What is the Difference Between Zen and Vipassana Meditation?

What is the Difference Between Zen and Vipassana Meditation?

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There are more and more people engaging in meditation practices in recent times and one of the greatest joys of these practices is the sheer variety. There are many different types of meditation practice and choosing the right one for you is an essential consideration if you want to get the most out of the practice.

The type of meditation you choose will largely depend on your end goal. For example, a zazen practice has the purpose of keeping in the present moment, whereas a vipassana practice sees the meditator working towards a particular state of mindfulness.

Both zen and vipassana come from the Buddhist tradition, but there are things that separate the two and while you can practice both of these meditations alongside one another, some modern meditation fanatics will choose one or the other.

In this article, we are going to be having a discussion about everything you need to know on both the zen practice and the vipassana meditation technique.

What Is Zen Meditation?

Zen meditation, which in the zen tradition is often called zazen, is the one type of meditation that many people think of when they imagine Buddhism. The word Zen can be translated to mean peaceful and calm

There are three main sects of Zen Buddhism in Japan, the largest of which is Soto Zen. Soto Zen places a very large focus on the concept of zazen and is typically much more laid back than the other types of zen; Obaku and Rinzai.

Zazen is typically practised in the lotus posture and is associated with keeping yourself in the present moment. While engaging in this practice, a Buddhist practitioner would place there focus on an inner flow of energy that can help the person to develop a greater sense of self-awareness. This insight can also be used to develop a better understanding of the purpose of your existence which can then lead the Buddhist towards enlightenment.

Zazen is achieved by calming the mind and the body and is considered to be the foundation of the zen tradition. This practice requires a Buddhist practitioner to sit in stillness and quiet while focusing themselves inwards. The tradition dictates that any thoughts, images, words or other things that may enter the head during the meditation should be controlled.

What Is Vipassana Meditation?

Vipassna is a form of meditation that comes from the Theravada Buddhism tradition which was taught by Satipatthana Sutta. This form of meditation is designed to bring awareness to the sensations of the body. A meditator would concentrate their mind onto these sensations with the purpose of gaining an insight into themselves.

This way of meditating delivers insight in various ways. Vipassana practices will allow you to gain insight through introspection, contemplation and observation as well as taking into account your life experiences.

It is believed that Buddha himself practiced this type of meditation and went on to teach all his followers the many benefits of it. Those who follow Buddhism often strive to achieve the Buddha nature.

The Buddha nature comes from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and points towards aspects of the human being that may already be similar to those of the Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism has its roots in countries like China, Tibet and Korea and while each branch has its own distinction, there is one thing that remains common between them all; the Buddhist wants to be more like Buddha.

In Mahayana schools, there has been much discussion about the relevance of Buddha nature since it is defined as an element that we all possess. However, there are issues with this since part of the teachings dictate that one should have an emptiness about their being.

That being said, this has then been justified as being a part of the mind rather than the person themselves. But much of this will largely depend on your point of view. In any case, vipassana meditation may be practiced alongside other things with the goal of becoming more like the Buddha.

What Is The Difference Between Zen And Vipassana?

You do not need to be a zen master or even a Buddhist to take advantage of these practices but one reason that a lot of people are hesitant to begin zazen or vipassana is because they are unaware of the difference between the two. If you want to benefit from the methods used in Buddhism, you will need to know whether they are all the same or if there is a clear difference.

Human beings have practised meditation for many years and a Buddhist who regularly engages in both zazen and vipassana will tell you that they are all the same as each other. The reason for this is that both the Theravada Buddhism practice of vipassana and the zen tradition have the mind focusing on the breath. Furthermore, each method is designed with the purpose of achieving a higher state of self awareness.

However, how each method achieves this is vastly different. You see when we use the zazen way of meditating, we would breathe into the belly in order to get the mind into a deep meditative state. Conversely, those who practice the Theravada vipassana meditation would focus on breathing through the nose. As this happens, the end goal is to come to a state known as jhana. You will notice that there are many complicated words in Buddhism, but this one simply means ‘to be fully absorbed.’

But while both of these meditating methods may appear to be the same on the surface, you will find that the difference extends way past how the breathing is done.

Zazen or zen meditating is typically a much shorter practice and this is mainly down the the posture involved. Sitting in the posture for longer periods may reduce comfort and this could cause the meditator to lose focus.

Normally, this zazen style of meditating would be limited to between 15 and 20 minutes. Conversely, since there is no specific posture for vipassana, you may find that this style of meditating is practiced for much longer. In some cases, people may sit in Vipassana for an hour or more at a time.

One practitioner talks about the fact that both Zazen and Vipassana may be vastly different words for something that achieves the same end result. They talk about comparing Vipassana and Zazen to eating breakfast.

While the idea of Zazen may be to simply eat breakfast (stay in the present moment) the purpose of the insight meditation, Vipassana can be compared to why we eat breakfast; to gain energy for the day. This type of meditating allows us to work on our future, cultivating mindfulness in order to gain wisdom.

What Are The Benefits Of Zen Meditation?

The great thing about all types of meditating is that there are many benefits, whether you practice alone or in a group, Zazen can help you in a lot of areas in your life.

  • Unlike many other types of meditating, zazen puts a much deeper focus on your internal problems and questions you may have about life. Moving the focus to the breathing and away from any thoughts or words that enter the mind can help to uncover the answers to these questions.
  • Some types of zazen are practiced with a riddle and this can help you to look beyond what is rational, giving you a deeper insight into yourself and life.
  • Focusing on the breathing is an excellent way to relax. If you get nothing else out of zen meditating, you will certainly feel a lot calmer and more at ease in your day to day life.
  • There has been a lot of suggestion that out of all of the great things that zazen can bring, a relief from mental health conditions is an extremely beneficial outcome.
  • Zazen allows you to shift your focus and this can be an excellent solution for those who have ahd trouble solving problems in their lives. This shift enables you to see things from a different perspective and solve problems much more readily.
  • There is some suggestion that practicing zen meditating will lead to greater creativity. This is largely to do with the associated calm of the practice. When the mind is quieter and has fewer distractions, the practitioner will be able to place their focus on being creative. The more you engage in practicing, the more you will notice the effects of this in your day to day life.

What Are The Benefits Of Vipassana Meditation?

Much like zen, vipassana can help you in a lot of ways. Let’s take a look at what advantages you can expect to see from practicing vipassana.

  • When you first start to engage in vipassana, you may notice that your mind is filled with thoughts and hindrances, but as you continue to work on your meditating, this will fade and you will cultivate the ability to completely quiet the mind. However, in order to achieve this benefit, you must commit to a daily practice and some would even suggest attending a silent retreat to properly hone your skills.
  • Many techniques of vipassana help you to improve your concentration. Practitioners are asked to place their focus on the breath as well as on the tip of the nostril, this may be hard at first but over time, it will become easier and your general level of focus may be improved.
  • We all want a greater understanding of ourselves and out of everything that is associated with vipassana, obtaining a better awareness of yourself is perhaps the biggest draw. A big part of this type of meditating is to detach yourself from your ego and observe as an outsider. It may take some time, but once you achieve this, it is like you are seeing yourself in an entirely new light.
  • As a direct result of the previous benefit, those who practice vipassana will begin to feel joy, bliss and love like they have never experienced before. You will manage to let go of a lot of the material things in life and begin to understand that joy can be found in much more profound places.
  • Improving your perspective is a great benefit of vipassana. As you begin to develop your detachment, you will start to see that a lot of the problems you face in life are merely a matter of how you perceive them. This will also lead to a better understanding of how to solve these problems and move forward in your life.
  • Alongside improving your mental health, vipassana can help to improve your physical health. This can be down to the lower stress levels associated with meditating and living a calmer and more free way of life, but since vipassana also encourages you to alter your diet and way of life, it can have a direct impact on your physical health.

Which Type Of Meditation Is Best For Me?

In Buddhism, there are three main lineages. These are Theravada, which we have already discussed, Mahayana, which we looked at earlier in this article and finally, Vajrayana. If you are looking to start your pratice as a deeply spiritual activity, the type of meditation you do may be different.

For example, the Buddhist monks in the Theravada style may put more of a focus on the vipassana method whereas people who follow the Mahayana lineage may practice more zazen sessions.

However, for most of us in the west, meditation serves less of a religious purpose and more as a foundation for our general well being; and that’s fine. We all have different ways of practicing and reasons why we do so but finding the right type of meditation can be the difference between a successful experience and finding many difficulties every time you sit down to meditate.

The sort of meditating you choose will depend on what your end goal is. If the purpose of your practice is to achieve a focus on the present moment then a zazen practice may be better for you. In contrast, those who are seeking deeper insight or wisdom may be better to choose vipassana.

Of course, there is nothing stopping you from using both of these forms of meditating to complement each other. After all, staying present and gaining wisdom are two excellent ways to achieve ultimate freedom.

It is entirely possible to engage in these types of meditation at home but if you are not sure where to begin, it can be a good idea to join a meditating group where you can learn some helpful tips for making the most out of each session. You may attend a group at a Buddhist centre, many of which run programs and events all over the world for those looking to develop a deeper meditating practice.

Alternatively, there are many online resources to help you get started with your meditating. Gil Fronsdal is a Norwegian-born Soto Zen practitioner who has been practicing for a long time and is now based in the USA where he teaches everything you need to know about the Buddha and his teachings.

There are several Dhamma Audios online. Dhamma or dharma is a term that means ‘to uphold’ and is very important in Buddhism, these talks are a great way to get an introduction to the deeper aspects of the traditions.


Vipassana is a type of insight meditation whereas Zen, sometimes called zazen helps us to focus our mind on the present moment by controlling any images or thoughts that enter the mind.

While the word for each may be hugely different, it is important to remember that both of these styles end up in the same location; greater self awareness. The key difference is that each type takes a different path to get there. While Vipassana from the Theravada branch of Buddhism uses a focus on gaining wisdom, Zen helps us to focus on the things that are happening in the here and now. At the end, they complement one another perfectly.

The question that a lot of people ask is how to get started, and the good news is that joining a meditating group at a Buddhist centre can be a good way to get started. The beauty of these practices is that we are all welcome and everyone can reap the benefits linked with Vipassana and Zen.

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