Suzuki, Zazen, "Dhyana prajna paramita"

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Jimi Patalano, modified 10 Years ago.

Suzuki, Zazen, "Dhyana prajna paramita"

Posts: 49 Join Date: 12/3/10 Recent Posts
Hi everyone,

About a month ago I decided to put the Theravdin samatha techniques I had been working on to the side for a little while, and to try out zazen practice. This was mostly because I discovered a very dedicated zazen group in my area, with a Roshi in a legitimate Rinzai lineage that goes back to Japan. So I thought, hey, why not use this great resource (the Roshi gives personal interviews) for a little while.

Anyway, I was reading something by Shunruyu Suzuki, called "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice" and something he said made me wonder about the relationship between zazen meditation and the Theravadin concentration techniques leading to the samatha janhas. Here is the relevant passage:

We have a saying, "Dana prajna paramita." "Dana" means to give, "Prajna" means wisdom, and "paramita" means to cross over, or to reach the other shore. Our life can be seen as the crossing of a river ... "Prajna paramita," the true wisdom of life, is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached. To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is true living. "Dana prajna paramita" is the first of the six ways of true living. The second is "sila prajna paramita," or the Buddhist precepts. Then there are "kshanti prajna paramita," or endurance; "virya prajna paramita," or ardor and constant effort; "dhyana prajna paramita," or Zen practice; and "prajna paramita," or wisdom.[emphasis added]


Leaving aside for now the first part, which I only added for context and to make it clear what Suzuki means by "prajna paramita", what I noticed immediately about this passage (and what I made boldfaced for emphasis) is that Suzuki seems to equate the term "Dhyana" (Jhana) with "Zen practice". I am wondering if anyone who has experience with both the traditional sense of Jhana - that is, Theravadin samatha techniques - and with zazen, might shed some light on how loose or tight this correlation is.

I had come to understood that zazen is fundamentally different from the Theravadin techniques in that there is no specific goal for zazen, not even Enlightenment, and that one is not instructed to "do" or "try to do" anything at all, but rather to simply sit silently and still and let everything come and go. On the other hand, my understanding of samatha meditation is that there is a pretty specific goal, and some pretty specific "things" that one is supposed to "do or try to do" with one's mind.

But is zazen really just samatha practice with the object of meditation being merely "the present moment" rather than "the breath"? Also note that zazen is usually with eyes open, Theravadin techniques are usually with eyes closed.

Thanks,
Jimi
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boeuf f, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Suzuki, Zazen, "Dhyana prajna paramita"

Posts: 60 Join Date: 2/4/10 Recent Posts
Hi Jimi,

Comparisons between Zen and Vipassana are tricky. Having participated in one zen practice period in a Soto Zen temple (here in the US), I recognize some of your questions. I don't have the expertise to provide a thorough comparison between the Theravada and the Mahayana (of which Zen is a part). My time with Zen was brief, but remains very important to how I understand practice--still, it hardly qualifies me as a Zen expert....anyway, here goes:

is zazen really just samatha practice with the object of meditation being merely "the present moment" rather than "the breath"?


In a word: kinda. Zen practice is by and large a concentration practice, so it does lead to concentration states which can include experiences that the Theravada would attribute to jhana. But the important thing here is that zen practice goes far beyond zazen, into everything you do, your interactions with people, cleaning, eating....etc. Ideally, Theravada practice does too, but it's a bit more free-style. What I'm trying to say is that concentration states can be cultivated (or discovered as it was in my case) in formal and not so formal activities like bowing and prostrations, soji (temple cleaning...ie: cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors). Zen directs that when you sweep the floor you leave yourself behind so that there is "just sweeping," that when you do a prostration, you "become the prostration." Any resentment, joy, etc. that develops are to be set aside in your concentration on sweeping--similar to becoming "one with the breath." Vipassana asks the practitioner (at some point) to investigate joy and resentment, or to investigate jhana itself.

Both practices advocate continuous awareness, but do so in very different ways.

You didn't ask for it, but from my perspective, I don't know how effectively you can study zen without really throwing yourself into that life, ie. moving into a zen community. Just showing up for zazen didn't seem to be enough, at least so it was for me. (This may apply only to Soto Zen, since I have no experience with Rinzai).

Below is a link for a very interesting talk contrasting Zen and Vipassana by Gil Fronsdal, who ordained as a zen priest, but eventually went very deeply into the Theravada. (Use the "search talks" function to find "Zen and Vipassana" given on 2007-12-09). It helped me a lot as I was trying to untangle these differences. But the bottom line is that it's hard to compare and contrast these practices.

http://www.audiodharma.org/talks/?search=zen

Hope this helps!

Regards,
Bruno
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Jimi Patalano, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Suzuki, Zazen, "Dhyana prajna paramita"

Posts: 49 Join Date: 12/3/10 Recent Posts
Thanks Bruno1 That audio recording was just what I was looking for. Gil's comparisons made a lot of sense and agreed with my experience - i.e. both systems are at heart about being completely in the present moment. The difference seems to lie only in the scope or level of subtlety involved - vipassana seems more about examining the reality of individual sensations rigorously and thoroughly, while Zen seems more interested in passively experiencing the totality of one's present reality, and seeing A&P on a more macro level.

boeuf f:
Zen directs that when you sweep the floor you leave yourself behind so that there is "just sweeping," that when you do a prostration, you "become the prostration." Any resentment, joy, etc. that develops are to be set aside in your concentration on sweeping--similar to becoming "one with the breath."

...

You didn't ask for it, but from my perspective, I don't know how effectively you can study zen without really throwing yourself into that life, ie. moving into a zen community. Just showing up for zazen didn't seem to be enough, at least so it was for me. (This may apply only to Soto Zen, since I have no experience with Rinzai).
s

I totally agree with this requirement in Zen practice for zazen-like mindfulness to pervade all activities one does. I try to do this as much as I can, even while living a busy, lay life. The Roshi I learn from emphasizes the need for practicality in practice, and despite being a certified Rinzai teacher and haing received Dharma transmission and all that, he has a day job, which he says gives him the perspective needed to understand the challenges that arise in real life, and bring that perspective to his Dharma teachings. So I like that aspect of it.

I also don't know anything about the distinctions between Soto and Rinzai, so as you said, this may be a specific difference between the traditions.

Thanks again for your clarification and help, and that website is really a wonderful resource.
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-- Timus --, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Suzuki, Zazen, "Dhyana prajna paramita"

Posts: 47 Join Date: 5/17/10 Recent Posts
You might want to check out the book Quiet Mind Open Heart: A Practice Period in Meditation by Carolyn Atkinson. She's a dharma heir of Kobun Chino Roshi and is also practicing Vipassana. In the book she's trying to shed some light on the differences between Vipassana and Shikantaza while suggesting an approach which combines both techniques.

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