What's the Difference Between Insight Meditation & Zen? {Part 2}

Buddhism is best understood as an interpersonal historical process that has metamorphosed in a variety of ways over two millennia, that has co-existed and swapped ideas with other developing traditions, and that has divergent branches which both share core conceptual DNA and differ on key points. All this makes it easy to get confused when one switches practice traditions.

By Seth Zuiho Segall, Ph.D.

You can find part one here.

There are other ideas that occur in Zen that also weren’t part of earlier Buddhist doctrine.

Centuries after the flowering of Madhyamaka in India, a third Indian Buddhist school known as Yogacara emerged. Yogacara introduced several innovations at variance with earlier streams of Buddhist thought

(I ask scholarly readers to forgive the oversimplification here—there are, of course, some ways in which the Madhyamaka and Yogacara innovations were anticipated in pre-Mahayana Buddhism, just as there are ways in which the Chinese innovations were foreshadowed in earlier Indian Buddhist thought.)

Among the Yogacara innovations was the idea of the illusory nature of the subject-object dichotomy.  Zen meditation values losing the sense of an “I” who is watching the theater of the mind, in other words, losing the distinction between the observer and the observed. This is not a part of Insight Meditation.

Another Yogacara innovation is the concept of the Tathagatagarbha, or the, “Womb of the Buddha” or, “Buddha-nature.” The Yogacara Buddhists wondered how ordinary human beings could become Buddhas. How could one make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Nothing comes from nothing. The question is exemplified by a conversation between the Chinese Zen master Nanyue and his attendant, Mazu:

Nanyue asked, “Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?” 
Mazu said, “I am intending to be a Buddha.” 
Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it. 
Mazu said, “What are you doing?” 
Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.” 
Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?” 
Nanyue said, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?” 

The Mahayana Buddhists wondered how an ordinary person could become a Buddha unless the seed for becoming a Buddha was not somehow already present. This “seed” is the “womb of the Buddha,” or “Buddha-nature.”

The idea of Buddha-nature has been variously interpreted by different East Asian Buddhist traditions as meaning either

1) The idea of a universally present seed of awakening, dormant and waiting to be nourished

2) The idea that all human beings are in fact already Enlightened, only they don’t realize it yet

3) The idea that the integrated-universe-as-a-whole was, in fact, the Buddha’s ultimate body (dharmakaya) itself. Our true selves are not the individual personalities they seem to be, but are, when seen correctly, the entire web of interconnected being.

The last alternative informs the Zen notion of one’s “True Self” or “Big Self” being the entirety of the interconnected universe, as opposed to the “small self” of personal ego.

I might parenthetically add that the idea of an essential Buddha-nature or “True Self” seems, at least on the surface, antithetical to the earlier Buddhist doctrine of anatta or non-self. In fact, the Nirvana Sutra—one of the earliest Yogacara texts—is quite explicit about this contradiction, claiming that the Tathagatagarbha doctrine supersedes earlier Buddhist teachings on non-self.

Even the quintessential story of the Buddha’s enlightenment differs between the Theravada and Zen traditions. I remember my sense of disorientation when I first heard a Zen teacher tell the Zen version.

According to the teacher, after sitting all night, the Buddha suddenly looked up at the morning star, exclaiming, “How wonderful! All beings and all things are enlightened just as they are!” I naively thought to myself, “How can this teacher not know the real story of the Buddha?” I was certain the Buddha never said any such thing!

Since then, I’ve heard some variation of this story from every Zen teacher who’s ever mentioned the matter. I’m not sure of the original source for the Zen version of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, but a variant of it can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Shobogenzo, the thirteenth–century foundational text of Japanese Soto Zen.

In it, Dogen writes, “Sakyamuni Buddha said, ‘When the morning star appeared, I attained the Way simultaneously with all sentient beings and the great earth.’”

The Theravada account of the Buddha’s first words upon awakening—the one I’d always heard before from Insight Meditation teachers—comes from the Dhammapada, a series of versified sayings attributed to the Buddha, and perhaps the most popular text in Southeast Asian Buddhism.

According to the Dhammapada, the Buddha’s first words on awakening were:

“Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking the builder of this house. Repeated birth is indeed suffering! O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.” 

Not a word about “all beings” or “all things” being enlightened along with the Buddha.

Why the difference between the texts? Each text deeply reflects the philosophy of the school it belongs to. The Dhammapada emphasizes the Buddha’s personal accomplishment, the most important part of that accomplishment being the destruction of craving and the ending of rebirth. These are Theravada Buddhism’s primary concerns.

The Shobogenzo version, on the other hand, reflects a belief we are all already enlightened but just don’t realize it yet. It also reflects the belief that everything is interconnected: when we become enlightened, everything in the world contributes to and shares that Enlightenment. Finally, it’s concordant with the Zen vow to bring all beings to Enlightenment. The Zen version emphasizes awakening to interdependence and the “all-togetherness” of the world rather than the individual ending of craving and rebirth.

The takeaway from all this is that it helps to understand that Buddhism isn’t, “One thing,” and that Insight Meditation and Zen aren’t always saying exactly the same thing.

Buddhism is best understood as an interpersonal historical process that has metamorphosed in a variety of ways over two millennia, that has co-existed and swapped ideas with other developing traditions, and that has divergent branches which both share core conceptual DNA and differ on key points.

All this makes it easy to get confused when one switches practice traditions. Which tradition gets things right and which gets things wrong? Which tradition accurately reflects what the Buddha, “actually said,” or teaches the best way to meditate, or has the truest understanding of what Enlightenment actually is and how to attain it? People get caught up in these questions, withdrawing to their respective dogmatic corners. You can too, if you like.

I think the more important question is, “How’s your practice going?”

Different people probably do better with different sets of teaching and practices; that’s why there are 84,000 dharma doors. There is no way to know in advance which door is best for you. If a particular teaching or practice is helping you to become more mindful, fully present, compassionate, and responsible; if it’s helping you to develop a greater sense of equanimity and become less enslaved by your passions and desires, then it’s probably a good enough practice for you.

It’s best to consider all teachings through a pragmatic lens. It’s beyond our pay grades to determine the final answers to ultimate questions, but we’re perfectly capable of determining whether or not adopting a particular practice, view, or attitude is helping us grow or not. That, in the end, is the most important question of all.


Buddhism isn’t one thing. ~Seth Zuiho Segall, PhD. Click To Tweet


Seth Zuiho Segall, Ph.D. is a Zen priest and a retired clinical psychologist. His publications include Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (SUNY Press, 2003) as well as articles for Turning Wheel, Tricycle, and the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. He is the science writer for Mindfulness Research Monthly, and a volunteer chaplain associate at White Plains Hospital. Seth’s blog, The Existential Buddhist contains over a hundred essays on Buddhist philosophy, ethics, history, art, meditation, and social engagement.

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: John Lee Pendall


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