The Three Pillar of Zen

by Roshilip Kapleau


Zen is certainly not for everyone. It's rewards are hard-won, and almost possible to define with words, yet words are all we have to communicate on the internet. Zen communicates through experiential practices.

In his excellent book The Three Pillars of Zen  which is, in my opinion, indispensable for someone starting out in Zen, the late Roshi Philip Kapleau explains the value of zazen (Zen meditation) over other forms of meditation thus...

"[In zazen]the mind is freed from bondage to all thought forms, visions, objects and imaginings and brought to a state of absolute emptiness, from which alone it may one day perceive its own true nature, or the nature of the universe." He goes on to say... "zazen is like a silent missile to penetrate the barriers of the five senses and the discursive intellect".

Penetrate the barriers of the five senses and discursive intellect? It that something that I wanted or was it even wise to pursue?


From my point of view, I would say, 'yes, it is both wanted and wise', but many years ago the activity of penetrating barriers of my intellect worried me. Was I going to end up stupid and 'senseless' by controlling my mind and thoughts in such a way?

No, that was not something that was going to happen. What did happen was that I transcended the intellectual mind and realised that at a higher state of awareness, there was a different type of intelligence - an intelligence beyond mere knowledge. In fact there came a realisation of 'knowing nothing' which was extremely liberating. And the fear that my mind would be numbed and unable to function in the common everyday world couldn't have been further from the truth. In fact because of zazen, my focus was improving and my ability to carry out intellectual tasks was greatly enhanced.

Many people think Zen is a religion. Well, if awareness of life and all that goes with it is considered to be a religion, then yes, it is a religion but not in the conventional sense. To me, Zen is a 'way' and it can be applied to any religion - not just Zen Buddhism, but Zen Catholicism, Zen Judaism, to name just a few.

Briefly that is Zen, now more about The Three Pillars of Zen…

The Three Pillars of Zen starts out with a Foreword by Huston Smith (an American professor of philosophy) explaining how Zen came with Bodhidharma from India to China then some 600 years later, into Japan and from there all over the world.

From 1953 to 1965 Philip Kapleau underwent rigorous Zen training under three Japanese Zen masters before being ordained in 1965 and given permission to teach Zen. In fact, he was the first Westerner allowed to observe dokusan in Japan, (i.e the private interviews between a Zen teacher and student). He then brought Zen practice to America and founded the Rochester Zen Center, New York in 1966. Sadly Roshi Philip Kapleau died on May 6th 2004 at the age of 92. But to me, even now, his work and teachings live on.

In The Three Pillars of Zen, Kapleau explains not only the aim of Zen practice (which is ultimately enlightenment), but also the value of daily zazen and all the difficulties that a practitioner is likely to face in practicing it along with practical solutions and lots and lots of words of encouragement.

Being almost 400 pages long and split into 3 parts, The Three Pillars of Zen is packed with information. With anecdotes and quotes from Zen Masters throughout history to interactions and lectures given to modern day westerners. Although I found The Three Pillars interesting to read from cover to cover, I often read single chapters or paragraphs now for inspiration.

In part one…

Here we have the Teaching and Practice with precautions about practicing zazen, what to do with resistances and difficulties when they arise, the five varieties of Zen, three aims of zazen, parables, aspirations, private encounters between the Masters and westerners, letters from disciples and more.

Part two…

Here Roshi Philip Kaplea deals with enlightenment that is the main aim of Zen and gives anecdotes of the experiences of enlightenment from both Japanese and Westerners and what drove them to Zen in the first place. The westerners ranged from successful businessmen who became disillusioned with their role in life to people who had suffered profound loss that caused them to deeply question the meaning of it all. And then there were those, who like myself, seemed to have been born with a profound burning question that is beyond explanation.

Part three…

Here we have the supplements. This part gives talks from the ancient Masters on living a Zen-like life. A chapter on what is known as The Ten Oxherding Pictures with commentaries that outline the journey from the start of Zen practice to the final enlightenment process. And then there are useful illustrations about sitting postures for zazen from the lotus posture (crossed legged) to using a stool and/or chair for those who can't manage it, together with questions and answers about difficulties that have arisen from other meditators.

Finally we have Zen vocabulary and an index.

I consider The Three Pillars of Zen to be an invaluable reference book that I refer to again and again. In fact I have two copies and tend to lend one out to my clients from time to time.

Thanks for reading.




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