Zen Meditation vs. Vipassana / Insight Meditation

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In the Buddhist tradition, there are three major lineages / styles-of-practice: Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana.

Personally, I spent several months living at the Upaya Zen Center, where I practiced Zen Meditation full-time (a style of Mahayana Buddhism).  I also spent a couple years as a Buddhist Monk in Myanmar, practicing Vipassana day-and-night (a style of Theravada Buddhism).

Today, I’ll discuss what I see as the essential way they are the same and different — let’s start with a story!

A Buddhist teacher once asked a group of kindergartners, “what is the purpose of eating breakfast?”

One responded, “to have energy for the day.”

And then a second young one answered, “the purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast.”

These two answers beautifully illustrate the primary similarity and difference between Zen and Vipassana.


Both traditions are grounded in mindful awareness of the present (“eating breakfast”).

However, the primary emphasis in Vipassana is on cultivation, on channeling our mindfulness in such a way that we develop insight, wisdom and, ultimately, inner freedom (“energy for the day”).

In Zen, the primary emphasis is on being present for the sake of being present — their perspective is that inner freedom is found right here, so we should just focus on the actual act of “eating breakfast,” or whatever else we’re doing.

What we’re getting at here is a fundamental difference in mindset / attitude.  Let’s consider some more examples:

The purpose of driving is to get from point A to point B.
The purpose of driving is to drive.

The purpose of calling technical support is to get your device fixed.
The purpose of calling technical support is to call technical support.

The purpose of reading this article is to learn about meditation.
The purpose of reading this article is to read this article.

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A Deeper Dive Into This Distinction

Let’s use the driving example.

Of course, when you leave work and it’s time to go home, there’s something really important about knowing that your purpose is to go home.  If you completely let go of that purpose, you might drive the complete opposite direction, get lost, run out of gas, alienate your family by not arriving home, run into a brick wall, etc.

In other words, you really do need to have a sense of direction.

But there’s a potential pitfall here.

If you’re so focused on where you’re going, you never appreciate where you are!  You might have a 30 minute drive, and the whole time your mind is off in the clouds, imagining what you’ll do when you get home.  Multiplied to your entire life, if you’re too goal oriented, or always focused on where you’re heading, you miss out on your actual life.

If you deeply study Zen and Vipassana, both of them actually agree: you need to have a sense of direction, but you also need to be present for the ride.

However, as I mentioned before, the Zen tradition more so emphasizes being present for the ride, which helps you increase your capacity to let go, and to really appreciate & make friends with the present.

Inversely, as Vipassana emphasizes the cultivation, they lay out the road map to get home with all the possible routes, and help you troubleshoot any potential complication.  If there’s a traffic jam, do this.  If you get a flat tire, do that.  If you start freaking out, do the other thing.  This approach causes you to deepen your intuitive wisdom on what works and what doesn’t, and slowly leads to an effortless and robust presence.

When I’ve met “intermediate-level students” from each tradition, the Zen folks come across differently than the Vipassana folks.  When I’ve met “advanced-level students” from each tradition, they each carry the similar qualities of wisdom, groundedness & presence.

In other words, while they take different roads, they both actually lead to the same place.

A skilled teacher of either tradition will eventually get you to learn both of these lessons on a deep, internalized level.  Personally, I’ve found it helpful to study both traditions as they balance each other out well, but it’s really not necessary.

As in the initial story, the most important part is the simple fact of “eating breakfast,” getting in your car, or being mindfully aware of the present.

In summary, there is more that unites Zen and Vipassana than differentiates them!

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