiders are welcome to stop by! Come on in! But we ain’t gonna teach you anything. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself. And then go, well there are no words for this stuff anyways if you start asking questions… sigh

The Indians, though… way more willing to spell it out for you. Of course, these are broad generalizations and there are lots of exceptions if we started looking for them.

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Wow. Thanks for the replies but I guess this is the what Suzuki (the little one) is referring to when he instructs you not to get too hung up on the focus of the mindfulness. Which may be inward or outward facing… I guess.

So that probably differentiates the intended focus of the mindfulness from ‘whatever works’ to ‘this particular bodily sensation’ as you say. But I’d always thought of mindfulness as a universal tool that could be employed in whatever endeavour one chose. All impressions arise from the mind… an’ all.


Actually we have Hinayana practice with Mahayana spirit - rigid formal practice with informal mind. though our practice looks very formal, our minds are not formal. Although we practice zazen every morning in the same way, that is no reason to call this formal practice. It is your discrimination which makes it formal or informal. Inside the practice itself, there is no formal or informal. If you have Mahayana mind, some-thing which people call formal may be informal. So we say that observing the precepts in a Hinayana way is violating the precepts in a Mahayana way.

Soto always struck me as gently subversive and I guess that appeals to me on a level that really binds.

I don’t think he’s seeking to be derogatory, although for sure Japanese schools do tend to want to slip in a withering barb here and there (as seemingly do all schools when relating to one another), but the playful structuring of resolution of dualities in Zen really caught my attention in the early days and I guess it stuck.


Yes but Suzuki’s take, even for Zen people, is not the be-all and end-all of takes. He’s enigmatic even for a Zen guy and his instructions aren’t always terribly practical (not to mention written for an audience of about 50 years ago). Suzuki and a lot of Japanese Zen teachers seem to think if you just sit there for 20 years, you’ll figure it out. That’s not true for everyone.

You’re conflating the popular term “mindfulness” with what is actually taught as “Mindfulness meditation” in most contexts, which is derived from Theravadan Vipassana (Insight) meditation techniques. When “mindfulness” is used in the popular secular meditation context or by “Mindfulness” teachers, we’re talking about Vipassana meditation techniques, not the colloquial English usage of the word.

I did Zen for years and, frankly, the lack of instruction and (with some teachers) ability to instruct is a real barrier for a lot of folks. My practiced moved forward immeasureably when I quit doing “Zen.” That said, when people say “Zen” and really mean “Soto Zen” they are doing the other Japanese schools, not to mention Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese, a disservice. Read what Hakuin had to say about Soto sitting meditation. He was a Rinzai partisan (really, he revived Rinzai in many ways) but he didn’t have a lot of kind words about just sitting there. :slight_smile:


And that openness is exactly what kindles me. I read DT and whilst he’s great for specifics and maybe even more Western from a psychoanalytic perspective, it always struck me as dry whereas Shunryu captivates some spark in me that I’ve found in very few other places.

I posted about Wim Hof’s modern take on the Path of Fire technique a little while ago and have been really getting into it recently but it’s more like a nice cup of tea after a walk rather than an enlivening space-time-mind… uh… problem. LOL

This is probably quite an insight into me for those who would care to look. :smile:


But DT didn’t practice Zen. As I recall, he was a Japanese Christian and Pure Land aficionado.

I must have missed this. It doesn’t sound familiar.

A quick intro

We should get @redesigned in here, he’s a good scholar of the specifics on this stuff. I’m just a leaf in the wind searching for another drop-out-fix. :wink:

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Yeah, struck me a scholar of Chen/Zen in his relation to it, primarily.

To be clear, I’m an ordained Zen priest in a Korean tradition but I’ve effectively left it because that tradition:

a) isn’t well taught in the West so I have a lack of confidence in those that teach it (and with some reason after various scandals)

b) expects people to just carve a path up a mountain themselves and figure it out.

