The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

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Pablo . P, modified 8 Years ago.

The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 378 Join Date: 3/21/12 Recent Posts
I stumbled upon this webpage following LAYA's definition in another thread. I don't know anything about Zen but thought that the text below could be of interest for fellow posters, and perhaps someone would like to comment on the subject.

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The Five Varieties of Zen

Among the various types of Zen presented to the people of today there are some which are profound and some shallow, some that lead to Enlightenment and some that do not. It is said that during the time of the Buddha there were ninety or ninety-five schools of philosophy or religion in existence. Each school had its particular mode of practice, each was slightly different from the other. Since most religions have prayer in some form or another and prayer needs concentration of mind, most religions have at least a whiff of Zen. The different methods of concentration, almost limitless in number, come under the broad heading of Zen. Rather than try to specify all of them, the five main divisions of Zen as classified by Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (AKA: Keiho Shumitsu Zenji, 780-841. A Chan Master of Shenhui’s early Heze school and Fifth Ancestor of the Chinese Huayan school) whose categories are still valid and useful, will be discussed here. Outwardly these five kinds of Zen scarcely differ, however beginners need to bear in mind that in the substance and purpose of these various types there are distinct differences.

I. BOMPU

The first of these types is called bompu, or "ordinary," Zen as opposed to the other four, each of which can be thought of as a special kind of Zen suitable for the particular aims of different individuals. Bompu Zen, being free from any philosophic or religious content, is for anybody and everybody. It is a Zen practiced purely in the belief that it can improve both physical and mental health. Since it can almost certainly have no ill effects, anyone can undertake it, whatever religious beliefs he happens to hold or if he holds none at all. Bompu Zen is bound to eliminate sickness of a psychosomatic nature and to improve the health generally.

Through the practice of bompu Zen you learn to concentrate and control your mind. It never occurs to most people to try to control their minds, and unfortunately this basic training is left out of contemporary education, not being part of what is called the acquisition of knowledge. Yet without it what we learn is difficult to retain because we learn it improperly, wasting much energy in the process. Indeed, we are virtually crippled unless we know how to restrain our thoughts and concentrate our minds. Furthermore, by practicing this very excellent mode of mind training you will find yourself increasingly able to resist temptations to which you had previously succumbed, and to sever attachments which had long held you in bondage. An enrichment in personality and a strengthening of character inevitably follow since the three basic elements of mind - that is, intellect, feeling, and will - develop harmoniously. The quietist sitting practiced in Confucianism seems to have stressed mainly these effects of mind concentration. However, the fact remains that bompu Zen, although far more beneficial for the cultivation of the mind than the reading of countless books on ethics and philosophy, is unable to resolve the fundamental problem of man and his relation to the universe. Why? Because it cannot pierce the ordinary man's basic delusion of himself as distinctly other than the universe.

II. GEDO

The second of the five kinds of Zen is called gedo. Gedo means literally "an outside way" and so implies, from the Buddhist point of view, teachings other than Buddhist. Here we have a Zen related to religion and philosophy but yet not a Buddhist Zen. Hindu yoga, the quietist sitting of Confucianism, contemplation practices in Christianity, all these belong to the category of gedo Zen. Some examples that might meet the Gedo "outside way" criteria, that is, they are flirting with Zen --- but not embracing Buddhism in a classical or formal sense --- can be found in the works of F.M. Alexander, Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Madame H.P. Blavatsky, and Alfred Pulyan. Please note that the so-called Gedo "outside way" is NOT to be confused with Zen and "outside the Doctrine."

Another feature of gedo Zen is that it is often practiced in order to cultivate various supranormal powers or skills, or to master certain arts beyond the reach of the ordinary man. It has been reported that some who have practiced this Zen have attained the ability to make people act without them having to say a word or move a muscle. There is something called the Emma Method which aims to accomplish such feats as walking barefooted on sharp sword blades or staring at sparrows so that they become paralyzed. All these miraculous exploits are brought about through the cultivation of Joriki the particular strength or power which comes with the strenuous practice of mind concentration. A Zen that aims exclusively at the cultivation of Joriki for such ends is NOT a Buddhist Zen. See also Siddhis.

