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Zen Masters

Huangbo advised seated meditation and urged his followers to practice dilligently:

When you practice mind-control, sit in the proper position, stay perfectly tranquil, and do not permit the least movement of your minds to disturb you. This alone is what is called liberation. Ah, be diligent! Be diligent! Of a thousand or ten thousand attempting to enter by this Gate, only three or perhaps five pass through. If you are heedless of my warnings, calamity is sure to follow. Therefore it is written: Exert your strength in this life to attain! / Or else incur long aeons of further pain!

Huineng, as recorded in the Platform Sutra, in his last words to his disciples, advises them to sit in meditation:

After he finished reciting this gatha, the Master told his disciples, “Be well. I am leaving you now. After I’m gone, don’t engage in the worldly customs of crying and accepting condolence money and wearing mourning garments. That would not be the Buddhist Way. And you would not be my disciples. Act the same as when I was here. Sit together in meditation, but remain free of movement and stillness, birth and death, coming and going, right and wrong, present and past. Be at ease and at peace. That is the Great Way. After I’m gone, just practice in accordance with the Dharma, the same as when I was with you. And if I were here, and you disobeyed my teaching, even my presence would be of no help.”

Hongzhi called "sitting in stillness" a correct practice:

The correct way of practice is to simply sit in stillness, and silently investigate; deep down there is a state one reaches where externally one is no longer swirled about by causes and conditions. The mind, being empty, is all-embracing. Its luminosity being wondrous, it is precisely appropriate and impartial. Internally there are no thoughts. Vast and removed, it stands alone in itself without falling into stupor. Bright and potent, it cuts off all dependence and remains self-at-ease.

Huairang famously told Mazu that trying to sit with the intention of becoming a Buddha 'kills the Buddha':

In learning sitting meditation, do you aspire to learn sitting Zen, or do you aspire to imitate the sitting Buddha? If the former, Zen doesn’t consist in sitting or lying down. If the latter you must know the Buddha has no fixed postures. The dharma goes on forever and never abides in anything. You most not therefore be attached to or abandon any particular phase of it. To sit with the purpose of becoming a Buddha is to kill the Buddha. To be attached to the sitting posture is to fail to comprehend the essential principle.

Linji reminds his students that seeking Buddhahood is not a goal of Zen practice, and seems to leave the door open to multiple avenues of practice:

If you want to walk, walk. If you want to sit, sit. But never for a moment set your mind on seeking buddhahood. Why? A person of old said, 'If you try to create good karma and seek to be a buddha, then Buddha will become a sure sign you will remain in the realm of birth and death.'

Linji also criticized attachment to meditation and practice, as well as what he thought of as a perversion of meditation, wherein one attempts to 'arrest thoughts' and seek stillness:

Virtuous monks, time is precious. And yet, hurrying hither and thither, you try to learn meditation, to study the Way, to accept names, to accept phrases, to seek buddha, to seek a patriarch, to seek a good teacher, to think and speculate.

There are blind baldies who, after they have eaten their fill, sit in meditation and arrest thoughts leaking out, to prevent them from arising, shunning clamor and seeking quietude. This is a deviated form of Zen.

Yuansou points out that Zen students should not think Zen is meditation, though he goes on to discount other Zen practices and doctrines as well:

Those who meditate in silent stillness regard silent stillness as final, but it is not something to finalize in stillness. Those who assert mastery in the midst of busyness are satisfied with busyness, but it is not something to be satisfied with in the midst of busyness. Those who learn scriptures consider scriptures basic, but it is not learned from scriptures. Those who work with teachers and colleagues regard this as a profound source, but it is not attained from working with teachers and colleagues.

Daoxin taught methods of meditation:

Question: How can we understand the characteristics of the Dharma? How can we illuminate and purify our minds?

Dàoxìn: Not by reciting the buddha-name, not by restricting mind, not by observing mind, not by calculating thought, not by contemplation, not by the practice of observation, not by scattering and confusion. Just let it roll along: don't make it go, don't let it stay. In the solitary purity, the ultimate locus, mind of itself is illuminated and pure. If we can observe it truly, mind is instantly illuminated and pure, mind is like a clear mirror. If we can observe it truly for a year, it will be even more clear and pure; if for three years or five years, even more clear and pure. Some can find understanding by hearing people explain it for them. Some never need explanations to understand. A sutra says: "The real identity of the mind of sentient beings is like a precious pearl submerged in water. When the water is turbid, the pearl is hidden. When the water is clear, the pearl is revealed."


Question: In the moment, how should we practice contemplation?

Dàoxìn: You must let it roll.

Yuanwu taught that one must consistently train the mind to let go of feelings and views:

When you reach the point where feelings are ended, views are gone, and your mind is clean and naked, you open up to Zen realization. After that it is also necessary to develop consistency, keeping the mind pure and free from adulteration at all times. If there is the slightest fluctuation, there is no hope of transceding the world. Cut through resolutely, and then your state will be peaceful.

