Introductory Teachings

What is Integral Zen?

Genuine spiritual awakening is coming to a stable recognition of the pure consciousness within us, deeper than thought, emotion, feeling, or life story. It is radically non-theistic, viewless, genderless, both infinitely greater than the individual and inexorably bound to his or her breath, ego, and body.

Integral Zen is based on the fact that deep meditative consciousness is fundamentally pure and receptive, while ego is temporary and superficial. And yet we must use our egos — not destroy or transcend them — on our path as awakening human beings. This creates the paradox and confusion at the heart of spiritual practice.

Our teachings and our retreats are designed to work with this central paradox. We are fundamentally free right now, and yet spiritual insight must always flow through a relative and wholly constructed and fully conditioned human ego. The ego can be transformed by spiritual insight, but it can never be fully transcended (nor would we want it to be — that is spiritual bypassing, not spiritual maturity).

This understanding is the beginning of an Integral Right View. For even with profound spiritual awakening, an incorrect view will rob us of a stable insight. It will prevent us from interrupting our ego’s immediate and habitual reactivity and creating the transformation we most desire.

What is Integral?


If you don’t know something exists you won’t go looking for it. If you don’t fully understand the human condition, you can never fully understand the real dilemma you face. And most importantly you will have no way to truly understand how you can overcome what’s really in your way.

The AQAL map (All Quadrants All Lines) was developed by the philosopher Ken Wilber over 30+ years. It shows us the dimensions and features of our own being at this point in our evolutionary history. The AQAL map is the best map we have so far of the complete human being, and is inclusive of all facets of human knowledge, from hard science to depth psychology, from cultural studies to economic theory, from stoic atheism to unity consciousness.

Integral theory is complicated, yes. But so are we. It honors the most complex thing we have yet discovered in the entire cosmos: ourselves. Integral theory parses knowledge into 4 Quadrants (Interior-individual, External-individual, Interior-Collective, External-collective) to help us not impose our preferred view on the rest of the world (in what’s called “Quadrant Absolutism”).

It includes and honors 1st 2nd and 3rd person spiritual perspectives (or Buddhism, theism, and pantheism), so we can meet our fellow practitioners and wisdom holders in a place of mutual understanding and trust, rather than secret bias and judgment.

Lines of development and multiple intelligences help to explain why we have such a hard time understanding each other, because we are unable to fully see the person in front of us, and so we project, distort, and manipulate.

Shadow states and shadow selves help to explain why we have such a hard time understanding ourselves, because we can only see that which is conscious. The rest remains hidden in shadow, influencing behavior, creating reactive patterns, and distorting reality.

States of consciousness help us understand the meditative traditions, from shamanic journeying to visions to unity with the entire cosmos. It allows us something very rare: to place ourselves, with the help of an experienced guide, on the map of our own evolutionary unfolding. This allows us to understand the kinds of practices, both relative and absolute, we need to fully awaken from our dream of a separate self.

What is Zen?


In Rinzai Zen Buddhism, we practice zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), as well as study koans with a Zen master or authorized teacher. We practice being completely present with whatever arises in our awareness.

In Sanskrit there are three facets of Zen: dharana (concentration), Dhyana (pure non-evaluating awareness) and samadhi (unreasonable joy). We turn our gaze inward and face everything. We face the discomfort, the ugliness and the darkness as well as the beauty and the joy.

We practice sitting without moving in stillness, in eloquent silence, until we begin to notice how we have been deluded by our conditioning. As we begin releasing what we are attached or even addicted to, a deeper longing begins to bloom.

It is by facing our own delusions and attachments, without turning away, that we gain insight into our own true nature, which is nothing less than the true nature of all reality. This awakening enables us to move with greater clarity and compassion in the world.


Today we have easy access to tens of thousands of books, audio recordings, and retreats on how to meditate. We’re awash in information. So with all this information in the public sphere, what are we missing?

We believe what is lacking is a right view, or an understanding not just of how to meditate, but what to do with the insights you find there. Meditation practice, spiritual insight, and emotional maturity can all be part of the same unfolding, if we have the right understanding of what our practice is really about.

The Zen Path

Spiritual insight isn’t like anything else we pursue in life. It’s not a goal or a place somewhere, there is nothing to be had with it, and you gain nothing from it. When you see through the construct of your own ego, you experience the freedom of selflessness witnessing intelligence that is right here, right now.

This is why Zen is sometimes called “selling water by the river”, because you are being shown how to see the wondrous completeness that you already are.

Enlightenment is knowing the deep truth of clarity and unconditional loving compassion that is alive and flowing through every moment. This living presence is always here. It is not an experience of any kind; not of angels or devils, heaven or hell, mystical visions, or subtle lights and sounds. It is not a belief that needs to sustained or defended, nor an experience of transcendence, nor a blissful view of the world. It is the radiant suchness of this living moment.

