Bai Zhang’s 12 Meditation Steps

“Do not give rise to good and bad thoughts. When a thought arises-–-be aware of it-–-awareness dissolves the thought. When this method is applied over a long period of time—all thoughts are forgotten and oneness is attained.”

-Bai Zhang

Zuo Ch’an Yi, The Seated Meditation Regulation text, may have been one of the first lists of instructions regarding seated meditation. This is thought to be one of the texts that Zen Master Dogen referred to when he was creating his own set of meditation rules.

Zen Master Baizang gave the following instructions in this text regarding how to meditate. I think this list is still relevant today:

1) Regulate food, water, and sleep.

2) A quiet room and loose clothing.

3) A thick cushion.

4) Adopt an awe-inspiring deportment that makes everything ‘equal’.

5) Assume the full-lotus – right-foot over left thigh, left-foot over right-thigh.

6) Assume the half-lotus – with the left-leg laid over the right-leg.

7) Left-hand should be placed on the right-hand with thumbs touching.

8) Adjust the posture forward and backward and settle whilst regulating the breath.

9) Align the spine with the shoulder and pelvic girdles.

10) An aligned posture allows the breath to be full and deep.

11) The ears should be aligned with the shoulders; the nose with the navel. The tongue should touch the palate and the lips and teeth should be closed.

12) Eyes should remain slightly open to avoid drowsiness.

It’s important to have some kind of structure. If our meditation is too open ended, too relaxed, then we might not meditate at all. So, instructions like these are important. And, even though this is a very old list of instructions, it still has plenty of relevance for those of us that are meditating today.

Bai Zhang said that meditation is the single most important teaching in Buddhist practice. I tend to agree with that. Meditation benefits the self and all other beings as well.

Zen Master Dogen

I think it could be argued that the history of Zen is really a history of spiritual iconoclasts and revolutionaries, spiritual adventurers who saw the way things were and sought to innovate instead of merely accepting the status quo.

Dogen is  looked upon by Soto Zen Buddhists as an ideal to live up to; he represents everything that Soto Zen is and is thought of as mainstream.

But, in the beginning, he was a radical. He saw the Buddhism that had arrived in Japan and he found it lacking. So, he traveled to China to see what else he could learn—and he came back and started the Soto Zen sect.

Dogen quickly learned the meaning of the word impermanence—while still young, he lost both his parents. So, he was inspired to study Buddhism.

I’ve always felt a special connection to Dogen because losing my parents is what inspired me as well.

Dogen was an illegitimate child in a noble family and became an orphan at an early age and he became a monk at Mount Hiei, a Tendai Buddhist monastery.

Later in life, he had this to say about his time there:

“They maintain that all beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?”

This is significant. Dogen is a hero now, so much of Zen stems from him. But he was, like many historical Zen Buddhists, someone who constantly asked questions. We need to learn this lesson—the Buddha told us to investigate thoroughly.

As a young monk, he was questioning Buddha nature, a very well known Mahayana teaching. He found no satisfactory answer to his question. He asked several Tendai teachers and one of them suggested that he travel to China and study Ch’an Buddhism.

In China, Dogen went to several leading Ch’an monasteries. At the time, most Ch’an teachers relied heavily on the use of gong-ans (koans). A simple description would be these are riddle-like phrases that are supposed to shock the student into having some sort of realization.

Dogen studied these gong-ans, but he didn’t understand why so much emphasis was placed on them. He found them to be a little bit useful, but only to a certain point. He wondered why there wasn’t more emphasis on sitting meditation and sutra study.

He was offered Dharma transmission and he turned it down. He wasn’t happy with the teachings, so he rejected the teacher’s approval. He wanted to find a lineage that was more in line with his views. He didn’t want Dharma transmission from a teacher that disappointed him.

After Dogen had been in China for two years, he heard about a Ch’an master who had a different style of teaching.

Rujing was a teacher in the Caodong School of Ch’an.

Dogen traveled to Mount Tiantong to meet him.

Rujing told Dogen to Cast off body and mind.”

Dogen said that this was when he became enlightened. The simple hearing of that sentence gave him an awakening experience.

Dogen described Enlightenment this way:

 To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.[6]

Rujing’s teaching was based on sitting meditation and Dogen really connected with it. This was a big change from some of the other Buddhist teachers he had met. There are even some lineages in Zen today that hardly meditate at all, focusing almost entirely on gong-an practice.