Chinul also taught methods of meditation:

Chinul: There are many points at which to enter the noumenon. I will indicate one approach which will allow you to return to the source. Do you hear the sounds of that crow cawing and that magpie calling?

Student: Yes.

Chinul: Trace them back and listen to your hearing-nature. Do you hear any sounds?

Student: At that place, sounds and discriminations do not obtain.

Chinul: Marvelous! Marvelous! This is Avalokitesvara's method for entering the noumenon. Let me ask you again. You said that sounds and discriminations don't obtain in that place. But since they do not obtain, isn't the hearing-nature just empty space at such a time?

Student: Originally it is not empty. It is always bright and never obscured.

Chinul: What is this essence which is not empty?

Student: As it has no former shape, words cannot describe it.

Chinul: This is the life force of all the Buddhas and patriarchs

Wumen's Commentary on Case One of the Wumenguan provides instructions for hua'tou, or 'viewing the phrase', depending on one's interpretation:

To bring about a wonderful awakening, you must fully sever the ways of your mind… What is the barrier of the ancestral teachers? It is simply this one word: "no". That is the only barrier at the gate of our school. We view it, therefore, as the Gateless Barrier of the Chan Lineage… Rally the three hundred and sixty bones and joints, and the eighty-four thousand pores throughout your body, to bring forth a lump of doubt, converging upon this word "no." Hold on to it day and night. Do not conceive of a nihilistic "no", nor the "no" of "yes and no"... Now the question: how to bring this about? Offer up all your life's energy to this word "no". Do this, without interruption, and watch as the candle of Dharma is lit by a single spark.

Dahui advised his students via his letters on hua'tou practice:

“You must in one fell swoop break through this one thought—then and only then will you comprehend birth and death. Then and only then will it be called accessing awakening… .You need only lay down, all at once, the mind full of deluded thoughts and inverted thinking, the mind of logical discrimination, the mind that loves life and hates death, the mind of knowledge and views, interpretation and comprehension, and the mind that rejoices in stillness and turns from disturbance”

Dahui also criticized attachment to the fixation on details and setting for seated meditation, but stressed that did teach meditation:

Nowadays they sound a signal to sit and meditate. If you want a solemn scene, there you have it, but I don’t believe you can sit to the point where you attain stability. People who hear this kind of talk often think I do not teach people to sit and meditate, but this is a misperception; they do not understand expedient technique. I just want you to be in Zen meditation whether you are working or sitting, to be essentially at peace whether you are speaking, silent, active, or still.

Zhaozhou advised practicing seated meditation for decades until one attains awakening:

Wisdom, nirvana, absolute reality, Buddha nature-all these are but a covering of the body. You might as well call them suffering and illusion. If you do not care about them, suffering and illusion cease to exist. What, then, is the point of realization? When the mind does not arise, everything is flawless. Just follow what is true, and sit for twenty or thirty years. If you do not attain realization, then you may cut my head off.

When asked what enlightenment is, Zhaozhou composed this poem:

"The one who freely walks the Great Way,
faces the gate of enlightenment.
When one is just sitting, the mind is limitless.
Each year the spring, again the spring."

Mazu stressed that the Way is about not getting bogged down in good or evil things, and is not dependent on seated meditation:

It originally exists, and it exists in the present moment, not being something that is dependent on spiritual cultivation or sitting meditation. When there is no more (attachment to) practice and sitting, that is precisely the untainted meditation of the Tathāgata (Buddha). At this moment, if you grasp this principle, as it truly is, and you stop creating all kinds of (unwholesome) karma, then you can pass your life (at ease) in accord with your circumstances. (As a monk, all you need is) a single robe and a single alms bowl; whether sitting or getting up, you are (always) interdependently implicated with it. You should strictly observe the monastic precepts, and (should endeavor to) accumulate wholesome karma.

Ying-an advised 24/7 meditation in all four poses, during all activities:

If you want to see the subtle mind of Chan, that is very easy. Just step back and pick it up with intense strength during all of your activities, whatever you are doing, even as you eat, drink and talk, even as you experience the stress of attending to the world.

Foyan mentioned that the Buddha described over fifty kinds of 'meditation sicknesses' in the sutras, and cautioned against embellishing the merit of seated meditation:

The patriarch Ashvaghosha explained three subtle and six coarse aspects of mentation; stir, and there is suffering. How to not stir? Uttering a few sayings does not amount to talking of mysteries and marvels, or explaining meanings and principles; sitting meditation and concentration do not amount to inner freedom.

The ancients saw people helpless, and told them to try meditating quietly. This was good advice, but later people didn't understand what the ancients meant, and closed their eyes, suppressed body and mind, and sat like lumps waiting for enlightenment. How foolish!

