While the benefits of Zen are real and profound, and talked about often, the dangers tend to receive less attention. Yet they are also real, and can arise among both beginning and experienced practitioners.

slip warning

Recently, due to both personal health issues and stuff going on around me, I’ve been reflecting on some of the hazards that involved in Zen practice. While the benefits of Zen are real and profound, and talked about often, the dangers tend to receive less attention. Yet they are also real, and can arise among both beginning and experienced practitioners.

If you don’t have the patience to read on, the important point is the following: Zen is about waking up! We may think it is about a whole lot of other things, and associate various states of body or mind, practices, or teachers with Zen achievements. We might think that practicing Zen makes us “good person” who can’t do any harm. Those thoughts happen. Those thoughts can lead us astray. Wake up!

Hakuin’s “Zen sickness”

Overemphasizing and straining at meditation can lead to real physical maladies. Hakuin Ekaku, an 18th century Japanese Zen teacher, described a “Zen sickness” involving feelings of heat and cold, ear-ringing, sweats, weakness, and fatigue. Tibetan practitioners talk about “lung” (pronounced “loong”), stress-related problems including pains, digestive issues, and insomnia that can arise on intensive meditation retreats.

I know I have had some of these symptoms during and shortly after retreats. I have on occasion welcomed them as signs, that, at long last, at least something interesting is happening! On a long, essentially (to the everyday mind) totally boring retreat, even unusual pains can masquerade as spiritual accomplishments.

But Zen sickness is a malady, and the symptoms signal only that something has gone haywire. Hakuin and the Tibetans both suggest visualization exercises that can help one re-balance one’s energy.

Britton and the Need for a “Safety Toolbox”

Zen practice—or any kind of meditation or “mindfulness” practice—may be contraindicated when one is suffering from some kinds of mental health issues, especially if these issues are not being treated. Some problems, including anxiety or depression, can actually be made worse by sitting quietly and introspectively for substantial periods of time. While meditation has many benefits, it is not a cure-all. It may be that the first thing one needs to “wake up to” is one’s own need for psychotherapy, social supports, and/or medications. Meditation may also lead to dissociative states and other psychological disturbances.

Prof. Willoughby Britton, a psychologist at Brown University, and her team have put together what they call a “safety toolbox” for those who teach meditation, to help them “do no harm.”

The Surangama Sutra

Awareness of Zen dangers is, however, hardly a modern phenomenon. The Surangama Sutra first appeared in early 8th century China. And it purports to date back even further, being presented—as is common in Buddhist sutras (discourses)—as a conversation between Shakyamuni Buddha and Ananda, his close disciple and the recorder of his words. The chapter of interest here is “Chapter X: Fifty Demonic States of Mind.”

In this chapter, the Buddha says to Ananda,

I have now taught you the right method for practice. But you are still not aware of the subtle demonic events that can occur when you undertake the practices of calming the mind and contemplative insight. If you do not purify your mind, you will not be able to recognize demonic states as they arise. You will not find the right path, and you will fall into the error of wrong views.

I take the word “demonic” to refer to unsubtle and subtle ways in which we get waylaid by our own minds, especially our own greed, anger, and ignorance. A belief in the existence of demons as spiritual entities is rather optional, I think, as far as exploring this sutra is concerned.

The first ten states are experiences of various kinds of visions, altered perceptions, unusual sensations, or heightened or numbed feelings. Also included are odd abilities such as being able to see in the dark or inside one’s body, or hear things happening a great distance away. We call these makyo in Zen circles. After the description of each of these, the following passage, or something very similar, is repeated:*

What the practitioner has gained is temporary. It does not indicate that they have become a sage. There is nothing unwholesome about their state unless they think that they are now a sage. If they do think they are a sage, they will be open to a host of deviant influences.

In other words, these things happen. These things are not bad in themselves. We don’t talk about “sages” much these days, but I am (alas) very familiar with the feeling, “Now I’ve really seen through into reality! Now I’ve really got it, once and for all!” Thinking ourselves a sage means thinking that something we’ve experienced makes us superior, or special in some way. We’ve made the serious error of becoming attached to, and making an identity out of, what is in fact only a passing state.