Traditional Buddhist teachings include:

The Three Marks of Existence

  1. Impermanence
  2. Suffering
  3. Selflessness

The Four Noble Truths

  1. There is suffering in the world
  2. There is a cause to the suffering
  3. There is a way to end suffering
  4. The way to end suffering is to follow the Eight Fold Path

The Eight Fold Path

  1. Right View — Clear view / understanding
  2. Right Thought — Precise purpose, thought / feeling
  3. Right Speech — Honest speech
  4. Right Action — Compassionate action
  5. Right Livelihood — Conscious livelihood
  6. Right Effort — Great effort /determination
  7. Right Meditation — Deep concentration / meditation
  8. Right Samadhi — Liberating Unreasonable Joy

Doctrine of Two Truths

This teaching emphasizes the absolute and relative nature of existence. The Prajnaparamita Sutras and Madhyamaka emphasize that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Ultimate reality is present in the daily world of relative reality — but this is not obvious to most of us. Maps for practitioners are given inside of the Five Ranks of Tozan and the Oxherding Pictures.

Doctrine of True Self

Zen has always had a Doctrine of the True Self. The True Self is the Unity of the Absolute Self and the Relative Selves. Zen implicitly includes a recognition of the relative self. What Zen can really use is a more explicit doctrine of the relative self (or more accurately, the relative selves).

Integral Zen sets out to better define this relative part of our journey than traditional Zen has managed to do. Or, as Junpo Roshi has said: “Traditional Zen is the perfect vehicle for Waking Up (spiritual insight) and Growing Up (emotional maturity) — if you live in 18th Century Japan.”

Three Poisons

Zen, and especially Integral Zen, places strong emphasis on the three poisons of the mind: ignorance, attachment, and aversion. These historic teachings are finding strong clinical support in cutting-edge attachment theory and the neurobiology of trauma on the human brain. The three poisons have lasting effects on human consciousness, bonding patterns, unconscious attachments (and revulsions), and the ability of a practitioner to not only access a deep state of awareness (kensho) but to stabilize that state into a way of being.

More on Integral Zen


At Integral Zen, we use the zazen, kinhin, and koans from traditional Rinzai Zen. We also use the Five Training Elements and the transformative practice of Mondo Zen™ to re-orient, mature and enlighten our ego and our emotional bodies.  In addition to these, we add the conceptual framework of Integral Theory and more rigorous forms of individual and collective psychological shadow work.

With Integral language and a deep meditative practice, we are able to discuss complex topics with greater understanding, clarity, and compassion.  By using Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, including his All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) map – all levels, lines, types, states, and quadrants – the territory of our lives comes alive.  

This map allows greater compassion for ourselves and others, since it empowers us to stop imposing our unconscious assumptions about the world onto nearly every place we touch it. And yet, the map is not the territory, and Integral Zen is ruthless in its distinction between intellectual understanding, experiential understanding, and spiritual insight.

Meditative practitioners with deep spiritual insight often suffer from a too-partial view of the cosmos. Integralists with sophisticated maps of the world often suffer from a lack of experiential insight about the true nature of their minds.

The complexity of an evolutionary, 21st century spirituality cannot be understood without a common language. An Integral View, combined with a stable spiritual insight, greatly enhances the level of clarity, predictability, and understanding within our community. We are able to more profoundly connect with ourselves and each other.

We understand our own Zen practice through an empowering yet humbling lens that allows us to understand better what we have realized, and what we have yet to discover.

Integral Zen and the Shadow

The process of awakening is the very process of making what is unconscious, conscious. But we cannot enlighten the parts of our mind that we cannot see, no matter how deep our spiritual insight or how vast our intellectual knowledge.

You can be deeply awake or a great scholar, and still be a reactive and petty jerk in your own life!  In our experience, a person’s ability to fully awaken is directly tied to his or her ability and willingness to face psychological shadow material. If you’re human you have it, without exception.

Integral Zen recognizes that each one of us has aspects of his or herself that are undeveloped, no matter the depth of spiritual insight.  Within the unique paths that have led us to where we are, there are steps that are often missed.  Therefore we examine what steps were missed in our own development. We then choose to consciously make room for and encourage each other to develop in these specific areas.

Integral Zen includes many forms of psychological shadow work to illuminate our disowned and false selves.  When we disown part of ourselves we automatically create a lie, a story about who we are that is not true.  This is what Jung called the persona, Voice Dialogue calls the primary self, and Wilber calls the false self.  When this shadow, the disowned self, is reintegrated into the personality, there is no need to continue to lie to ourselves.  The false self is seen through, discarded and replaced with a more authentic sense of self that includes the disowned parts.

Video: Ken Wilber answers an Integral Zen Koan