Would you like to learn Zen meditation?

If you do, then you have to make a decision: would you prefer to sit staring at a blank wall, or would you like to have an idea what other meditators in the room look like?

Actually, there’s another decision involved: do you want your progress towards enlightenment to be gradual, or would you prefer to wait a long, long time and then have enlightenment strike instantly?

Speaking of being struck instantly, would you prefer to be able to have a conversation with your teacher whenever you have questions, or do you want to be beaten with a stick occasionally?

I’m trying to be silly as I ask these questions. But though the above questions may seem irreverent, they also point to some of the ways in which the Zen meditation schools of Soto and Rinzai differ from each other.

I’ll let you figure out for yourself which of the schools uses each of the practices mentioned above. A search on Zen meditation should provide you with those answers.

My focus in this article, however, is to point out that traditions – including meditation traditions - evolve. One tradition requires that you hold your left hand in your right palm while practicing meditation. A different school requires that you place your hands the opposite way.

Allow me to ask a seemingly basic question: Do you really think it makes a difference which hand is on top of the other during meditation practice?

So, let's alter the instructions just a bit and say one of the schools requires you to put your pants on each morning right leg first in order to reach Satori, while the other requires you to get dressed left leg first. Would you be able to take that teaching seriously at all?

Of course not. But if the person in the front of the room is wearing Japanese Zen robes when they insist that our bodies must be in a particular posture for meditation, we sometimes have a tendency to stop thinking rationally. Instead of questioning, we just follow instructions.

So, let’s return to the slow enlightenment versus sudden enlightenment discussion. Actually, this issue is the philosophical difference that split Zen into the two schools mentioned above.

When you outline the argument as immediate versus gradual enlightenment, who wouldn’t prefer immediate? Not too surprisingly, the people of the "sudden school" are the ones who left to form their own tradition. It's a great sales pitch, the idea of sudden enlightenment. But let's look a little more closely at the reality behind what these two schools claim is their major difference.

They say in one of the schools that if you want to reach enlightenment, it's like walking from New York to San Francisco, slowly and surely, one step at a time. Eventually, after many years of daily Zen meditation practice, you reach your destination. So let's imagine that it will take twenty years to do this.

Now, other schools of thought says, nah, just sit there in New York, do your practice over and over, perhaps with a Zen meditation retreat thrown in every now and again for good measure, and then, suddenly, after, say, twenty years, you will wake up in San Francisco.

Same end result. Same twenty years. Traveling versus teleportation is the only difference.

My favorite aspect of this whole debate, though, is that so many of the Zen Buddhist meditation teachers who are arguing about this difference, who have been practicing sometimes for decades, regardless whether they’re hoping to get gradually closer or suddenly be plopped into the heart of San Francisco themselves… if you ask them whether they are enlightened, they only laugh and shrug. That means you are getting directions for the trip from someone who hasn’t even gotten to where you want to go.

Some kinds of meditation may involve learning to stop your thoughts, but that doesn’t mean meditation is about ceasing to use your mind altogether.

Author's Bio: 

Steven Sashen began meditation when he was eight years old, was one of the first biofeedback pioneers, and researched cognition and perception at Duke University. In addition to a successful career as an entrepreneur and entertainer, Steven has taught transformational techniques around the world and developed the Instant Advanced Meditation Course, which Dr. Gay Hendricks calls, "Perhaps the fastest and easiest way to relax, expand awareness, and find deep inner-peace."

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