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Vipassana vs Zen: What Is the Difference?

Meditation comes in many different forms throughout the world as different belief systems and traditions have their own versions of meditation. In Buddhism alone, you have two different ways to practice meditation: Vipassana and Zen. What makes Vipassana and Zen different from one another?

While there are plenty of similarities between Vipassana and Zen, the difference is that Vipassana focuses more on channeling our inner mindfulness of the present while Zen may still teach us how to be mindful of the present but its main goal is for you to be in the present moment.

Vipassana and Zen have plenty of commonalities that it can be pretty difficult to tell them apart, especially considering they are coming from the same belief system.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana vs Zen: What Is the Difference?

Vipassana is a term used in Buddhism and can literally be translated into “insight”. It can trace its origins or roots to Northern Indian or Mahayana Buddhism. While Vipassana covers a wide range of different beliefs and practices in Buddhism, it is usually referred to as a form of meditation.

Vipassana – the focus of this form of meditation is to be mindful of where we are at the present but, at the same time, to be more insightful about our current reality right now in the present day. 

Vipassana is often practiced by using mindfulness (sati) while staying calm (samatha) at the same time. One of the ways you can be more mindful while staying calm is by focusing on your breathing or being more mindful of it (anapanasati). As you do so, you combine your overall mindfulness with the way you observe your own mental and bodily changes so that you can gain insight into what it is to be here and now and what this reality is all about.

As Vipassana is a type of mindful meditation that focuses more on obtaining insight, it is often called insight meditation.

Practitioners of Vipassana often start with the initial stage, which involves morality and the giving up of your own worldly desires. This is a part of Vipassana that is often discarded today as it becomes more and more difficult for modern-day practitioners to truly practice morality or the giving up of their worldly desires.

The goal of Vipassana is to obtain insight, wisdom, and inner freedom by cultivating and channeling our own inner mindfulness of the present reality we have as we understand more about it.

What is Zen?

Zen is a practice that Westerners are actually more familiar with because of how it originates from Northern Asia Buddhism, which is found in countries such as China, Japan, and Korea.

When we talk about the practice of Zen, it also covers a wide range of different Buddhist beliefs, traditions, and practices. For simplicity, we will be covering the topic of Zen as a form of meditation rather than an all-encompassing belief system under the larger belief system of Buddhism.

In Zen, the emphasis of meditation is to restrain your own self through meditation and practice while also gaining insight into the nature of one’s own mind. You want to perceive the nature of things as they are so that you will gain more insight into the present reality. The focus is to obtain inner freedom in the here and now while focusing on the present and on what you are currently doing.

In other words, Zen focuses more on the present and on letting go of anything other than the present because that is where true freedom lies. You want to make friends with the here and now so that you are more focused on what is happening right now than what has happened yesterday or what will eventually happen tomorrow. As such, you get insight into the nature of things as they are now.

What are the differences between Vipassana and Zen?

Vipassana vs Zen: What Is the Difference?

If you have noticed, there are plenty of similarities between Vipassana and Zen aside from the fact that they both come from the same Buddhist. What seems to be common between these two forms of meditation is the fact that the focus is more on mindfulness of the present to ultimately obtain insight. However, aside from the fact that their origins are also different, both Vipassana and Zen have quite different goals in mind as well. 

When you talk about Vipassana, the goal is to be more insightful about reality and to obtain wisdom. It emphasizes the cultivation of being mindful such that you are able to get a deeper understanding of how things work and how we can further have a better understanding of the present because that is where we can truly obtain inner freedom and the wisdom to understand our goals moving forward.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that you are on a car ride and you are focused on the road ahead because you want to get to your destination. Vipassana emphasizes being mindful of being on the road at the present while also helping you understand more about the reality of being on the road so that you can understand how to get to your destination, how to get home, where to go in case you get a flat tire, and what you need to do if there is a traffic jam. Your goal here is to be more intuitive of the here and now and the reality of it all so that you can obtain more wisdom and understand what you need to do regarding the present.

Meanwhile, the focus of Zen is to perceive things as they are now and to be more insightful about own’s mind. You should be focused on the actual present to learn more about what is happening in the present as opposed to looking forward or backward into things that have happened or are yet to happen. When you gain more insight into the present, you are able to obtain true freedom in the sense that you are friends with the present and are in control of what can happen in the here and now.

So, going back to our example of being on the road while driving, the focus of Zen is the act of being on the road while driving. That’s it. You emphasize the act of driving and being on the road itself so that you can appreciate the here and now and gain insight into the present situation and reality.

Both Vipassana and Zen have a deeper appreciation of what it is to be in the present. Vipassana is more focused on cultivating wisdom while Zen is more focused on just being there. While different, they have their own different advantages and benefits, especially for devout practitioners.

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