Volume 1, ISSUE 2 Summer 1995

Three Pillars of Zen - The Five Varieties of Zen

Roshi Philip Kapleau

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 indispensable in 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...

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 [a teacher] individually to state your aspiration, for they will enable you to define your goal clearly the better that [a teacher] may assign you the practice appropriate to it.

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 one happens to hold or if one holds none at all. Bompu Zen is bound to eliminate sickness of a psychosomatic nature and to improve the health generally...

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 in 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 [ person]. 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 of 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 a 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 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, one oneself does not crave rebirth in heave. Conditions there are altogether too pleasant and comfortable and one can all too easily be lured from zazen. Besides, when one's merit in heaven expires one 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 third type of Zen is shojo, literally, "Small Vehicle." This is the vehicle or teaching that 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 buss: 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 hight teaching. It is rather an expedient Zen for those unable to grasp the innermost meaning of the Buddha's Enlightenment, that is, that existence is an inseparable whole, each one of use 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 the relative world of distinctions and opposites to which they cling is illusory, the product of their mistaken views, they cannot be believed 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.

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, that is, 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 supreme awakening 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 Enlightenment is not true daijo Buddhist Zen.

In the practice of daijo 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 onset that zazen is in fact the actualization of 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 pointed out, precisely the reverse is true; the more deeply you experience satori, the more you perceive the need for practice.

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- namely, Shakyamuni and Amida- 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.

In this highest practice, means and end coalesce. Daijo Zen and saijojo Zen are, in point of fact, complementary. The Rinzai sect places daijo upper-most and saijojo beneath, whereas the Soto sect does the reverse. In saijojo, when rightly practiced, you site in the firm conviction that zazen is the actualization of your undefiled True-nature, and at the same time you site 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 unnecessary. 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.

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...