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 below.

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