The practitioner referred to in discussions of these first ten states is always described, before the visit by the demon, as “a person” who is experiencing “mental darkness.” So, a relative beginner. From here on, however, the practitioner is always referred to as a “good person” who has started to reap some of the fruits of the practice (such as stillness of mind). So you are “good” and have advanced some? Great! But you are not past the danger. There are still forty demons left!

The next ten cases describe experiences that are, essentially, mood swings. These states include, for example, the belief that one has not made any progress at all. Also included are extreme despondency, dryness, desolation, and the desire to “flee into the mountain forests because one cannot bear the company of other people.” (As an introvert, I can totally relate.) Yet, on the other side, feelings of overwhelming joy are also identified as demonic, along with as states of arrogance, boldness, or being too hyped-up and energetic. And, lest we get sucked in by all those glossy photos of beautiful, slim, blissed-out meditators in white leotards,

This good person…may reach a state in which everything is in accord with their wishes. Immediately a feeling of infinite serenity will arise in their mind…

These states are no longer described as “not unwholesome.” But all of these moods and beliefs, the sutra reminds us, are still just things that happen. They are still temporary. And they are still dangerous if they cause you to think you are a sage. If we confuse any kind of state we happen to be in with “really getting it,” with some special achievement or insight, or with something permanent, then the demons have confused our mind.

At around the thirtieth of the fifty states, the emphasis changes from states that do damage to oneself to states that do damage to other people. “The good person” who has become convinced (by the demons) of their own superiority loses the ability to see what is going on with themselves. And then, thoroughly convinced of their own goodness and wisdom, and perhaps having gained some unusual powers, they start to gather other people around them and lead them astray. For example,

The good person…may come to crave the experience of a sustained merging of minds…[People who hear them] all will rejoice in their belief that they have just experienced something entirely new and extraordinary…Their listeners will have such confidence in them that they will be fooled into thinking that they are a Bodhisattva.

The sutra says that these demon-afflicted teachers trouble, confuse, and profoundly disturb the minds of their followers. It suggests that greed for money (and sex) may be markers of these dangerous leaders. And it suggests that these leaders and their followers will come to bad ends. An eventual loss of the demonic powers and falling into “Unrelenting Hell” are predicted—as well as, on a more prosaic plane, a tendency to run afoul of the local law!

The last batch of the fifty demonic states talk about getting lost in various speculations and theories. Lest we think that our current stress about the “raging fire of the world” is something new, this 8th century text uses that phrase in discussing “the good person” who fears that the world is coming to an end.

So, enough already about the list of fifty states. They are all states that get us into trouble because we confuse them with enlightenment. Yet how are we to deal with these demons? As we’ve seen, being a “good person” is not enough.

The edition of The Surangama Sutra I’ve been reading includes this commentary by the honored teacher Hsuan Hua:

Demons can discern whatever it is that you crave, and they can use that to tempt you. Therefore, practitioners don’t need to ward off demons by reciting a particular mantra or by engaging in a special practice. They need simply to be honest and true. They need to avoid contention and greed; they need to avoid craving and selfishness.

So, in other words, “Keep practicing! Wake up!” Stay alert to the three poisons of grasping, aversion, and delusive certainty! Don’t think you’ve “got it” or rest in your “goodness”!

Good teachers are also helpful. In the sutra, Shakyamuni charges Ananda:

After my nirvana, you must explain my teachings and transmit them…Do not allow celestial demons to have their way. Protect these practitioners and lend them support…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into dokusan (a private interview) with one of my Zen teachers, all enamored of some state I’ve gotten into. And very many times, they have very gently shown me my attachment.


(Article posted here with permission from Julie Seido Nelson, Dharma Holder and Interim Spiritual Director of Greater Boston Zen Center. Images and text are from Seido’s blog, available here, which we recommend wholeheartedly as a resource)

Dangers of Zen, Part I