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Two Paths One Goal (or non-goal)

These are notes that may accompany The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness Course.


Buddhism has been around for almost two and a half thousand years, during that time Buddhist meditation practice has gone through lots of changes. In this session I want to compare the type of meditation that was very probably taught by the Buddha and is now represented by Theravada Buddhism and a much later style developed by Dōgen Zenji in 13th century Japan called Sōtō Zen. As we will see there is a strong tension between a meditation method that has lots of intentionality and one that seeks to avoid intention altogether.

For info. on –
Theravada Buddhism:
Sōtō Zen:ōtō

A bit of background. The Bath and Bristol Mindfulness Courses do not teach exactly the same meditation practices taught in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. Rather we have returned to a simpler method that is closer to authentic Theravada Buddhist mindfulness and is largely derived from the instructions given by Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg from the Insight Meditation Society. However there is a twist – our own practice has been deeply influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the non-dual teaching of Dzogchen found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism which has many similarities to Sōtō Zen. This teaching leads to a “non-distracted non-meditation” that is, like Sōtō Zen, a ‘doing nothing’ meditation. As such in our meditation methods we straddle a spectrum of teaching – starting off with something relatively simple and active to something actually very difficult because of its complete inactivity.

For info. on –
Insight Meditation Society:

The heart of what follows may be summed up by two images – Early Buddhist practice is all about going on a journey to awakening, Sōtō Zen is all about giving expression to the awakening that is already present. And you may immediately see parallels with the previous session on how we may understand ‘Buddha Nature’.

Theravada Buddhism

First it has to be said this is a bit of a generalisation.

Theravada practice consists of calm abiding, samatha, and insight meditation, vipassana. The idea is that we first calm the mind which brings craving to an end and this opens us to insight into nature of how things really are (impermanent, not-self and unsatisfactory) that leads to awakening – nibbana.

Calm and insight meditation are represented as conjoined in the ‘Teaching on In and Out Breathing’ (Anapanasati Sutta) and the ‘Teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ (Satipatthana Sutta) as taught by the Buddha.


However calm abiding and insight are also taught separately where first there is an emphasis on calming the mind through increased concentration, which is called samadhi, and that leads to ‘absorption states’ called jhana’s, and then followed by insight that leads to a variety of paranormal powers and finally the awakening of nibbana.

For a full description of this (rather daunting journey) see Gethin pp.174 – 201

For us the essential point is that this is a gradual path that uses mindfulness to choose between unwholesome and wholesome mental states, choosing to step away from the unwholesome – in short, greed, hatred and delusion – and to embrace and cultivate the wholesome –
• Mindfulness (sati) i.e. to recognise the dhammas (phenomena or reality, two ways one can translate “dhamma”).
• Investigation (dhamma vicaya) of dhammas.
• Energy (viriya) also determination
• Joy or rapture (pīti)
• Relaxation or tranquility (passaddhi) of both body and mind
• Concentration, (samādhi) a calm, one-pointed state of concentration of mind,
• Equanimity (upekkha), to be fully aware of all phenomena without being lustful or averse towards them.

From this list of the ‘seven factors of enlightenment’ it is clear that the capacity for profound states of calm and insight translate into a way of being in relationship to oneself, others and the world. It is also clear that it is a process which Theravada Buddhism calls ‘the Path of Purification’.

Sōtō Zen

Here we look very briefly at Sōtō Zen practice – zazen. This is considered to be both the union of calm and insight and, most importantly, the expression of awakening in and of itself. Thus “just sitting” (shikantaza) is not a means to awakening but is awakening expressing itself in each unfolding moment. Or to put it another way “it is a description of the natural essence and function of the mind” when the mind rests in its own nature, calm and clear, unobscured by emotional and cognitive obscurations.

Here are some descriptions of the practice borrowed from Wikipedia:

Master Shengyen explains the meaning of the term in this way:
This “just sitting” in Chinese is zhiguan dazuo. Literally, this means “just mind sitting.” Some of you are familiar with the Japanese transliteration, shikantaza. It has the flavour of “Just mind your own business.” What business? The business of minding yourself just sitting. At least, you should be clear that you’re sitting. “Mind yourself just sitting” entails knowing that your body is sitting there. This does not mean minding a particular part of your body or getting involved in a particular sensation. Instead, your whole body, your whole being is sitting there.

According to Merv Fowler:
shikantaza is described best as, quiet sitting in open awareness, reflecting directly the reality of life. (Note this is not reflecting on).

Fred Reinhard Dallmayr writes:
Regarding practice, Dogen counselled a distinctly nonattached or nonclinging kind of action, that is, an activity completely unconcerned with benefits or the accomplishment of ulterior goals: the activity of ‘just sitting’ or ‘nothing-but-sitting’ (shikantaza) whereby self-seeking is set aside in a manner resembling a resolute ‘dropping off of body and mind.’

According to Master Shengyen:
While you are practicing just sitting, be clear about everything going on in your mind. Whatever you feel, be aware of it, but never abandon the awareness of your whole body sitting there. Shikantaza is not sitting with nothing to do; it is a very demanding practice, requiring diligence as well as alertness. If your practice goes well, you will experience the ‘dropping off’ of sensations and thoughts. You need to stay with it and begin to take the whole environment as your body. Whatever enters the door of your senses becomes one totality, extending from your body to the whole environment. This is “silent illumination.”

And for perhaps the most important teacher in the West:,_Beginner%27s_Mind

For us, our practice of ‘doing nothing’ is a direct descendent of this type of practice. When it is combined with the ‘doing something’ practice of simple mindfulness of breathing it is a marriage between the earlier style of intentional practice with the later style of without intention, doing nothing – or non-dual – practice.

For those of you who have not already seen this youtube clip giving instructions on this practice see:

Finally – probably for another time – this leads into another juicy contradiction which is about whether awakening comes slowly or suddenly. As you can see from this the slow process is definitely associated with Theravada Buddhism but with Zen it seems you get it or you don’t ….