What is Zen?
Zen stems from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and originated in China around the 8th Century AD. It is heavily influenced by the Taoist tradition of China and also borrows extensively from Confucianism. Having taken root in China (where it was known as ch’an), it then sprang outwards to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, where it became known as Japanese Zen.
It’s a tradition that isn’t merely about the acquisition of knowledge but putting knowledge into action by helping others. It is considered important that it is personally taught by a recognised master.
How is it practised?
As a beginner, you sit very still, possibly starting in the quarter lotus position, with your eyes almost-but-not-quite closed. Keeping perfectly still is considered very important, because the mind may wake up if you don’t.
You begin by practising exercises on present moment awareness. Here you will be instructed to forget the past, cease thinking about the future, and concentrate only on the present moment. If you find the above difficult, then it is suggested you count breaths until you can get the hang of it.
In this case, you will be asked to count your breaths from one to ten. If your mind wanders, then you start again. If you get to ten, you don’t celebrate or congratulate yourself on the achievement; you simply start again.
If you unconsciously count to 11, 12, 13 etc. then this is considered evidence of a lack of mindfulness, and you go back one. You persist in this practice until you have it cracked.
Then you may progress to an exercise called ‘catching the ox,’ which is about disciplining the mind, as well as practising mindfulness – first on the body, then the emotions, then the mind, and then the objects of the mind.
Mindfulness of breathing (without counting) is also common. During this time, you will likely graduate to practising while in half lotus.
You may also be instructed to practise loving-kindness, and if you stick with it, you will follow a ten-step, multi-decade path of perfecting your levels of mindfulness until you ultimately start practising something called Zen Koans, which are used to provoke the “great doubt” and test a student’s progress.
Finally, and with great mastery, you will then begin teaching them.
How does Vedic meditation compare with the Zen methodology?
Zen is actually quite influenced by the Vedic knowledge base, via its Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist roots, both of which borrow heavily from Vedic wisdom.
As a result, Vedic meditation and Zen share some similar qualities in that they are both designed to be not merely about the acquisition of knowledge, but more about living the knowledge through the attainment of present moment awareness, which, in turn, will naturally help and support all the people with whom you interact.
They also both favour the interaction with an accomplished master, which is an incredibly important aspect of learning high-level knowledge and progressing at a satisfactory rate.
However, there are differences.
It’s so easy
Zen tends to be more of an ascetic practice, while Vedic meditation can easily be practised by people with full and busy lives, which is important if you wish to carry on being a member of everyday society.
Its ascetic roots also means that Zen can be quite severe in its application. As you become more advanced, your present moment awareness will be tested by a master, who will attempt to sneak up to you and if you don’t notice his presence, he’ll whack you with a cane!
Vedic meditation originated before monasticism existed, and lends itself to easy application and integration into the busy modern world in which we live. There is none of the severity that one often finds in monastic derived practices.
The Vedic and Zen approaches also tend to differ in the effort one invests into trying to attain presence.
Being effortless, as we are in Vedic meditation, tends to be a lot easier, and having a mantra seems to bring considerably more benefit to your ability to stay present moment oriented. This is substantiated by a study at Harvard, which showed that Vedic meditation is four times more effective at developing present moment awareness than Zen meditation.