Japanese Cultural ZenLectures

Meditation or Performance Art?

What Zen students think meditation is, is actually Performance Art – that seated meditation looking like a Buddha Statue! That is not meditation and not Zen.

Meditation has nothing to do with an Performance Art, rather it is an internal process of deep contemplation and reflection upon a subject. In the religious context, meditation is used to illuminate (enlighten) ones own clinging, attachments and all that ‘conceptual crap’ that we call ‘Me, Myself and I”. This has nothing at all to do with seated meditation.

The Zen meditation termed Zazen is a fabrication of Dogen, a 12th century Tendai monk from Japan who claims to have went to China and studied with the Caldong Zen sect, in where Dogen created a Performance Art of ‘Sitting like a Buddha statue’ in where the sitting Buddha absorbes Buddha-nature that he claims is in all things – rocks, trees, the grass and the ground itself (very Shinto, if I would say) and that this absorption transforms one in to a Buddha.

What most, if any at all, Zen students do not know is that Dogen’s fledgling temple was absorbed shortly after his death by Keizan, the founder of Soto in Japan, and Dogen’s books and works where relegated to the archives where they sat unread for hundreds of years. Though Dogen is attributed as the founder by the Soto, because they thought he did go to China and studied with the Caldong, that claim is highly suspect given Dogen’s own writings on Zen that are not reflected by the Caldong or the Mahayana canon.

Zen monks of the Caldong where known as ‘Cave sitters’ and this is a hermitage practice of being alone and isolated – often to allow for a detachment of the world and to help one ‘Meditate’ on what they think is “My, myself and I’ to allow them to see the illusions themselves (Plato’s cave allegory).

The meditation halls of Ch’an are not for ‘Absorbing Buddha-nature’ nor a place for Holy Performance Arts, rather it was a hall set aside for ‘contemplation and reflection’ in where those who enter can be assured of non-disturbance and isolation from the worldly-ways (if even for a short time).

This question of “what is the religious practice of Zen” has been coming up to me a lot from many different angles and people. There is a lot of questions about this Zazen that the Zen centers insist upon and praise. We know that the Zen masters of old did not perform ‘Zazen’ or any Performance Art at all:

Foyan: sitting meditation and concentration do not amount to inner freedom.

Huangbo: you should not try to supplement that perfection by such meaningless practices

So, why then does Zen insist on Zazen – that is clearly a Performance Art?

The answer are shocking:

  1. It can be measured, ranked and tallied as in to who shows up and who sits.
  2. It can be sold, as in seats in the Zendo (meditation halls), robes and bibs
  3. It can be demonstrated (materialistic) and makes one look like a ‘Buddha statue’
  4. It can be sold as Holy, to sit and ‘absorb Buddha nature’ from the items in the Zendo

As absurd as all of this looks, it is exactly what goes in in the Zen Centers. Most Zen students get suckered into this and spend years, if not decades, in this jaw slacking meditation, drooling seated meditation performance art and wonder when ‘Enlightenment’ is to come.

The real meditation of the Zennist is not an easy task, and most run-a-way from real Zen. Real Zen meditation is not a Performance Art, it is not a materialistic conceptual thing at all. When the zen student realizes this, then they realize they do not need the Zendo, the Zafu, the Roshi or even the Zen Temple itelf – for they have entered the True Path of Zen.


Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website

3 thoughts on “Meditation or Performance Art?

  • The Zennist

    Meditation in Buddhism from samadhi to dhyana is always associated with direct intuition of the absolute or the same absolute spirit. The physical posture taken is incidental. A careful reading of Buddhist and Zen literature tells us that a physical posture is not important so much as direct gnosis (jñāna) of the absolute is. Zen master Hsu-yun writes: “Ch’an [Zen] does not mean sitting (in meditation). The so-called Ch’an hall and the so-called Ch’an sitting are only provided for people (who encounter) insurmountable obstructions (of their own) and who are of shallow wisdom in this period of decadence (of the Dharma).”

  • So when the great Milarepa sat for many years in a cave in Tibet, what exactly was meditating and realizing its full Buddhanature?

    Was it his body? Or,
    was it something transcendent and independent of his body? Or,
    was it a poser laying the foundation for others posers in the future trying to emulate his time in that cave?

    The wisdom of Milarepa´s Mind was vast and sufficient enough to find a good cause not condemning his own approach to the praxis of his own awakening, where sitting meditation (body position) was merely a tool of putting an obstacle at rest as to grant time and focus on a higher reality come to full circle with itself.

    I suggest you perhaps are a bit more careful condemning something you haven’t come to full terms with as per its complete service to this higher principle many good VChan Masters have spoken of and of course demonstrated themselves.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *