December is the month that we focus on the life and teachings of that original Monster of Zen, Shakyamuni the historical Buddha. In what follows I will attempt to demonstrate the absolute relevance and modernity of his teachings, as preserved in the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism. As some of these connections are not obvious in verbal presentation, I have included some charts as illustrations of the intersections and interfaces of what are usually presented as separate teachings.


Zen is not the same as zazen, and zazen is not the same as other meditations. It may seem heretical to propose that Zen is not equal to zazen, and that zazen is not equal to meditation. But bear with me. There are so many alternative offerings of meditation today that it is time to differentiate Zen’s method from the rest.

            Zen is not equivalent to its meditation method, zazen, simply because there is so much more to Zen as a philosophy, and as a formative force throughout history. This has primarily been true of the history of the East, but following its introduction to America in the late 1890s, and especially after WWII, westerners in general, and Americans in particular, have become more and more interested in Zen, along with a parallel engagement with other meditative traditions and styles, such as Yoga, as well as other Buddhist and non-Buddhist variations.

            Zen is known as the meditation sect of Buddhism, but zazen is not its sole method of teaching. Zen boasts an extensive literature on buddha-dharma as experienced and expounded by its adherents, beginning with Bodhidharma’s journey out of India, and tracing its evolution through China, Korea and Japan, to the Far East. However, distribution of the Buddhist canon, in the form of written sutras and commentaries, had preceded The 28th Patriarch by centuries, and his bringing Zen from the West to the East was definitely focused on the direct practice of upright sitting, or what we now refer to as zazen, or more precisely, shikantaza.


The great sage’s meditation practice did not conform to the traditional style known as dhyana, or contemplation, though this is how the local punditry interpreted his “wall-gazing Zen.” He was demonstrating shikantaza, or “objectless meditation,” which amounts to an oxymoron. Meditation is defined as the focus of attention on something, and so inherently implies a division of subject and object. If our direct experience in sitting becomes objectless, then by definition it must also become subject-less (which, revealingly, is not a recognized construction in English; thus the hyphen). In the most salient sense, then, zazen transcends normal meditation.

            “Zen” is phonetic Japanese for “Ch’an,” which is phonetic Chinese for the Sanskrit “dhyana,” one of the traditional Six Paramitas of Buddhism. Thus, Zen is actually a misnomer. Which is a good thing, because what Zen is pointing to cannot be named. In Taoism there is a similar idea, paraphrasing: “Naming is the source of all (particular) things; but that which is eternally real is nameless.”


To elicit a bigger picture of the place of Zen and zazen in our world of practice, I would like to refer you to a couple of semantic models illustrating my ideas of the interrelationships, or operative interfaces, of the various dimensions thereof that we encounter both on the cushion and in daily life. Turning to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, we see that they can be modeled as a system, the simplest geometry for which is the tetrahedron (“system” defined as having an inside and an outside):

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    These are usually presented in text in a linear layout, beginning with the First Noble Truth, that of the Existence of Suffering, followed by the Origin and Cessation of Suffering, and finally the Noble Eightfold Path, leading to the cessation of suffering.

            First, we must examine and challenge the use and meaning of the word “suffering” to translate the Sanskrit “dukkha.” Unfortunately, suffering is fraught with narrow connotations of human pain — not only physical, but emotional, mental, and even existential in nature — but I do not believe that that is the intended meaning of the original term. I think Buddha was teaching a universal principle, that of unrelenting and inexorable change, which we interpret from the perspective of personal angst.


This leads to another illustration, one that attempts to paint a picture of the comprehensive context of a Zen life and practice. You may have become acquainted with this concept in a prior Dharma Byte, but here I want to tie it together with the Four Noble Truths. I refer to this as the Four Zen Spheres, meaning those surrounding layers of reality that we find ourselves dealing with, either directly or indirectly, in the ongoing management of our lives. The most central is the Personal sphere, the next level out being the Social, then the Natural, and finally, the Universal. They are not truly separate, of course, but relatively so.

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Our meditative practice is centered in the personal experience we find on the cushion, the most intimate dimension, but it is inseparable from the other three. Buddha’s teaching of the Existence of suffering — and his charge that we are to fully understand its existence — ordinarily we would assume to lie in the inmost circle, the Personal. But I propose that its true home is in the outermost, the Universal realm. After all, there is nothing anywhere in the Universe that is exempt from this principle of change. Galaxies colliding are dukkha. That we are each and all caught up in incessant change does not make it personal, from either a positive or negative interpretation. We are neither the chosen, the most favored, beings of this reality; nor are we the sole victims. It, dukkha, is not a respecter of persons.

            The universal aspect of zazen includes that the physical posture enters into a profound stillness, which is at the heart of all motion; and into precise alignment with the field of gravity. The term used to name this profound balance in stillness is “Samadhi.” This zazen samadhi transcends the Personal and Natural spheres, linking into the planet and the solar system. That all form, including solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter are in continual flux, is another example of the Universal impinging upon the Personal. Our very life depends upon these three basic states of matter, as well as the functioning principles of organic chemistry, or biology, which overlap with the Natural. We are not personally in control of these.


