Guided Meditation and Crooked Cucumbers

When people request me to “lead meditation” what they often mean  is that they want me to do a guided mediation.

Guided meditation is all the rage these days. So much so that I often encounter people who have no idea that there is any other way to meditate. They are shocked when they come to Angel City Zen Center or to one of the many retreats and events I host (see the listing below) and discover that, during zazen, we sit in complete silence with no talking at all.

I’m not really sure where guided meditation comes from. I’ve only ever studied the Zen tradition in depth. And in the Zen tradition there is no guided meditation.

There is a minor tradition in Zen called kusen in which some Zen teachers will give a talk during zazen. Sometimes it’s just a few sentences or a couple of words. Sometimes it’s a full lecture.

My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, hated kusen. He thought it was a bad tradition that was absolutely antithetical to zazen practice. I agree. I never do kusen.

But even the Zen teachers who do kusen are not doing the same thing as a guided meditation. A kusen is usually a talk about Buddhist philosophy. The teacher isn’t trying to instruct you on what to do while sitting. You’re not being told to focus on the breath and attend to the feeling of the air on your upper lip or anything like that.

By the way, the combination of Chinese characters used to write the word kusen can also be pronounced differently (kuchisaki) and mean “smooth talking,” “mere words,” or “(paying) lip service.” Maybe kusen isn’t so valuable after all!

I asked my friend Dave Cuomo about what he knew on the subject of guided meditation because he studied Buddhism at the University of the West, a Buddhist university. He told me that the teachers he saw in other Buddhist traditions like Vipassana or Tibetan Buddhism all seemed familiar with the idea of guiding a meditation by giving specific instructions to people while they were meditating. Only the Zen teachers didn’t know how to do that.

In Zen, you might get instructions before zazen about what to do. But once the bell rings and the zazen starts, the instructions are over.

My understanding of guided meditation in those other Buddhist traditions is something like this. It seems to me that the guidance is supposed to be coming from an experienced monk who is telling you what she or he does when meditating alone. Some of the guided meditations I’ve seen are based on ancient accounts supposedly given by the Buddha detailing what he did when he meditated. So you are supposed to be learning a technique form an experienced meditator that you will then carry on when you’re alone without guidance.

Nowadays, though, there are all kinds of apps and recordings of guided meditations available. Instead of using techniques they’ve learned from experienced meditators, many people are now meditating exclusively with guidance. With the apps and recordings, often this guidance isn’t even from an actual person in the room with you who can see what you’re doing and work with you. It’s like if every time you got on a bicycle you played a tape of your dad telling you how to ride a bike when you were seven years old. I think that’s kind of missing the point.

The reason I don’t do kusen or guided meditation is because I think zazen, or, indeed, any form of meditation needs to be a personal experience. If I guide someone else’s mediation, I am putting my experience in place of theirs. I am saying that my experience is preferable to their experience. I am dominating their experience. I do not want to dominate someone else’s meditation experience. 

Shunryu Suzukui Roshi once talked about how, in Japan, they sometimes grow cucumbers in special wooden boxes so that they all come out perfectly straight. He said that he did not want to do something like that to his students. He said he wanted to allow their zazen to be their own. That way, he said, they could be free to be “crooked cucumbers.” Later on David Chadwick called his biography of Suzuki Roshi, Crooked Cucumber.

In my opinion, at best guided meditation is like telling someone a bedtime story. At worst it can be used as a form of mind control or indoctrination. When someone is in a receptive state in meditation it seems almost like an act of violence to me to introduce any ideas into their heads.

When you sit zazen with me you’re on your own!


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May 30-June 2, 2019 RETREAT Hämmenlinna, Finland

June 3-5, 2019 TALK Vienna, Austria

June 7, 2019 TALK Prague, Czech Republic

June 8, 2019 RETREAT Prague, Czech Republic

June 10, 2019 Warsaw, Poland

June 12-16, 2019 DOMICILIUM RETREAT near Munich, Germany

June 19-23, 2019 BENEDIKTUSHOF RETREAT near Wurzburg, Germany

June 24/25, 2019 TALK Nijmegen, Netherlands

June 29-July 2, 2019 HEBDEN BRIDGE RETREAT, England

July 4, 2019 TALK in London, England

July 6, 2019 TALK AND ZAZEN in Paris, France




Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent StreetLos Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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