Another object for which gedo Zen is practiced is Rebirth in various heavens. Certain sects practice Zen in order to be reborn in heaven. This is NOT the object of Zen Buddhism. While the Zen Buddhist does not quarrel with the idea of various strata of heaven and the belief that one may be reborn into them through the performance of ten kinds of meritorious deeds, he himself does not crave rebirth in heaven. Conditions there are altogether too pleasant and comfortable and he can all too easily be lured from Zazen. Besides, when his merit in heaven expires he can very well land in hell. Zen Buddhists therefore believe it preferable to be born into the human world and to practice Zazen with the aim of ultimately becoming Buddha. (BACK)

III. SHOJO

The third type of Zen is shojo, literally meaning "Small Vehicle." This is the vehicle or teaching that is to take you from one state of mind (delusion) to another (Enlightenment). This small vehicle is so named because it is designed to accommodate only one's self. You can perhaps compare it to a bicycle. The large vehicle [Mahayana], on the other hand, is more like a car or bus: it takes on others as well. Hence shojo is a Zen which looks only to one's own peace of mind (see Pratyeka Buddha).

Here we have a Zen which is Buddhist but a Zen not in accord with the Buddha's highest teaching. It is rather an expedient Zen for those unable to grasp the innermost meaning of the Buddha's Enlightenment, i.e., that existence is an inseparable whole, each one of us embracing the cosmos in its totality. This being true, it follows that we cannot attain genuine peace of mind merely by seeking our own salvation while remaining indifferent to the welfare of others.

There are those, however, who simply cannot bring themselves to believe in the reality of such a world. No matter how often they are taught that the relative world of distinctions and opposites to which they cling is illusory, the product of their mistaken views, they cannot but believe otherwise. To such people the world can only seem inherently evil, full of sin and strife and suffering, of killing and being killed, and in their despair they long to escape from it.

IV. DAIJO

The fourth classification is called daijo, Great Vehicle [Mahayana] Zen, and this is a truly Buddhist Zen, for it has as its central purpose Kensho, that is, seeing into your essential nature and realizing the Way in your daily life. For those able to comprehend the import of the Buddha's own Enlightenment experience and with a desire to break through their own illusory view of the universe and experience absolute, undifferentiated Reality, the Buddha taught this mode of Zen. Buddhism is essentially a religion of Enlightenment. The Buddha after his own supreme Awakening spent some fifty years teaching people how they might themselves realize their Self-nature. His methods have been transmitted from master to disciple right down to the present day. So it can be said that a Zen which ignores or denies or belittles Enlightenment is not true daijo Buddhist Zen.

In the practice of daijo Zen your aim in the beginning is to awaken to your True-nature, but upon Enlightenment you realize that Zazen is more than a means to Enlightenment - it is the actualization of your True-nature. In this type of Zen, which has as its object Satori, it is easy to mistakenly regard Zazen as but a means. A wise teacher, however, will point out from the onset that Zazen is in fact THE actualization of the innate Buddha-nature and not merely a technique for achieving Enlightenment. If Zazen were no more than such a technique, it would follow that after Satori, Zazen would be unnecessary. But as Dogen-zenji himself pointed out, precisely the reverse is true; the more deeply you experience Satori, the more you perceive the need for practice.

V. SAIJOJO

The last of the five types is saijojo Zen, the highest vehicle, the culmination and crown of Buddhist Zen. This Zen was practiced by the Buddha - Shakyamuni - and is the expression of Absolute Life, life in its purest form. It is the Zazen which Dogen-zenji chiefly advocated and it involves no struggle for Satori or any other object. It is called Shikantaza.

In this highest practice, means and end coalesce. Daijo Zen and Saijojo Zen are, in point of fact, complementary. The Rinzai sect places daijo uppermost and saijojo beneath, whereas the Soto sect does the reverse. In saijojo, when rightly practiced, you sit in the firm conviction that Zazen is the actualization of your undefiled True-nature, and at the same time you sit in complete faith that the day will come when, exclaiming, "Oh, this is it!" you will unmistakably realize this True-nature. Therefore you need not self-consciously strive for Enlightenment.

Today many in the Soto sect hold that since we are all innately Buddhas, Satori is unnecessary. Such an egregious error reduces Shikantaza, which properly is the highest form of sitting, to nothing more than Bompu Zen, the first of the five types.


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There are also three phases or stages of training typically found common to Zen:


I The First Phase is shojin, the period of training in which the will and conscious effort are involved, and may take three to five years of diligent practice.

II The Second Phase is the period of concentration without conscious effort. The disciple is at peace. He can become an assistant to the master and later become a master himself and teach others in his turn.

III The Third Phase the spirit achieves true freedom, Enlightenment. Over and over it is found Zen historians citing the experience of full liberation being brought about by (but not limited to) hsing-chiao which consists of sending the learner traveling from one hill to another, from one school to another, studying under one master and then another.