When you sit meditating and enter into absorption, you should have no concerns or problems in yourself. Try to think independently, all by yourself. Other people don't know what you're doing all the time. You reflect on yourself and see whether what you are doing accords with truth or not. Here you cannot fool yourself.

Foyan also composed a poem entitled "Sitting Meditation" (excerpts):

When meditating, why not sit?
When sitting, why not meditate?
Only when you have understood this way
is it called sitting meditation.
Who is it that sits? What is meditation?
To try to seat it
is using Buddha to look for Buddha.
Buddha need not be sought;
seeking takes you further away.


…there are many methods
to teach [the mind] quiet observation.
When you sit up and gather your spirit,
at first it scatters helter-skelter;
over a period of time, eventually it calms down,
opening and freeing the six senses.

In the Sutras

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Vimalakirti criticizes Sariputra for confusing the physical act of seated meditation for cultivation:

"O Śāriputra, you need not take this sitting [in meditation] to be sitting in repose. Sitting in repose is to not manifest body and mind in the triple world — this is sitting in repose. To generate the concentration of extinction while manifesting the deportments—this is sitting in repose. Not to relinquish the Dharma of enlightenment and yet manifest the affairs of [ordinary] sentient beings — this is sitting in repose. To have the mind neither abide internally nor locate itself externally—this is sitting in repose. To be unmoved by the [sixty-two mistaken] views yet cultivate the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment—this is sitting in repose. Not to eradicate the afflictions yet enter into nirvana—this is sitting in repose. Those who are able to sit in this fashion [will receive] the Buddha’s seal of approval."

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha stresses personal attainment and cultivation of the mind in order to escape delusion and perceive the triple world accurately:

Who sees that the habit-energy of projections of the beginningless past is the cause of the three realms and who understands that the tathagata stage is free from projections or anything that arises, attains the personal realization of buddha knowledge and effortless mastery over their own minds… Therefore, Mahamati, you should devote yourself to the cultivation of personal attainment.

Other Stories

From the Wumenguan, Case 9:

A monk asked Seijo, "Daitsu Chisho Buddha did zazen (meditated) for ten kalpas in a Meditation Hall, could not realize the highest truth, and so could not become fully emancipated. Why was this?"

Seijo said, "Your question is a very appropriate one!" The monk asked again,

"Why did he not attain Buddhahood by doing zazen in the Meditation Hall?" Seijo replied, "Because he did not."

Mumon's Comment:

You may know the Old Indian, but you are not allowed to have an understanding of Him. If an ordinary man attains enlightenment, he is a sage. When the sage is concerned about an understanding, he is only an ordinary man.

Rather than putting the body to rest, let the heart rest.
When the mind is realized, then one need not worry about the body.
If the mind and the body have completely become one,
This is the perfect life of sage, and praise is utterly meaningless.

From the Wumenguan, Case 28:

Once in the ancient days of the World-Honored One, Manjusri went to the place where Buddhas were assembled and found that all the Buddhas were departing for their original dwelling places. Only a young woman remained, sitting in samadhi close to Shakyamuni Buddha's throne. Manjusri asked the Buddha, "Why can that woman be near the Buddha's throne while I cannot?"

The Buddha said, "Just awaken her and raise her up out of samadhi and ask her yourself."

Manjusri walked around the woman three time, snapped his fingers once, took her up to the Brahman heaven, and exerted all his supernatural powers, but he could not bring her out of samadhi.

The World-Honored One said, "Even a hundred or a thousand Manjusris would not be able to bring her out of samadhi. Down below, past twelve hundred million lands as innumerable as the sand of the Ganges, is the Bodhisattva Mômyô [Ensnared Light]. He will be able to arouse her from her samadhi."

Instantly the Bodhisattva Mômyô emerged out of the earth and made a bow to the World-Honored One, who then gave his command. The Bodhisattva went before the woman and snapped his fingers once. At this, the woman came out of samadhi.

Scholarly Opinions


The icon of wisdom is a statue of Manjushri, a personification of wisdom, commonly used in Zen meditation halls as a reminder that “ there is no meditation without insight,” in the word of Buddha himself as written in the ancient Dhammapada.

While it is common knowledge that Zen Buddhists used meditation of various sorts in their arts of mind cultivation, original Zen and imitation Zen cultism may also be distinguished in a parallel manner by comparison of specific attitudes toward meditation. Zen that is exaggerated into a meditation cult, in which meditation assumes the status of a value in itself, or attention is fixated on a given posture or procedure presented as inherently sacrosanct, is a characteristic deterioration. This is more of the nature of fetishism than enlightenment, as is particularly evident in cases where meditation is done ritualistically in random groups according to fixed schedules, even under pressure; such activity results in obsession, not liberation. This was not the procedure of the masters… (Instant Zen)