December 1, 2011

From Vipassana to Zen

I sometimes describe my approach to meditation as “a Burmo-Japanese fusion practice created by an American Jew who got turned on to science by a Roman Catholic priest.” 

The Burmo part refers to the 20th century Burmese technique of Noting which was developed by Mahasi Sayadaw. The Japanese part refers to the Expansion-Contraction paradigm of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who teaches at Mount Baldy Zen Center and other locations. Essentially, I’ve taken the Roshi’s paradigm of expansion and contraction as the nature of consciousness (which he teaches through the intuitive method of koans and mounted it within the systematic framework of Noting. 

Whenever possible, I encourage my students to go the Source and study directly with Sasaki Roshi. However, the style of practice in Zen is radically different from, almost diametrically the opposite of, the style of practice in Vipassana (although, when things go well, the results should be similar). In Zen practice, one first learns how to flow with impermanence (expansion and contraction, anicca) through doing—riding on the rhythm of a highly ritualized schedule. After doing impermanence for many years, the Zen practitioner will begin to see that impermanence is also the nature of their sensory experience—both subjective (image, talk, emotional body) and objective (sight, sound, physical body). In Vipassana, the order is reversed: a person first carefully observes the senses, sees their impermanent nature and (hopefully) later learns to express that impermanence dynamically through their energy and actions.

In order to prepare students to make the transition from my relatively laid back Vipassana retreats to Sasaki Roshi’s extremely rigid and intense Rinzai Zen retreats, I prepared a series of talks that I call Zen Prep Talks. If you’re interested, you can listen to them here (or go to, click on "For Students", and click on "Zen Prep Talks" at the top of the page).

Recently, a student sent me a link to a video by Tom Davenport called "Bodhidharma's Shoe" that shows how Rinzai Zen practice is done under Sasaki Roshi’s leadership. Perhaps some of you will find it fun and interesting if you’ve never had contact with that tradition. Here’s the link. Enjoy.

By the way, the Roman Catholic priest that turned me on to science was an Irish Jesuit I met in Japan, Father William Johnston


  1. Hi Shinzen
    Wondering if you've ever had students coming from, or going to, the Vajrayana traditions. Liked your comparison of Zen vs. Vipassana.

  2. Thanks for this commentary, Shinzen. I'm very much enjoying your set of tapes, "The Science of Enlightenment," and recently a friend of mine also purchased them on my recommendation. Now she's looking for a teacher who can help her toward Enlightenment while she carries on her worldly responsibilities. In her words: "How does one go about finding a good and reputable teacher that can lead one down that path, safely, directly and recognizing that as a westerner, I have a life and real commitments that need to be met?" Any thoughts I can pass on to her? Also, who is the "American Jew" you mentioned above? Thank you!

  3. The "American Jew" he mentions is Steve Young which is Shinzen's birth name.

  4. Dear Shinzen,
    I had the great opportunity to sit in a day-long retreat with you at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters last month. Ever since that experience, I have been reading your resources and have ordered your tapes. I didn't know how to contact you, but I wanted to share something personal. I live on a farm and have lots of animals, and it always seemed to me very important to understand both the coming-into-life and the dying-into-death, and for this animals can give you a lot of experience. I remember when I first saw a horse being born - unlike other mammals, they come out still completely enclosed in a sack, a heavy-walled glutinous semi-transparent capsule. When they kick a bit, the sack breaks, and they lay there, like an isopod -- with length and width, but no breadth to them, like a stick figure, except all folded up onto itself. And then the body starts to "shiver" -- except that its not from cold (there is no wetness) but from the Chi starting to enter into the body. It is like watching a miracle. Well, the flip side of this is interesting, too. And the week after I came back from that day-retreat, I had the opportunity to sit with my beloved old dog, Princiapezza, as she worked through her dying. Her lungs were no good from a long life of working her big body from within her narrow chest. So I sat, day after day, watching, and thinking of the kinds of perceptions that were occurring (hear in, hear out, etc...) And she died. Here is the point I wanted to share. I have always thought of the giving of life, when the Chi comes in, as "expansion" and certainly, when we breathe in, it feels like we are expanding, and breathing out feels like a contraction. But watching 'Pezza there, it occurred to me that every breath we take *in* is a contraction of spirit, and when we give that breath back, then there is an expansion of spirit. And so I had the experience of seeing/experiencing the flip side of that dying, not as a contraction from the living, into the cold, steady state of the dead, but as an expansion towards source, to be source. I also worked hard to be mindful of the feel-in quality of the enormous sorrow that accompanied her death. And I would love someday the opportunity to become more lucid about this phenomenon, why it arises somatically in the way it does, the particular and precise nature of its quality, etc... I guess I am greedy for more! I hope to come back to Green Mountain in January. Best of the New Year to you and your sangha!

    Bonnitta Roy

    1. Hi Bonnitta,
      Can you contact me when you get a chance? I'm one of Shinzen's employees. Thanks!

      Emily Barrett

  5. Hello to all readers,

    I was introduced to Shinzen back in the late 1990's. I have gone on a few retreats with Shinzen. I have meditated for years, and have studied the teachings of dozens of other teachers from all over.

    Shinzen's discourses and talks from the late 1990's are priceless beyond comprehension, I am not exagerating. The clarity, depth of insight, and Shinzen's ability to explain and clarify things that were at best baffling before, are second to none. I am absolutely confident that Shinzen speaks of these Spiritual matters from his core experience, and not merely from books.

    I am blessed more than I can tell you as I heard many of these earlier talks, and have a lot of them on tape. I am converting them to CD's and then MP3's for my own private use. I would like to donate these back to Shinzen if he does not already have these. They are gems that will inspire my practice for the rest of my life.
    This man and his talks have changed my life in a very big way. I am forever grateful.

    May all beings be free, and may all beings know themselves not only "this is me!" but also a Sacred Activity !! All my best to you dear reader, thank you to read this post.

    james kelly
    Houston, TX

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hi James, Let's connect when it's convenient for you. I'm one of Shinzen's employees.

      Emily Barrett

  7. This is a good article :)

    It's good tat we can practice Vipassana meditation which help improve our wisdom.
    You may listen this free download vipassana meditation MP3 teaching from a guru who have 30 years experience.



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