The Japanese word for the First Phase, Shojin, translates as "ceaseless effort" or "constant effort." Said to be from the Sanskrit word "Virya" (in Pali: Viriya)
Zigg tron, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 14 Join Date: 1/30/21 Recent Posts
thanks for sharing this

im going through MCTB after years of zazen practice and im trying to understand where this practice fits into the models

is it concentration? is it insight? i feel like it's both.
Olivier, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 742 Join Date: 4/27/19 Recent Posts
You mean where does zazen fit within mctb ?

Mctb does a great job at breaking down the first phase described in this post into very practical points and clearly delineated stages, ie the part of the path where you're doing a lot of conscious effort, purification, etc.

Tibetans call it the path of accumulation. It's basically mctb first path, imo.

You could almost say that the five zens here described correspond to how meditation will be like according to which of the three phases of thepath you're on. 

Keep in mind that zen comes from the word chinese word ch'an which comes from sanskrit dhyana, pali jhana.... Which just means "meditation practice".

concentration and insight go hand in hand, and though it might be practical sometimes to clearly delineate them as different axes of practice, sometimes it's not. Depends on the person, too. 

​​​​​​​Yes, zazen is concentration and insight together.
Olivier, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 742 Join Date: 4/27/19 Recent Posts
Very interesting, thank you.
Tim Farrington, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 2470 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Hello, Zigg tron-san, and welcome to DhO!

I can relate to going through MCBT after years of practice in another tradition, and trying to get oriented. I had been working in the Judeo-Christian contemplative tradition for a long time when I came across Daniel Ingram's work, which I found electrifying. The real deal-ness came through very strongly, and I loved his fundamental no bullshit qualities, and the breadth and depth and precision of his practice and scholarship, and the spectacular synthesizing qualities of his particularly gifted mind.


"is [zazen] concentration? is it insight? i feel like it's both." I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this, as well as the details and specifics, and history of your practice.

I think the watershed between concentration and insight as the terms are used in MCBT is the revelation of the Three Characteristics and the six sense doors: once you focus exclusively on what's coming through the six sense doors, in light of the three characteristics, you're into insight territory and it's time to sink or swim. In the John of the Cross tradition, this watershed is sort of enforced, emphatically, in the dark night, when the various comforts of concentrative contemplation go utterly dry and all your pretty thoughts turn to crap and it's quite clear that you as a self are really an empty, helpless batch of empty self-serving mechanisms. This is God's gift, lol, in the tradition: God curing you of that proud advanced soul and of that proud accomplished soul's big prize, "God." The only thing to do is watch that empty shit come and go, while it becomes clearer and clearer that the only contribution of the self in any of it is to make it more painful by trying to have it different. It's insight, pure and simple and ruthless, or nothing: everything that arises is seen to be transient, miserable, and without a viable entity to do anything about it. Concentration in dark night conditions is a joke, most of the time, and even afterward, you sort of lose your taste for it, or at least your greed for the pleasant states. The Three Cs make a grown-up meditator out of you, however you come upon them. Or kill you, lol. 
Zigg tron, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 14 Join Date: 1/30/21 Recent Posts
I feel like this question deserves it's own thread.  the 5 types of zen speak more to the motivations and then the choice of practices, rather than actually trying to break down comprehensively what zazen is.

there are definitely multiple forms of practice which are taught as zazen.  i've found - even with the same teacher - the following 2: 1. watching or anchoring on the breathe, 2. shikantaza/watching the whole.  And honestly, I can relate to insight practice and concentration in both.  

I've become a little disillusioned by the lack of specificity and prescriptiveness that Ive found common in zen.  I feel like it allows useless/unskillful practice to continue.  But I still like it. I just want to know wtf Im actually doing. 

​​​​​​​My concern is that without really hitting home the concentration and the insight specifically and separately (as much as it can be anyway - insight practices have concentration, vice versa) then zazen can be bascially watering down both practices.   Btw I think I heard you on an artist podcast recently?
Tim Farrington, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 2470 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Hey Zigg (can I call you Zigg? Or is it Mr. tron?), I agree whole-heartedly that the questions you're raising merit their own thread, and would gladly follow you to one if your start it.

there are definitely multiple forms of practice which are taught as zazen.  i've found - even with the same teacher - the following 2: 1. watching or anchoring on the breathe, 2. shikantaza/watching the whole.  And honestly, I can relate to insight practice and concentration in both.  

I've become a little disillusioned by the lack of specificity and prescriptiveness that Ive found common in zen.  I feel like it allows useless/unskillful practice to continue.  But I still like it. I just want to know wtf Im actually doing. 

