In this article, we look at the key practices and principles from the two leading modern Zen schools, Rinzai and Soto, including the Zazen techniques found in both. Having a background in meditation or spiritual work will help you understand the ideas discussed here – do see my Learn to Meditate series if this applies to you.
It’s worth noting that though both are leading Buddhist schools, they hold radically different views regarding the path to spiritual enlightenment.
After reading this, you’ll be well placed to start your regular Zazen practice and glimpse the transformative power of Rinzai and Soto Zen.
We’ll return to this point – for now, let’s look at Soto Zen in detail. I’d like to thank those behind the book Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation for their wonderful insights.
Soto Zen Meditation
Intro to Soto Zen
We’ll cover the defining features of Soto Zen as well as the instructions for Zazen practice. To be clear, there’s no need to become a monk to practice this form of Zen, a view the Soto masters themselves purport. Spiritual realisation is available for all with a strong intention: “there is no secular world in buddha-dharma.”
A pillar of Soto Zen philosophy is that we’re already enlightened. “To suppose that practice and realization are not one is a view of those outside the way; in buddha-dharma they are inseparable.” This is fundamental to understanding the Soto Zen school and its meditation practices.
And in each moment, no matter how long we’ve been on the path, Soto asks us to re-know and re-cognise our original self. We practice not-knowing, opening ourselves to our present-moment experience of our true self: “the practice of beginner’s mind is itself the entire original realization.”
The Father of Soto Zen
If you study Soto Zen in any detail, you’re bound to come across Eihei Dogen, who is considered the founder of the Soto school. His advanced experience in Zazen (sitting meditation) inspired much of his written work.
Dogen lived in 13th-century Japan and was a rather traditional figure. While some of his writing is old-fashioned, morally questionable and couched in the culture of the epoch, some of it is remarkably profound and timeless. His work has even found interest among postmodernists in the last 100 years.
Dogen’s writing is often opaque, to the point of incomprehensible, as though written to confuse rather than inform. To him, our condition as finite creatures with an eternal nature means that we inevitably get tied up in paradoxes and contradictions when discussing these topics. There is simply no way to adequately describe the deepest spiritual truths.
What is Zazen in Soto?
Zazen means sitting meditation. In Soto Zen, Zazen isn’t like ordinary meditation techniques that serve to still the mind and produce religious insight. It’s much simpler and more profound. While on one hand it’s very lofty and challenging, on the other, it’s outrageously simple.
It is simply the practice of being what we are, of allowing, permitting, opening ourselves to ourselves.Norman Fischer
It’s neither devotional nor experiential, neither relaxation nor concentration, but may include all these things. Zazen is typically presented in paradoxical language. This isn’t done to mystify student – according to Soto Zen teachers, there’s simply no other way to approach it.
Zazen practice is not difficult. Anyone can do it, and instruction only takes a few moments. Yet many lifetimes are not long enough for it to mature.Norman Fischer
Demystifying Soto Zazen Meditation
Though many consider Soto meditation to be indescribable, I beg to differ. Zazen is one in the long line of meditation schools that falls foul to obscure language. And while it has a unique essence, it also shares much with dozens of other meditation schools.
Don’t get me wrong, the paradoxical, opaque descriptions have their place, but I believe we should make the basic instructions much clearer, especially to beginner students.
Let me offer a description of Soto Zazen based on my preferred meditation school, the Unified Mindfulness system:
- Note See In, See Out, Hear In, Hear Out, Feel In, Feel Out, or any combination;
- Passive stance, i.e. we allow sensory experience to come to us, rather than searching for it (being what we are);
- High equanimity (allowing, permitting, opening ourselves to ourselves);
- Detect flavours of Rest, Feel, and Space.
It’s what we might call Open Awareness or Open Monitoring. Elsewhere in the texts, meditation is described as letting the body–mind drop. This comes under the Unified Mindfulness framework as Rest, Flow and Space.
Once we use the well-defined framework of Unified Mindfulness to get going with Soto Zen practice, we should move on to the more advanced, ethereal, poetic descriptions, which are capable of shattering our illusions.