The Origin of suffering, usually translated as “craving” or “thirst,” Buddha taught that we are to abandon, again as fully as possible. It would most logically find its home in the Natural sphere, or realm, as craving comes with sentient life, whether of the animal or vegetable variety. Craving as evidenced in the plant kingdom may be a bridge too far for some to embrace as having any validity, but we tend to describe trees and grasses as thirsty, especially under increasingly common conditions of drought we are witnessing as one result of climate change.

            It might prove even more difficult to mount an argument defending a theory of craving as manifested in the mineral kingdom, though certain chemical reactions, and even the simple dynamic of osmosis, or wicking, via capillary attraction, appears to mimic a form of thirst, admittedly inchoate, and unconscious.

            The main point here is that while we tend to own our feelings of craving, and struggle with guilt and other obsessions as a consequence, they are clearly and largely a result of being a physical being — an animal — one endowed with painfully intense self-awareness. “Born of body, mouth and mind” is the operative phrase in Buddhism’s Repentance chant: most of our suffering comes with the territory. And therefore we are not responsible for it, only for what we do about it.

            The Natural sphere is not only the macro environment around us, but also the micro environ within our body, including the biological, chemical and electrical process of breathing, digesting, and the rest of the inconceivably complex process of living that is built into existence as a sentient being. It is all changing constantly, and subliminally to our conscious awareness.


The Cessation of suffering, which we are to fully realize, I would locate primarily in the Social sphere, though we may find the most efficacious means for realizing it in the most intimate inner circle of the Personal, that transformational event Buddha identified as a “turning about in the inmost consciousness,” which is tantamount to salvation in Buddhist doctrine. Personal suffering of aging, sickness and death — which includes birth, as the leading cause of death — is also Natural, and obeys the “dharma,” the natural laws of the Universe. So it is natural that we look for personal salvation in the face of such suffering. And it is understandable that we look to the social level, of advanced medical treatment, for example, for solutions to mitigate our personal suffering. However, in the most fully developed and comprehensive of the Mahayana teachings, the Bodhisattva Vow, we find that no one individual can be saved while the rest remain mired in suffering. In Zen, the most central form, and cause, of suffering is our willful ignorance, and resistance.


The Eightfold Path, which we are to fully follow, I place primarily in the Personal sphere. It forms a bridge into the Social, most obviously, but has resonance in the Natural and Universal spheres as well. While the usual linear sequence begins with 1. Right View, and ends with 8. Right Meditation, in actual practice the sequence is reversed, at least in Zen pedagogy. Some sects, or schools, of meditation  recommend not encouraging students to meditate until they have some grounding in doctrine, studying the basic tenets.

            Zen praxis subscribes to the sink-or-swim approach, trusting the practice of upright, seated meditation to begin to have a positive effect, which will encourage the individual to do the follow-up study as necessary to clarify their experience. Through engaging fully in Right Meditation, the practice of Right Mindfulness (7) and Right Effort (6) will follow naturally. These three comprise Right Discipline. Note that this necessarily begins in the Personal sphere of practice-experience on the cushion, but mindfulness and effort obviously carry over into the Social realm.

            Right Speech (3), Action (4) and Livelihood (5), taken together as Right Conduct, are most clearly engaged in the Social sphere, though our actions and livelihood clearly affect the Natural realm, as in the examples of mismanagement of resources cited above.

            Finally, Right View, and Right Thought or understanding, when combined, are said to comprise Right Wisdom, in the simplified tripartite model, along with Discipline and Conduct. Much like the Six Paramitas — Generosity (S. dana), Morality (shila or Precepts), Patience (kshanti), Endurance (virya), Meditation (dhyana) and Wisdom (prajna) — the last of the sequence is the most important, and said to represent the accumulation of all the above.

            Wisdom consists of the evolution of our worldview to approximate that of the Buddha, or Buddhism, through the trial-and-error practice of engaging the other dimensions of the Eightfold Path (marga), or the perfecting of the other five dimensions of the Paramitas.

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This dissertation emphasizes that, like all such models in Buddhist teaching, as well as in other areas of human endeavor, division into digestible bites does not imply that such conceptual separations are absolute. All diagrams are Venn diagrams, to a degree. The personal cannot be separated from the social, the natural, or the universal, in reality.

            The realm of the Natural, for example brings up the issue of stewardship of the environment, including the motivation for the survival of the species. Extinction of species in the ecosystem, as a result of insensitivity to long-term consequences, and callous disregard for the sake of short-term profit, becomes very personal in terms of its impact on individuals and whole communities.

            Our exhaustive mining of mineral resources provides another example of the connection between our personal needs and the dictates of Nature writ large. The most direct and obvious solution to the “tragedy of the commons” is for each individual to lessen their craving on a personal level. This Natural sphere also offers what is probably the most promising sphere for nonpartisan political collaboration, if the actual cost of energy and material goods were fully accounted for and transparent. It is the realm in which the greatest good for the greatest number becomes most obvious and salient.

            The activity of zazen, which may appear as disengaged navel-gazing, is actually the most direct gate into the Social, Natural and Universal dimensions of our existence. When we leave the cushion and re-enter the Social, the Personal benefits of our practice come with us.


This Dharma Byte is meant to encourage you to engage deeper study of these teachings in concert with your meditation practice, and to consider joining in our new intensive master class, “Unraveling the Heart of Zen,” on its debut Saturday, December 7th, from 9:00 am to Noon, when we will take a deeper dive into the interfaces of Zen and our daily life. Please pre-register to save your spot at: