We continue with an exploration of dhyāna-pāramitā, the perfection of meditation.

For those of you familiar with the Mondo Manual, you’ll notice that it says dhyāna became Chan became Zen — zen means dhyāna and Zen takes its name from this practice. Apparently, our predecessors thought it was rather essential!

Dhyāna as a practice

Strictly speaking, dhyāna refers to stages of meditative practice that have two aspects: stillness (samatha) and insight (vipassana) into the nature of being. It is a co-arising phenomenon when the stilling of the mind reveals its nature. The number of stages can vary, and may be more or less important to the individual, yet they always provide a useful map. 

The 4 forms of dhyāna are characterized by a clear experience of increased presence within, and awareness of, the body – mindfulness of all that is arising in bodily sensation, thought and emotion. There are characteristics of mental unity, awareness, equanimity, joy, and ease – with joy and ease in the body rising in intensity, peaking, and receding to leave a unified awareness of embodied experience that has neither pleasure nor pain (equanimity). 

The 4 formless dhyāna are progressions followed within the 4th dhyāna as follows:

  • infinite space (this mind is vast)
  • infinite consciousness (there is nothing outside of this mind)
  • no-thing-ness (aka savikalpa-samadhi, in fact no separate thing is here, suchness, pure objectivity)
  • neither perception nor non-perception (aka nirvakalpa-samadhi, that which arises and that which notices it arising merges, pure subjectivity)

The 9th dhyāna is nirodh-samadhi, cessation. An awareness deeper than consciousness and the sensations arising within it. Awareness absent of sensation. An experience so immediate we can only recognize it upon its conclusion. Pure Selfless Awareness. 

Dhyāna within Zen

From within the Chan/Zen tradition there was an interesting evolution in meditation instruction – it wasn’t codified. Instead, teachers worked with students to directly point to mind and to shift the meditation instruction as the practitioner’s experience deepened. Seeing clearly into self-nature and integrating this insight into the ego-structure is what matters for spiritual liberation, not any particular state of consciousness. States of consciousness are how we see into our true nature; the trap is in thinking that any particular state of consciousness IS our true nature. 

It is within this context that koan study evolved. As a meditative practice, the koan concentrates our minds so there can be a progressive experience of meditative states. As a training vehicle, it provides opportunities for the teacher to examine where a student is in their understanding, teach the dharma, and interact in ways intended to remove attachments to identities in the form of conceptual and symbolic thinking. 

The Perfection of Dhyāna

On the one hand, it is remarked that bodhisattvas effortlessly enter into the meditations and effectively use these states to bring wisdom and compassion into the world. In effect, becoming fluent in these states is an essential aspect of our training. Yet, this is not what perfects dhyāna.

Dhyāna is perfected when we have experiences of this deeper truth and then include the experience in the stories of our identities. Effectively using the immediately accessible calm inherent in the mind structure to get the deeper information from our experiences and choose how to respond. Dhyāna is, ultimately, nothing more than an ongoing, compassionate inquiry into experience. Or, as Junpo Roshi said:

What is most essential is the practice of dhyana, meditative mindfulness, which enables us to experience the Absolute Purity of our deepest nature and to hold that transpersonal truth in the complexity of our personal lives.


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