It is simply sitting in the midst of what utterly is, with full participation.Norman Fischer
Already Enlightened: The Soto Motto
As mentioned, the Rinzai and Soto Zen schools differ in their views of enlightenment. In Soto, masters assume that enlightenment is already 100% within us. For one, Dogen takes enlightenment down from its pedestal. It’s ordinary. His view is that our mind and consciousness are already fully illuminated, so there’s nothing to attain!
As such, Zazen meditation is an expression of our pre-existent, inherent enlightenment. We already are it; in meditation we simply remember it. We don’t practice Zazen to become enlightened later. But paradoxically, because we’re already enlightened, we must practice, and our practice is an expression of this fact. Indeed, there’s a term for this: practice-realisation or practice-enlightenment.
This is a beautiful teaching, especially for modern practitioners including myself, who tend to view enlightenment as a long-distance slog to spiritual stardom. It knocks us out of striving and into the moment-to-moment reality of our own already-enlightened nature.
The essential teaching is fully available; how could effort be necessary? Furthermore, the entire mirror is free of dust; why take steps to polish it? Nothing is separate from this very place; why journey away?Eihei Dogen
Now we’ve covered some of the principles behind Soto Zen, let’s look at how to practice Zazen, starting with our setup. Dogen advises us to follow these guidelines:
- Use a quiet room
- Drink and eat moderately
- Let go of all involvements
- Don’t think good or bad
- Don’t judge right or wrong
- Don’t try to become a buddha
- Remember this is not a conscious endeavour or a form of introspection.
As for the posture, he recommends we sit in full lotus or half lotus on a thick mat with a round cushion. The right hand goes on the left foot, and the left hand rests on the right hand, with the thumbs slightly touching. Sit up straight, rest your tongue against the root of your mouth, and keep your lips and teeth closed. Keep the eyes open and breathe gently through the nose. Take a breath and exhale fully, then sway your body to left and right.
At this point, Dogen advises us: “Now, sit steadfastly and think not thinking. How do you think not thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.” Think not thinking sounds paradoxical and abstract, so we’ll return to this instruction in a moment.
Even though he insists enlightenment is already our natural state, Dogen encourages us to practice Zazen always, from day one of the path, not indulging in life and its transient nature. We’re not groping for enlightenment; we’re simply and effortlessly falling into samadhi and enlightened awareness.
Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear.Eihei Dogen
Think Not Thinking in Zazen Meditation
The key instruction in Dogen’s meditation guidance is “think not thinking”. What on earth does that mean? Let’s clarify.
“Think not thinking. How do you think not thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen.”
Think not thinking doesn’t preclude the presence of thoughts, nor does it mean we repress them. It means thinking in a way that is fluid and free, not enmeshed in desire and confusion. Thoughts come and go, but we aren’t being pushed and pulled by them.
Teachers of modern mindfulness meditation often describe thoughts as clouds that move through the sky. Our job is to watch them freely arise and pass. This is think not thinking.
We must be clear that in Zazen we’re not trying to calm down or to improve – we’re delivering ourselves to the wholeness of ourselves and our sensory experience. We allow all thoughts to arise and pay them equal attention, regardless of their content. This equally applies to emotional states.
A Zen Pointer to Enlightened Self
As a pointer to the state of present awareness, Dogen says: “Past and future moments do not arise in sequence. Past elements are not in alignment. This is the meaning of ocean mudra samadhi.”
Without wishing to dilute the message, my interpretation of this teaching is that past and future only exist in the mind. And though we can mentally construct the past, multiple pasts, they all arise in the present, regardless of the time that has passed since their occurrence.
You can remember multiple points from your past. If you call them into your awareness now, it’ll seem as though they’re part of a time continuum. And as we go about our day, we carry around our plans, arranging them in time. This sense of order is useful, but these events themselves are simply part of your present thought stream, which constantly appears and disappears from the Now.
With this knowledge, we rest in the practice-realisation of full enlightenment. “Realize the fundamental point free from the binding of nets and baskets.” This mind-twisting statement means that you are already fully YOU as self, emptiness, God and all of your experience in one dance, one clapping hand. The nets and baskets are the contraction of self.