I met Shinzen a few years back (four or five at the first Buddhist Geeks conference) and then was lucky enough to have friends that worked with him later. He has a “nuts and bolts” approach to meditation and went with Vipassana, I believe, because it is open to that approach, unlike Zen. His background was Zen and Shingon. You get very specific techniques on things to do and an idea of how they should function rather than being put on a cushion with almost zero instruction and left there for a decade. As an engineer, I found the Vipassana approach more useful and it really affected my practice. Also, everything is out in the open, unlike some Buddhist teachers, and you can see what folks teach for themselves. I’ve found other Vipassana teachers to be similarly open and helpful.

Realistically, Zen and Vipassana are the two traditions of practice that seem most likely to “stick” in North America (can’t speak to Europe). Vajrayana is dying out.


Hee hee, yeah. I’ve always thought of the school as an escalator up the side of a mountain upon which you can clearly see your teacher going up and down, all the while encouraging you not to get on the damn thing and use that toothpick he showed you how to fashion to carve rock into your own path up the steepest side of the mountain.

I always thought it would be the practice most amenable to psychotropic symbiosis. There’s got to be some McKenna like person out there who can fuse the bardo-penetrative aspects of both into a feasible practice within the context of therapeutic rigour.

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The bell sounds, must be time to eat, I’ll check back in here later, liking it very much.

Vajrayana is dying out for social reasons. The Tibetan (and Japanese) practitioners aren’t really empowering others to carry on the tradition. Because of that, there aren’t many teachers. Meanwhile Zen and Vipassana communities train people on a regular basis and, after ten or so years, many of them teach others. That’s part of where the current “Mindfulness” popular surge is coming from too.

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So… How to make it trendy?

Didn’t you say you were (once) a member of O.T.O (I don’t know how these things work), aren’t they in some way structured around strong personalities in leadership positions? Or is that left to the… I’m struggling for the correct term here… the enlightened masters? Aleister seemed like a christ-like figure, wouldn’t some fascinating person (in regular physical form) be able to revitalise Vajrayana all on their very own (at the head of a movement including other people of course), through the power of their magnetism/rhetoric? Or are people trying and failing in digital media all over the place? Not really up to speed on the whole occult scene, me.

I see Kundalini Yoga programs on the teevee for god’s sake!

not sure i have much to add…

If one is wanting to link the zazen and vipassana worlds, samatha vipassana is the style of vipassana that is closest to zazen. It is a seated meditation where when you notice the discursive mind you follow the out breath to return to the moment. notice, return.

Fortunately most of my zen teachers have been very helpful and practical and less on the enigmatic side, there is that tendency for sure. i think the idea is to get you to sit, sit, sit for years, like in traditional kendo how you only practice the first stroke the entire first year. western practitioners tend to like the big picture and the cliff notes, rather then the old school approach. :smile: although there is nothing like a month long silent meditation retreat, somethings really do just take time to percolate.

I love zen, because it eschews many of the trappings and focuses on the core basics in a clean clear way. it is my personal cup of tea and sits well with me…(i can’t help the puns) both rinzai and soto schools have been welcoming to me.

really i just enjoy a moment of stillness, of coming back to myself and the moment. it can be as simple as that. it doesn’t have to be on the cushion.

Japaneses vajrayana practitioners have been more guarded about their practices, the tibetan vajrayana has been actively spread throughout the world and the west. Vajrayana is very layered and has inner and outer teachings, and I personally think it is one of the easier paths to go “astray” on, so it is difficult to say how much of the inner practices have been truly transferred and taken root in these external cultures. By go astray i simply mean that i’ve met vajrayana practitioners who instead of “cutting through” were even more “caught up” then before they started.

i love tibetan buddhism because of the rich cultural heritage, practices like tonglen (@slybevel) are wonderful for generating empathy and compassion without creating additional suffering. Vajrayana, mahamudra, tantra, tonglen, there are a lot of different practices that are worth exploring, although I personally think that exploring them is much much more valuable from a basis of having a LOT LOT LOT of solid foundation in zazen/samatha vipassana/seated meditation.


@miasm wim hof is more of a self trained yogi of sorts. i’ve been really curious to view his new video course, but couldn’t bear to shell out the $200

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