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It is confusing to me that what what the goal of zazen is (and is not), as proposed by various people with more or less authority on the subject, varies so greatly. Some say no goal, and others identify various goals.

Rationally speaking, no goal makes sense. It is a form of non-dualism. If there is a goal, then there is an attachment to becoming something which one is not. But no goal is also nonsense. If there is no goal, then there is no goal to end suffering. The Four Noble Truths become descriptive, and the Eightfold Path is unimportant.

This is as far as my thinking has gotten. I conclude with some verifiable examples of what the goal of zazen is said to be.

remove wrong perceptions

the practice of meditation, the practice of looking deeply, has the purpose of removing wrong perceptions from us
“What is Nirvana and How Does It End Suffering?” by Thích Nhất Hạnh at MeditationPlex

see ourselves

Zazen deliberately tries to remove all entertainment and distractions from our minds so we can see ourselves as we really are
The Laughing Teabowl Sangha

there is no goal

There is no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

grasp enlightenment

the only way to grasp enlightenment is through a calm and settled mind
Zen Guide

engage with reality (not to make your life better)

The real practice of Zen is to engage directly with reality, not to use it as a method to improve your health or make your life better
“Zazen Posture” by Josho Pat Phelan at Chapel Hill Zen Center

not to learn

Don’t think of practice in terms of “eventually”
“Zazen is not step-by-step learning meditation” by Harada Sekkei Roshi at Buddhism Now

compassion

the purpose of zazen is compassion
“Beyond Thinking: Dogen’s Teachings on Zazen” by Norman Fischer at Upaya Zen Center

  • There is such a thing as "doing without doing", "actionless action". – user319 Jul 8 '14 at 5:05
  • My experience has been that what a teacher says depends on who is asking the question. The multiplicity of answers reflects, I think, the multiplicity of ways that we have of getting caught. – Dan Bryant Oct 1 '14 at 22:56
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    You’re mistaking pedagogy for ontological statements. – user17214 Dec 12 '19 at 18:29
  • It seems to me the three comments above give the correct answer. There are always two ways of looking at these things, as Nagarjuna explains, and for didactic purposes maybe more. There is a goal and there isn't. All the quotes you give seem correct. . – user14119 Dec 13 '19 at 12:14
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Actually, the answer is very simple: meditation is practiced to achieve tathata (suchness), which is a state of realization of the Third Noble Truth. Because tathata involves cessation of aversion to any "this" and of longing for any "that", its attainment requires a mindset without a goal. It would be more precise to say that no-goal is a method of meditation, but that would risk leaving some subtle shadow of goal in practitioner's mind, hence the official statement that meditation has no goal. Because Buddhism aims at liberation from (among other things) deep-lying stereotypes/assumptions and implicit conceptual boundaries it necessarily involves tricks like this. Another corollary of the above, is that it's never enough to reason about these things intellectually, one needs to take them on as actual frame of reference for them to have an experiential effect.

This point is well illustrated by Dutiya Anuruddha Sutta (AN 3.128 or 3.130 or 131 depending how you count) -- the below amateurish translation is mine but here is another one.

Then venerable Anuruddha came to venerable Shariputra and said:

-- As much as I, friend Shariputra, try and look at things with purified Heavenly Eye, try and see things with thousandfold-superhuman vision, train in confidence unmovable, in awareness undimmable, in tranquillity imperturbable, and in focused mind unscattered, still I can't "having stopped maintaining intoxication, achieve liberation of mind".

-- All these thoughts, friend Anuruddha, of the kind "I try and look at things with purified Heavenly Eye, I try and see things with thousandfold-superhuman vision" -- this is your conceit.

And the thoughts of the kind "I train in confidence unmovable, in awareness undimmable, in tranquillity imperturbable, and in focused mind unscattered" -- this is your pathologic restlessness.

And the thoughts of the kind "still I can't "having stopped maintaining intoxication, achieve liberation of mind" -- this is your remorse.

You'd better, friend Anuruddha, these three dharmas abandon; To these three dharmas not attending, the deathless aspect assemble with mind.

Here "the deathless aspect" (amrita-dhatu) refers to Nirvana, in this context also described as vajradhatu, "the indestructible space that accommodates everything, samsara and nirvana. Nothing can challenge this space. In spite of its clarity, or discriminating wisdom, it is still indestructible." (Chogyam Trungpa)

"see ourselves as we really are", "engage directly with reality" and "grasp enlightenment" -- all refer to the same thing. This is when "compassion" happens naturally. In order for this to happen, one has to "remove wrong perceptions", "remove all entertainment and distractions" -- which includes removing the notion of goal or attainment, hence "no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain" without any trace of "eventually".

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  • Is the state of tathata similar (or maybe same) to the state a Dzogchenpa would have achieved? Thanks! – Parag Jun 7 '15 at 6:10
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    Yeah, should be the same – Andrei Volkov Jun 7 '15 at 20:44
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Joshu Examines a Monk in Meditation

Joshu went to a place were a monk had retired to meditate and asked him: `What is, is what?' The monk raised his fist.

Joshu replied: `Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow.' And he left.

A few days later Joshu went again to visit the monk and asked the same question.