A few years later, Dogen received Dharma transmission from Rujing; Dogen returned to Japan after seven years in China.

He wrote down a text called the “Fukan Zazengi” and distributed it; it was a set of instructions for sitting meditation and emphasized why sitting meditation is important.

He brought the philosophy he had learned to Japan, naming it ‘Soto’ Zen and created his own temple called Eihei-ji.

He was a prolific teacher and writer. He composed a long text called the ‘Shobogenzo’ that is considered one of the most important works in the Zen tradition.

He died at the age of 53, after giving Dharma transmission to one of his students. Soto Zen grew a great deal and Dogen’s legacy has been a great influence on Japanese Buddhism.

Dogen’s Main Teachings

Dogen repeatedly emphasized the importance of ‘zazen’ or sitting meditation. He said that meditation is the core of Zen practice and study. He taught it to both monks and the laity, saying that everyone should learn it. This is a departure from some teachers in the past who ad said that these teachings should be available only for monks and nuns.

This is what he wrote about it:

“For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Zazen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.”

He described zazen and enlightenment as one. Sometimes we might feel like our meditation is unproductive. Dogen is telling us that that’s not the case, that Enlightenment is right here for us to get. This is important because when we think of Enlightenment as something ‘out there’ that can be harmful to our spiritual practice. It can cause us to look outside of ourselves instead of within.

He said:

“To practice the Way singleheartedly is, in itself Enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or between zazen and daily life.”


Kensho: A Glimpse of Awakening

Kensho is something we talk about in the Zen tradition.

It represents the mystical experience, the experience of oneness, of seeing our true nature, emptiness, the absolute, whatever you want to call it.

Some lineages talk about it a lot and some talk about it a little. It’s important to not attach to these experiences. There are stories about people who thought they had attained Enlightenment and then made some bad decisions.

That’s why having a teacher is important, so the teacher can tell you, “Hey, slow down. Take it easy.” This is helpful if we’re attaching too much to these experiences. Or, at the very least, it is useful to find a supportive community. Finding a teacher isn’t always easy and for some of us it takes a very long time.

It’s been said that Kensho can be a big or small experience. In either case, it is an opening, a glimpse into Awakening. This is a temporary experience.

Dogen called it, “The dropping away of body and mind.”

Xu Yun said, “The mind came to a stop.”

Having had a Kensho experience doesn’t mean that one is fully Enlightened. It’s just a glimpse of the truth. Kensho has been compared to a psychedelic experience.

I didn’t really start having these experiences with any regularity until I started meditating every day. Some people say they never have them, even with really diligent practice.

The point is that we shouldn’t be attached to these experiences.

They are wondrous and can really help motivate us on the path, but if we think of them as special, we could have problems.

D.T. Suzuki also wrote in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism:

“When the mind has been so trained as to be able to realize a state of perfect void in which there is not a trace of consciousness left, even the sense of being unconscious having departed; in other words, when all forms of mental activity are swept away clean from the field of consciousness, leaving the mind like the sky devoid of every speck of cloud, a mere broad expense of blue, Dhyana is said to have reached its perfection.”

Some people think of Kensho as the end of the path, but that’s a mistake.

Really, it’s the beginning. It does change you in a very real way. I’ve been fundamentally changed by every such experience I’ve had. I wouldn’t say I’ve had Satori, or a full Enlightenment experience, but it’s because of Kensho that I believe Satori is attainable. Once you’ve had a Kensho experience you can’t lie to yourself like you did before when you’ve had  a glimpse at the true nature of things.

In the Platform Sutra Huineng said:

“If, for one thought-moment, there is abiding, then there will be abiding in all successive thoughts, and this is called clinging. If, in regard to all matters there is no abiding from thought-moment to thought-moment, then there is no clinging. Non-abiding is the basis.”

Kensho is a state of letting go, releasing who you think you are and dwelling in your true self.

After this break in thoughts is over, one tends to still not cling to thoughts for a while.

When we engage both concentration and insight practices, these experiences can arise naturally. They’re especially common when we are on retreat.

Every time we enter this space of Awakening it’s a deep and profound experience.