Focus on Practice
Soto also emphasises that the Zen path isn’t about reading scriptures, reciting verses, and bowing to masters – it’s about meditation practice. We read sutras not to stimulate the intellect or to form opinions, but for knowledge of how to practice.
The key is to be free from the idea of self, to be non-attached. This freedom allows us to follow the path of practice-enlightenment: our meditation as an expression of our pre-existent enlightenment.
mastering the expedient and complete teachings or exoteric and esoteric teachings without being free from attachment to the self would be like counting another’s wealth without owning half a penny for oneself.Eihei Dogen
Dogen urges us to contemplate the body dispassionately during meditation. By doing so, we find that it’s ephemeral, temporal, and impersonal. Our attachment leads to the skewed version that we are the body, but if we examine it, we’ll find there is no self there.
Enlightenment and Zazen
Now we come to another apparent paradox in Zazen: though the dharma is already present in us all, we can’t realise it without practice. As Dogen claims, “all ancestors and all buddhas who uphold buddha-dharma have made it the true path of unfolding enlightenment to sit upright practicing in the midst of receptive samadhi.”
You might wonder what receptive samadhi is. This is the merging of subject and object, contemplater and contemplated, perceiver and perceived. It’s the abandonment of self and other.
Rinzai Zen Meditation
Intro to Rinzai Zen
Rinzai Zen holds a more balanced view of enlightenment. On one hand, this school says our true self is already enlightened and needs no improvement. On the other hand, Rinzai monks have to pass 50 koans to become masters, and in the writings there’s a clear distinction between self-identification, no-self, and non-duality.
Let’s begin with Rinzai’s take on the self, and I thank Alan Watts for his insights.
Rinzai Insight into The Self
Rinzai Zen firmly holds that our self-identity is an illusion. The idea of a constant self moving through time and growing older is a false identity based on memories, abstract roles, and stereotypes. This is the symbolic self, a bundle of concepts that gives us a precarious sense of permanence and none of which point to our real self.
For this reason, Zen is not a system of self-improvement. Ideas of becoming and getting relate only to the abstract image of ourselves, and in pursuing them we only further the illusion and fail to penetrate it.
Connected… with pursuit of good is the pursuit of the future, the illusion whereby we are unable to be happy without a “promising future” for the symbolic self.Alan Watts
As a self-improvement enthusiast, I’d say that this by no means negates the need for identity-focused self help. Enlightened or not, we want to lead a fulfilling life, and such work enables us to understand ourselves deeper and be more skillful. In fact, I believe self-transcendence is a catalyst for self-improvement when done correctly.
The Origins of Self
But how does this sense of separation come about? You see, as we grow up we decouple our sense of self from the mind. And over time we draw lines between “us” and our surround. Instead of experiencing self, body and environment as a whole, it seems that the body-mind is accosting us. Once this process is complete, the self has become small and limited.
Thought also plays a role. It enables us to create symbols, which are by definition separate from what they symbolise. We can even make a symbol of ourselves, the self symbol, which by definition is separate from who we really are. We carry around mental images and stories about ourselves, calibrated with one another and linked with emotion, so that we live believing we’re the self symbol. As we walk around and interact with others, we do so as the self symbol, not as the Self.
The self symbol is more stable and comprehensible than our real self, so we learn to identify with it. Rinzai points out that this self is useful and legitimate if used correctly, but disastrous if confused with our true nature.
The difficulty of Rinzai Zen lies in turning our attention from the symbolic self to our true nature. In this pursuit we can’t get caught up in ideas and words, for those only swell our false identity. We have to go directly to the true self.
How does Rinzai go about this task? Through koans it has us question who has this mind, who we were before conception. And in sitting meditation, we do practices which encourage enlightened awareness to develop. It eventually becomes apparent that our sense of isolation, of being a mental self and of being a subject experiencing life, is an illusion.
Rinzai Zazen Meditation: Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing
All the Rinzai masters talk about Zen as little as possible and get us to dive into its concrete reality. Like in Soto, there’s a huge emphasis on sitting practice in Rinzai.