The monk answered the same way.

Joshu said: `Well given, well taken, well killed, well save.' And he bowed to the monk.

Mumon's Comment: The raised fist was the same both times. Why is it Joshu did not admit the first and approved the second one? Where is the fault?

Whoever answers this knows that Joshu's tongue has no bone so he can use it freely. Yet perhaps Joshu is wrong. Or, through that monk, he may have discovered his mistake.

If anyone thinks that the one's insight exceeds the other's, he has no eyes.

Borrowed from: http://www.ibiblio.org/zen/gateless-gate/11.html I added the emphasis.

The point being that it's not one way or the other. It's both and neither.

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Zen teachings can be likened to "the finger pointing at the moon." Based on my experience at Dharma Field in Minneapolis, MN. They always mention zazen and the other Zen Buddhist practices are just fingers point at the moon. It is important not to get caught by the form of zazen but to utilize the practice for your own practice. The practice methods are tools to be used to help the practitioner with their daily meditation practice. As the following image and koan help explain:

enter image description here

Courtesy of HappyHauiku

The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas i do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

The patriach responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.” Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” HappyHauiku

The seemingly inconsistent points of view on zazen are generally utilized to help the practitioner's meditation from leaning too heavily in one direction or another. It is basically a corrective process to mentally stay on the middle path, not going off one tangent or another. 1

  1. Meditation Now or Never: Steve Hagen
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To answer this question you shouldn't only look at the goal as stated by Zen itself, but rather an anthropological explanation of Buddhism from an outside perspective.

From that perspective Buddhism, and consequently Zen, fall under the umbrella of religious practice, which always has the aim of relieving suffering.

Ask yourself - why would someone seek out zazen if they had no aim in doing so? In other words, there must be a goal for those seeking zazen. And as in other religious seekers, typically that goal is relieving worldly problems.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of value in Zen, and in the modern era it has similarities with certain types of therapy, mainly Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. But there is a risk for practitioners to immerse themselves too deeply in the mysticism of Zen, while missing the every-day reality that it's basically a certain perspective we take on the world, which in ancient times was called 'enlightenment'.

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  • I downvoted because you seem to massively undersell Zen. Enlightenment 'might be called a 'certain perspective', but to call a correct view of Reality this seems odd. To say on a Buddhist site that there is lot of value in Zen is to damn with faint praise. To say this perspective was called 'enlightenment' in ancient times is not untrue, but odd since it is still called this. I would even question the notion that zazen is a religious practice. although can see some justification for the claim if 'religious' is carefully defined. . . . – user14119 Dec 14 '19 at 14:25
  • @PeterJ respecfully, I don't see a critique of my answer here outside of 'I don't like it'. Fair enough, I'm not surprised that this answer would get a cold reception at a Buddhist site. But if you're able to critique the veracity of the answer I'll gladly remove it. – Canadian Coder Dec 14 '19 at 15:17
  • I feel no need to explain in detail. Your words are plain enough. Given your lack of knowledge of Zen and your scepticism I cannot imagine what leads you to post an answer here. – user14119 Dec 16 '19 at 14:38
  • Actually I have a great deal of respect for Buddhism and Zen and practice regularly. But as someone who's studied religion (Christianity, Judaism, Asian, and both NA and African Indigenous) I'm able to categorize Buddhism how I see it. Maybe you need to look closer at my answer. Sorry I caused conflict brother. – Canadian Coder Dec 16 '19 at 15:25
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    @CanadianCoder - Maybe I read things into your answer that you didn't intend, and in hindsight my tone above is a bit out of order. Still, it feels like you;re selling Zen short. You call it a 'kind of therapy' but this description applies to Buddhists teachings as a whole. I suspect I know what you mean about 'clinging' here and agree. The 'religious' attitude sometimes surprises me. But there's a strong sense in which Buddhism is a 'divine' philosophy, at least in the sense that it transcends the mundane. It's all about methods and to me Zen seems the simplest and most direct. – user14119 Apr 13 at 11:14
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Zazen is a practice, and like any practice we do not practice for a particular goal or end. We practice to acquire a skill. All of the products that one might point to — enlightenment, self-awareness, removal of distortions, compassion, clarity, etc — are outgrowths of that skill.

A doctor spends years in school, reading books, studying charts, dissecting cadavers, etc, not because these acts are interesting or useful in themselves, but because the skills she develops from doing so help treat injuries and diseases in the real world. Zazen is no different.

Of course, a 'skill' is a lot like an 'attitude': less a thing in itself than a relationship to the world. It's difficult to put into words.

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  • Can't you say that developing a skill is a goal? If I want to become a better dancer, isn't that a goal? – Muuski Dec 13 '19 at 19:43
  • "Being a better dancer" is an abstraction; it has no meaning outside of some specific act of dancing. No skill has any meaning or value outside of its application. – Ted Wrigley Dec 13 '19 at 20:06
  • I mean, you can make a 'goal' out of anything, by forming an attachment to accomplishing it. But I think most buddhists will caution against turning meditation into a goal in itself, because that seems to defeat the purpose of meditating. – Ted Wrigley Dec 13 '19 at 20:07

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