PZI Teacher Archives

Three Vipassani Find Koans: Susan Pollak, Doug Phillips & Ewen Arnold in conversation with Jon Joseph


Jon Joseph hosts a lively panel discussion with three members of our PZI sangha whose practice and teaching includes Vipassana and Koan Zen. He asks, How have you found koan work to be similar to or different from Vipassana? What Vipassana techniques do you bring into your Zen teaching?


Jon Joseph moderates a panel discussion on the intersection of Vipassana and Koan Zen:

In recent years, Pacific Zen’s koan sangha has been blessed with a number of distinguished Vipassana, or “insight,” meditation teachers. The two schools have fundamentally different Buddhist roots: Vipassana stems from the Sri Lankan and Southeast Asian Theravada (School of the Elders) while Chan-Zen comes from the Northeast Asian Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition. Some argue that Chan-Zen is not even Mahayana but Chinese Daoist in origin.

Jon asks, 

As a Vipassana teacher, what attracted you to koan work?
How have you found koan work to be similar to or different from Vipassana?
Is the “insight” in Koan Zen the same as “insight” in Vipassana?
Are there any koan teachings that you integrate into your Vipassana practice?
What Vipassana techniques do you bring into your Zen teaching?

(Complete Monday San Mateo Zen session from December 18, 2023)

Susan Pollak is the author of six books on mindfulness meditation. She co-founded the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School-Cambridge Health Alliance, and for ten years served as president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Susan has a private psychotherapy practice in Cambridge and writes the Psychology Today blog, “The Art of Now—Essential Skills for Mindfulness,” and is currently studying koans primarily in the White Plum Asanga tradition.

Doug Phillips is a koan teacher in the broader Pacific Zen school. In the late 1970s he began meditation with Maurine Stewart, a student of Soen Nakagawa. On her death in 1990, he began to study both Korean Seon (Zen) and Vipassana with Larry Rosenberg, who gave Doug transmission in 2003. He then returned to koan practice with James Ford in the Tarrant-Aitken line of Zen, and received Inka Shomei in 2017. Doug has long worked as a therapist and co-leads the Empty Sky Sangha in Lexington, Massachusetts and West Cornwall, Connecticut.

Ewen Arnold worked for some decades as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher in England, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and Oman, where he was also a master dive instructor.  In 1997 he traveled to the Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre in Kandy, Sri Lanka, where he became a student of Godwin Samararatne. When Godwin passed away in 2000, Ewen visited other Indian Buddhist centers and later returned to Nilambe Centre. Since 2015 Ewen has served as a Vipassana teacher for foreign students. He first joined Pacific Zen as a koan student in 2020 after reading John Tarrant’s Bring Me the Rhinoceros.   


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