2021-04-19 Harmony of Zen and Vipassanā (1 of 5)
2:53PM Apr 19, 2021
It is my honor to begin this series of talks on the harmony of Zen and Vipassanā. This week, I will give the morning 7am talks like today. The next two weeks, my good friends and wonderful teachers from San Francisco Zen Center, Furyu Schroeder, the Abbess of Green Gulch Zen Center and Paul Haller, former Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center in the city, will give the talks. I have been involved in both of these wonderful traditions – traditions I have tremendous respect for. And I celebrate their great value. I feel very fortunate to have done both. I think they mutually support each other in all kinds of ways. To have a chance to talk about the meeting of these two, or the harmony of these two, is a wonderful exercise for me.
Sometimes I think of the meeting of Zen and Vipassanā as being like a Venn diagram, like two circles that overlap in some places. In some teachings, some teachers might be positioned in the place where the two circles overlap, so they seem very similar with very similar teachings. Some might be sitting on opposite sides of the circles so that they do not overlap or share much. How big those Venn circles are, how big that overlap is, I do not know. Maybe it depends on who is defining it, but there is certainly overlap.
Where there is no overlap, there can be harmony, complementarity. There can be ways in which understanding one helps to understand the other. There is a wonderful saying I learned when I was in England: "If you don't leave England, you don't really know England." If you grew up there, if you leave and come back, you see it in different ways. Sometimes being outside of a particular religious tradition for a while – one we have been immersed in – helps us to see with clearer eyes something we were missing before. One of those things can be to understand even better the value of the tradition.
One of the wonderful, maybe coincidences of language is that the word "Zen" comes from the Chinese word "Chan", which comes from the Sanskrit word "dhyāna" and the Pali word "jhāna." It is just a different language pronouncing the same word. In Pali, "jhāna" is the states of concentration, the practice of concentration. "Vipassanā" comes from the ancient Pali word for "insight." Especially here in the modern West, but a little bit in India in modern times, the word "vipassanā" no longer simply meant the insights that come from practicing mindfulness, but became the name for a technique of meditation practice, the mindfulness technique. It then became a word that began to encompass the full teachings, culture, and religion of people practicing Vipassanā.
We have this very odd or new thing that happened here – especially in the United States – starting maybe three decades ago, that we started seeing in the West the expression "the Vipassanā tradition." There were meetings or references to the three traditions – Zen, Tibetan, and Vipassanā. I was a little surprised to see that Vipassanā was now a tradition, when it is a relatively new word to refer to a school of meditation.
The wonderfulness of it is that in the ancient world, vipassanā – the insights of meditation – were supported by jhāna., supported by deep concentration. In the teachings of the Buddha, the ancient teachings, these two came in harmony. They work together. They were partners. Over time, as Buddhism developed in India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, in different ways, meditation remained a constant in some way or other in different countries where they practice Buddhism. There were people, lineages and schools that really emphasized meditation.
Zen and Vipassanā are two of them. Once you talk about sitting in meditation, practicing in meditation, there is a lot of overlap to what human beings experience in meditation. Most people, when they sit down to meditate, discover very quickly how out of control their mind is – how much they are thinking, and how many obstacles there are to being present. Learning and developing capacity to be present is very much the same, no matter what meditation we are doing. We are developing our capacity to not be distracted, to not be lost from our present moment experience.
As we do that, we become more settled, more calm, which is more the concentration factor. As we become more settled and calm, we start seeing more clearly what our experience is, which is the insight, the vipassanā side of it. These go back and forth. As we become calmer, we see better. As we see better, we can become calmer and more settled and present, whatever the language we have. So coincidentally, these two big traditions (so called), Vipassanā and Zen, are named after these two aspects of meditation that in the ancient world were harmonious, were connected to each other quite closely.
In a general way, there are two ways of practicing Vipassanā – one is directed attention and the other is undirected attention. It would be interesting to hear from the Zen teachers if the same distinction can be made in in Zen. When I first started practicing Zen meditation, I was told to direct my attention on the breathing, and to count the breaths. I did that for years. It was a wonderful practice for me.
When I went to Burma, I seemingly did the same thing. In Zen, they often had an emphasis on feeling the movements of the belly as the breathing happened, the "hara." In Burma they put the attention on the same place, the hara area, to feel the movements there. This was very familiar to me. It is the same directed attention as I did in Zen.
What happens with Vipassanā practice is that the practice begins to be directed. Then as it goes along, it becomes more undirected. We will see that in the course of this five days that I will be teaching here. The way that we have come to teach Vipassanā – many of us in insight practice, mindfulness in the West – we start with directed practice. Then we begin to open up the attention to include more and more in the awareness.
We begin with the breathing. Breathing is a wonderful place to calm down, to relax, to step out of the thinking mind, to see how much we are caught in thought, and then come back, come back, come back. Then we will go to body, to emotions, to thinking and then Friday, I will give you a little taste or a little pointer to the undirected attention of Vipassanā, which may be similar to what in Zen they call "just sitting" or "shikantaza." In Vipassanā there is often a sequential or a step-by-step approach to settling in and arriving at this undirected attention.
We begin with mindfulness of breathing. I would like to do a teaching around this briefly. If we are practicing attention to breathing – mindfulness of breathing in meditation – it works when it does not work, in this way. It works if we are able to stay – our attention stays stable and connected, continuous with the rhythm and flow of breathing in and breathing out. As we do that sometimes – because the attention is no longer going into thinking – the thinking mind gets quieter and stiller, and then things open up in a nice way. But plenty of times, our ability to stay with the breathing does not work.
Then it is like this. Many years ago was up in the mountains here, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, sitting on the edge of a creek. It seemed like the creek, the water, was not flowing at all. It was completely still. I took a stick from the shore and put it into the creek vertically. Then I could see there was little wake formed on the surface of the water where the stick went into the water. I could see that the water was not still. There was a current that was flowing. So in the same way, mindfulness of breathing is like the stick we put into the current of our lives. We get to see more clearly how strong that current is – especially the current of thinking or the currents of feelings that we might have.
It is not necessarily we are supposed to stay with the breath and criticize ourselves when we cannot. To just keep showing up for the breath highlights what it is that is really flowing and moving. "Oh, look at that – my mind is really busy. It was busier and more actively involved with thinking than I realized." Or "I'm more interested in food than I ever could have imagined. It's all I think about."
That is the beginning of mindfulness – to see clearly what is going on. The more clearly we can see, the more choice we have about where do we really want our attention to be? Do we want our attention to be hijacked by our neurosis, by our preoccupations? Or do we want our attention to be something that really enlivens us, embodies us, brings out freedom in our life. I would like to think of that as simplicity – the simplicity of just being alive and letting life, the lived life, flow through us.
So thank you. I look forward to having this chance with you tomorrow morning. For those of you in the Intensive, there will be a more formal welcome and introduction to this intensive program at the 10 o'clock program this morning. I look forward to seeing you intensive folks there then. Thank you.