That said, Rinzai is clearly a non-dual practice. Zazen is not sitting with a blank mind, pushing away the inner and outer senses. It’s not concentration on a single point. Instead, it’s a quiet awareness of the here and now. It’s about seeing reality directly, in its suchness. To see it in this way, we must look at it free of mental constructs. When we sit with no purpose in mind, such as concentration or a clear mind, we begin to perceive the “non-difference” between self and the world.
In Rinzai, there’s a strong emphasis on spontaneity, of letting the mind and body freely act. As such, in meditation we don’t try to cultivate no purpose. We have to fall into it, then we’ll be able to perceive that inside and outside are fused.
Here are some basic practice arrangements:
- Sit on thick padded cushion with legs crossed and soles facing upward on thighs
- Hands on lap, left over right, facing up with thumbs touching
- Body upright but with ease
- Breathe in and out from stomach.
If this posture is too difficult, sit on a chair, your sofa, or a meditation stool. Beginners are instructed to count breaths from one to ten until they’re used to the stillness.
We can’t understand this school without looking at koans.
Koans are paradoxical or confusing statements that point to our true nature. They are the brainchildren of Master Hakuin and comprise six stages that take thirty years for Rinzai students to complete.
The first koans are designed to throw the student off the scent. In reality, the teacher can’t give enlightenment to the student, and there is ultimately nothing for them to gain or realise. So the master throws obstacles in the way, getting them tangled in distractions. They’re told to attempt to solve the koan with full energy, never giving up day or night.
At the first interview, the roshi instructs the student to find their original face prior to their conception. Soon the student finds the roshi is impatient with wordy or philosophical answers – they want “solid” proof, so the student brings rock, leaves, branches, anything and everything. They don’t realise that the answer is already within them.
Another first koan is the Wu koan. The roshi tells the student that Chao-chou answered “Wu (nothing)” to the question “does a dog have a buddha nature?”, then the roshi asks them to find this nothing.
The student feels completely stupid and confused. They chase their tail for days, weeks, even months. But eventually the ice collapses and the problem becomes “transparently absurd”. Finally, the student tastes their empty, original face.
There is no one left to ask himself the question or to answer it. Yet at the same time this transparent meaninglessness can laugh and talk, eat and drink, run up and down, look at the earth and sky, and all this without any sense of there being a problem, a sort of psychological knot, in the midst of it.Alan Watts
The remaining koans help students uncover their original true nature to ever deeper levels.
From Symbolic Self to The Non-dual Self Through Rinzai Meditation
The ultimate goal of Rinzai is clear: to discover our spiritual selves.
We can consider the “attainment” of the non-dual self among the great milestones in spiritual awakening. When we begin the journey, we start where most of humanity is: identification with the symbolic self and a total disconnection from the Original Face, let alone non-duality.
Stream-entry enlightenment is the realisation of the no-self, the Original Face, the observer of the mind and body. We detach from the self symbol, realising it to be a picture on the movie screen of the Self.
And with further practice, the sense of the observer collapses.: “There is no ‘myself’ apart from the mind-body which gives structure to my experience.” The relationship between subject and object, knowner and known transforms. It collapses into a mutual relationship. Subject creates object as much as object creates subject.
The knower no longer feels himself to be independent of the known; the experiencer no longer feels himself to stand apart from the experience.Alan Watts
The Rinzai Path to Non-duality
The ultimate goal of the Rinzai Zen path is to free ourselves of opposites, like good and bad, up and down, left and right. We go beyond duality, a concept that is seared into our mind and body. In reality, subject and object are non-dual, as are the knower and the known.
According to Rinzai, The point is not to participate in the game of life, which is a game of opposites, but to see the game for what it is. It’s not about submission to fate, either.
Getting rid of the distinction between self and experience is to discover relationship between self and outside world. They’re no other than the limits or endpoints of the reality which engulfs them both.
Watts describes the enormous freedom this realisation brings:
The marvel can only be described as the peculiar sensation of freedom in action which arises when the world is no longer felt to be some sort of obstacle standing against one… It is the discovery of freedom in the most ordinary tasks, for when the sense of subjective isolation vanishes, the world is no longer felt as an intractable object.Alan Watts