Meditation has gained popularity in both the East and the West. After all, it allows you to beat stress, become more in tuned with your inner self, and promises to purify your mind of factors that can cause pain and distress.
However, you’ll find that most meditative practices are either advertised as Vipassana or Zazen. Is there a real difference between these two?
Let’s find out.
Vipassana is a meditation practice modelled after Theravada Buddhism and follows the teachings of Satipatthana Sutta. It’s a form of meditation that involves complete concentration on the body and the many sensations within to gain a deeper insight into thyself.
Zazen is a Zen form of meditation that is usually performed in the lotus position. A seated meditative practice, it calms the mind and body and allows a person to concentrate on the ‘inner flow of energies’ that can shed insight on the nature of one’s existence to gain a sense of ‘enlightenment’.
What’s the difference between Vipassana and Zazen?
Ask any individual who has practiced both Vipassana and Zazen and they will tell you that both of these are essentially the same, reason being that both these meditative practices focus on breathing and take you to greater heights of self-awareness.
However, some practitioners point out that while Zazen emphasizes on breathing deeply with the belly to reach a meditative state, Vipassana emphasizes on breathing through the nose to reach the state called ‘jhana’, which essentially means ‘complete absorption’.
Additionally, Zazen requires one to be seated in a specific position and is hence practiced for shorter sittings; a typical Zazen session lasting 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, Vipassana is more relaxed in regards to seating position and hence most Vipassana meditation sessions are about 60 minutes long.
Vipassana is a simple and practical way to achieve real and lasting peace of mind. It focuses less on posture but more on breathing deeply through the nose, focusing on the breath and then observing inner thoughts and emotions that arise during the meditative state. The goal is to be completely aware of yourself – both inside and outside, and analyze the results of your actions.
There are many types of Zazen practiced by Zen Buddhists, but Shikantanza style of Zazen (or sitting Zazen) focuses more on sitting and being still. You have to sit with a good posture, breathe deeply using your belly (or diaphragm) and focus on your bodily sensation while you calm the mind. With Zazen, you are aware of the ‘present’ moment more than trying to focus on thoughts and ideas. As the name ‘Zen’ implies, the goal is to reach a state of inner-peace.
It’s rumoured that Vipassana was the meditation method used by Gautam Buddha himself and he is the one who taught this meditative technique to his disciples in India. By concentrating on their inner-self, they were able to rid themselves of pain, despair and suffering.
These disciples travelled all through the world and took the teachings of Vipassana to other neighbouring countries, mainly Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
However, there are others who disagree and say that Vipassana is the form of contemplative mediation Gautam Buddha used after he emerged from formless meditation. Zazen practice provides you with a radical acceptance of the present moment. Vipassana is more goal-oriented approach to meditation, pushing you to attain a state of mindfulness.
Gil Fronsdal has been a student of Buddhism for over 25 years. He started his training with the Soto Zen tradition, receiving dharma transmission in 1995. Years later, he visited Thailand and was introduced to Theravada Buddhism, where he learnt the meditation technique of Vipassana. Today, he practices and teaches both. Here is what he has to say about the difference between Vipassana and Zazen, since he is one of those rare teachers who practice both these meditative forms.
“I struggled a fair amount when I just started with Vipassana, trying to reconcile goal-less Zen practice -in which practice and realization are thought to occur together – with the goal-oriented Theravada tradition, in which you work toward later realization. Eventually I came to understand that these approaches not only complemented each other but could be seen as two sides of the same coin. Soto Zen taught me to emphasize the purity of the moment-to-moment process of sitting in meditation; Vipassana taught me how that process opens to greater freedom even when we don’t fixate on freedom as a goal. My Vipassana practice taught me that the radical acceptance of myself and of things-as-they-are that I learned in Zen included an innate, natural impulse toward liberation.”
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