ZEN 4: The Five Varieties of Zen


Reference: Lectures on Zen

These are Yasutani-Roshi’s introductory lectures on Zen training from THE THREE PILLARS OF ZEN by Philip Kapleau.

There is little to comment here. Any comment is to empasize a point. The comments are in color.


Lecture 4—The Five Varieties of Zen

I shall now enumerate the different kinds of Zen. Unless you learn to distinguish between them, you are likely to err on decisive points, such as whether or not satori is necessary to Zen, whether Zen involves the complete absence of discursive thought, and the like. The truth is that among the many types of Zen 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 Zen, and each was slightly different from the others.

All great religions embrace some measure of Zen, since religion needs prayer and prayer needs concentration of mind. The teachings of Confucius and Mencius, of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, all these have their own elements of Zen. Indeed, Zen is spread over many different activities of life, such as the tea ceremony, Noh, kendo, judo. In Japan, starting with the Meiji Restoration, less than a hundred years ago, and continuing up to the present, there have sprung up a number of teachings and disciplines with elements of Zen in them. Among others I recall Okada’s System of Tranquil Sitting and Emma’s Method of Mind and Body Cultivation. Recently one Tempu Nakamura has been zealously advocating a form of Indian Yoga Zen. All these different methods of concentration, almost limitless in number, come under the broad heading of Zen. Rather than try to specify them all, I am going to discuss the five main divisions of Zen as classified by Keiho-zenji, one of the early Zen masters in China, whose categories, I feel, are still valid and useful. Outwardly these five kinds of Zen scarcely differ. There may be slight variations in the way the legs are crossed, the hands folded, or the breathing regulated, but common to all are three basic elements: an erect sitting posture, correct control of breathing, and concentration (unification) of mind. Beginners need to bear in mind, however, that in the substance and purpose of these various types there are distinct differences. These differences are crucial to you when you come before me individually to state your aspiration, for they will enable you to define your goal clearly the better that I may assign you the practice appropriate to it.

There are different methods of concentration, almost limitless in number. They come under the broad heading of Zen. All these methods, according to their substance and purpose, may be divided among five categories of Zen.

The first of these types we call 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 of personality and a strengthening of character inevitably follow since the three basic elements of mind—i.e., 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.

The first of these categories is bompu (ordinary) Zen. It is free from any philosophic or religious content. It is practiced to improve both physical and mental health. Bompu Zen is an excellent mode of mind training, but it does not resolve the fundamental problem of man and his relation to the universe.

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.

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. A good example of this is Tempu Nakamura, the man whom I mentioned earlier. It is reported that he can make people act without himself moving a muscle or saying a word. The aim of the Emma Method is 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, and of which I shall speak later in greater detail. Here I will simply remind you that a Zen which aims solely at the cultivation of joriki for such ends is not a Buddhist Zen.

Another object for which gedo Zen is practiced is rebirth in various heavens. Certain Hindu sects, we know, 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 hence he can all too easily be seduced away 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 a Buddha.

The second of these categories is gedo (outside) Zen. Here we have a Zen related to religion and philosophy but yet not a Buddhist Zen. Gedo Zen aims at the cultivation of various supranormal powers of skills, or to master certain arts beyond the reach of the ordinary man. Another object for which gedo Zen is practiced is rebirth in various heavens. These are not the aim of Zen Buddhists.

I will stop here and at the next lecture conclude the five types of Zen.


I have now discussed with you the first two kinds of Zen, namely, bompu and gedo. Before going on to the next three types I am going to give you another method of concentration: following the breath with the mind’s eye. For the time being stop counting your breaths and instead concentrate intently on following your inhalations and exhalations, trying to visualize them clearly. You are to carry on this exercise until you come before me again.

Note that the concentration regimen is modified once again for the students being lectured.

The third type of Zen is shojo, literally meaning “Small Vehicle” [Hinayana]. This is the vehicle or teaching which 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.

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 (and some of you listening to me now may be among them), 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. Indeed, death seems even preferable to life. The most unbearable sin of all is the taking of life in any form and under any circumstances, since this condemns them to interminable suffering incarnated as beasts or demons in countless future existences owing to the inexorable law of karma. So mere death is not the end. Hence what they are seeking is a way of avoiding rebirth, a method of dying without being reborn.

Shojo Zen provides the answer to this need. It has as its aim the stopping of all thoughts so that the mind becomes a complete blank and enters into a state called mushinjo, a condition in which all the sense functions have been eliminated and the faculty of consciousness suspended. With practice this power can be cultivated by anyone. In case there is no wish to die one can enter this trance-like state for a limited period—say an hour or two or one or two days—or one can remain in it indefinitely, in which event death follows naturally and painlessly, without—and this is most important—rebirth. This entire process of death without rebirth is set forth in great detail in a Buddhist philosophical work called the Kusharon.

The third type of Zen is shojo (small vehicle) Zen, which looks only to one’s own peace of mind. It is Buddhist Zen, but not in accord with the Buddha’s highest teaching. This Zen is for people seeking a way of avoiding rebirth. It aims at stopping all thoughts so that the mind enters a state in which all the sense functions have been eliminated and the faculty of consciousness suspended.

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-godo, i.e., 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 experience of satori 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 satori 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-awakening, it is easy to mistakenly regard zazen as but a means. A wise teacher, however, will point out from the outset 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.1

1 See p. 281.

The fourth type of Zen is daijo (great vehicle) Zen, which was taught by Buddha. Its aim is zazen, which is the awakening and actualization of the innate Buddha-nature.

Saijojo Zen, the last of the five types, is the highest vehicle, the culmination and crown of Buddhist Zen. This Zen was practiced by all the Buddhas of the past—viz., Shakyamuni and Amida2—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. We call it shikan-taza, and of this I shall speak in greater detail in a subsequent lecture.

2 See “Amida” in section X.

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 not necessary. Such an egregious error reduces shikan-taza, which properly is the highest form of sitting, to nothing more than bompu Zen, the first of the five types.

The last of the five types, Saijojo Zen, is the highest vehicle, the culmination and crown of Buddhist Zen. It involves no struggle for satori or any other object. In this highest practice, means and end coalesce. It is the expression of Absolute Life, life in its purest form.

This completes my account of the five varieties of Zen, but unless I now tell you about the three objectives of zazen my presentation of these five types, especially the last two, will be incomplete.


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  • vinaire  On October 21, 2018 at 8:53 AM

    Scientology shall fit under the second of these categories – the Gedo Zen.


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