I think I kinda sort know what you mean, but there's some lack of specificity for you! The high phenomenological bar set by Daniel Ingram, and his thorough mastery of such a range of techniques, and his gift for elaborative mapping, are part of what makes DhO unique, and I hope soon that someone who is not me will find their way to this conversation, lol. Meanwhile, we'll just keep the ball in the air as best we can as two guys coming from sloppy-ass traditions, phenomenologically impaired, and poorly trained, specificity and prescriptiveness-wise. 

​​​​​​​My concern is that without really hitting home the concentration and the insight specifically and separately (as much as it can be anyway - insight practices have concentration, vice versa) then zazen can be bascially watering down both practices.  

I always rely on deep existential terror in assessing the possible holes and blind spots in my practice, but this may be just that I tend to steer the car from crash to crash, and have full confidence that whatever crash I'm accelerating toward at any given moment will come to me as grace, in God's time. We really need someone here who can talk to you intelligently about all the nuances in between the walls and cliffs.
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Pepe, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 441 Join Date: 9/26/18 Recent Posts
Hi Zigg,

Zazen is very similar to Theravada's "choiceless awareness" as far as I know. 

One typical choiceless awareness instruction is: "Observe the flow of mental images and sensations just as they arise, without engaging in criticism or praise. Notice any aversion and fascination; contemplate any uncertainty, happiness, restlessness or tranquillity as it arises. You can return to a meditation object (such as the breath) whenever the sense of clarity diminishes, or if you begin to feel overwhelmed by impressions. When a sense of steadiness returns, you can relinquish the object again. This practice of 'bare attention' is well-suited for contemplating the mental process. Along with observing the mind's particular 'ingredients', we can turn our attention to the nature of the container. As for the contents of the mind, Buddhist teaching points especially to the Three Characteristics".

Check Ajahn Viradhammo: https://www.abhayagiri.org/reflections/493-choiceless-awareness 

But have in mind that choiceless awareness is best suited only for certain ñanas of the (Mahasi's) Progress of Insight:

Shargrol -> Every yogi should have multiple techniques in their toolbox if they wish to attain Stream Entry. There's no need to be polemic about this stuff: 
  • Just sitting is helpful when getting started
  • Noting is helpful to develop momentum.
  • Sensations of breathing is helpful when there is momentum and senstivity.
  • Penetrative investigation is helpful during A&P.
  • Noting is helpful in the aftershock of A&P and the beginning of the dark night.
  • Sensations of breathing and noting is helpful when digesting the dukka that comes up during the dukka nanas.
  • Bittersweet purification sensations are helpful in cleaning up the dukka nanas.
  • Soaking in jhana is helpful when they start showing up.
  • Noting is extremely helpful when Reobservation hits like a brick wall.
  • Just sitting is helpful when EQ starts to develop.
  • Very gentle noting or saying "yes" on each outbreath is helpful for continuing EQ after the initial impact becomes normal.
  • Inquiry is helpful when there is stagnation.
  • Soaking in playful 4th jhana, meditating on the mindstream (the sound of thoughts), and while sleepy is helpful in late EQ.
Most of Shargrol's pointers on Choiceless Awareness, you'll find them in the Equanimity section: https://shargrolpostscompilation.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html 
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Angel Roberto Puente, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: The Five Varieties of Zen - The Three Stages in Zen's Training

Posts: 281 Join Date: 5/5/19 Recent Posts
Hey, good to hear all of you again. I first read of this subject in the 60s. It appeared in Philip Kapleau' book "The Three Pillars of Zen". These varieties and stages were part of Hakuun Yasutani Roshi's introductory lessons on Zen training. His lineage is an independent branch of Zen. If you read the book the whole conceptual frame becomes clearer. There are as many approaches to Zen training as there are teachers, but in one thing they all seem to agree, authoritarianism. If your experience is not approved by the teacher it doesn't exist. I was told so much a few days ago by a Roshi in a Facebook discussion page. This felt like a kick in my pragmatic balls.  I, as a Christian that practiced Zen and had my understanding measured by my teacher, still rebels against this attitude. I believe that "by their fruits you shall know them" is still the true measure. Those of us that have enlisted in the army of DhO are always trying to understand the best path forward for our practice and to understand our experience. Having friends who are on the same wavelength is very important for encouragement and guidance. But in the end only the person can honestly know what is helpful towards the goal of the end of suffering, for them. I think Buddha thought so too: "Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: "It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: 'Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.' But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone." ….."And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!" This was the last word of the Tathagata".

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