Every time, we dwell in Enlightenment, we bring a little more of it back with us

When Buddhist Practice Becomes Routine

prayer wheel

Historically, there have been two forms of Buddhism.

Actually, there are a lot more than two, but I’m just going to talk about two here.

For simplicity I’m going to refer to them as Temple Buddhism and the Other Buddhism.

Temple Buddhism exists in temples—often simply among monks and laypeople that visit them. Temple Buddhism is centered around the temple, as the name suggests. It involves strict adherence to traditional forms, whether they seem helpful or not.

The Other Buddhism leaves the temple. The Other Buddhism involves going to the forest or going out into the street to take the Dharma to other places. It involves innovation. Often that innovation ends up leading to a new form of Temple Buddhism,which is different from the original.

Right after the Buddha’s death, the Sangha started organizing as monks in temples. And this worked out for a while. People venerated the Buddha. They chanted and did rituals in his name, spent time meditating and it was good.

But then there have been the renegades. I can point to a lot of examples.

Bodhidharma arrived in China and saw a Buddhism that was practiced in the temples there. He thought this Buddhism was lacking, so he went to live in a cave by himself. In Japan, Ikkyu left temple life to go teach the Dharma to prostitutes and alcoholics. And Dogen, thinking that the Buddhism in Japan wasn’t authentic enough, took the journey to China to try to find “real” Buddhism.

In Thailand Buddhadasa Bhikku left temple life to create a retreat center in the forest.

The Buddha himself went to live alone in the forest because he found the spirituality of his time to be lacking. That’s where Buddhism comes from.

We’ve lost a lot of this maverick spirituality in modern Buddhism. People are concerned with being attached to temples, practicing the exact way their teacher did, and not really thinking much outside the box. I’ve known plenty of Buddhist teachers who spend a lot of time just telling stories about their teachers, even doing an impression of their teacher’s accent (when it’s a foreign teacher). To me that’s really weird, but it’s very common.

Like religion in general, too often Buddhism can just become routine.

We perform rituals with no real meaning behind them. We just go through the motions, without really being serious about our practice. I can point to parallels in other religions, like the people who go to church and just sing beautiful hymns in monotone voices, without even thinking about the meaning or enjoying the spiritual practice.

It’s out of these kinds of issues that the Other Buddhism has repeatedly emerged. Because rebellion is what the Buddha did, it’s a natural part of Buddhism. That’s why there are such diverse lineages and practices. Change is an integral part of Buddhism.

To an extent I think we’ve lost sight of that in the modern world. People do have a tendency to think that things have to be a certain way because they always have been.

I often wonder, why.

I sometimes wonder if losing my parents caused me to find Buddhism.

“To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves”



I sometimes wonder if losing my parents when I was a teenager has been a contributing factor in my interest in Buddhism. The realities of suffering and impermanence are important concepts in Buddhism. I experienced those realities firsthand as a teenager. I watched each of my parents die slow and painful deaths. That could be why I started thinking about deep questions regarding suffering and the causes of suffering.

The Buddha didn’t experience anything like that, of course. If anything, his experience was the opposite. He was shielded from all kinds of suffering by his protective father. He had every possible joy available to him for his entire life. That’s not something most of us can relate to very well.

The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen, on the other hand, had an entirely different experience from the Buddha. He was inspired by personal tragedy and I find his story to be something I can relate to and understand. He lost his father at the age of 2 and his mother at the age of 7. He became a young orphan and that is how he learned the realities of suffering and impermanence, just as I did as a teenager. I lost my father when I was 15 and my mother when I was 19. Not nearly as young as Dogen, but certainly before I was ready to become a full adult. I think any child suffers a great deal when their parents pass before their time.

On her deathbed, Dogen’s mother recognized the purity of her son’s heart. She told him to devote his life to benefiting others. My mother told me the same thing on her deathbed. She said to me, “Always be a good person. Be kind to others.”

Dogen’s experience of great suffering inspired him to become a Buddhist monk. He devoted his life to understanding suffering, just as the Buddha had 1800 years earlier. He developed great compassion and an inquiring mind. I developed these as well. Was it the result of personal tragedy? I suppose there’s no way to tell, but his story really speaks to me on a personal level.
Dogen went on to become a very important figure in Zen Buddhism, even founding his own sect. I don’t truly want to compare myself to him. I only wanted to say that I find parallels between his story and my own.