More on Zen’s Nesting Spheres – Internal


Continuing our exploration of the four spheres model by taking the opposite approach, starting at the boundary of the innermost sphere of the personal level, and looking inward from that vantage point. We find that social, natural and universal spheres are also reflected in the internal dimensions of the personal, if on a different scale. This illustration reveals the immensely complex and interrelated processes that are going on while we sit. Looking at them as zones or spheres of activities we can roughly relate biological functions to centers of the anatomy arrayed as eight points of focus for breathing in the martial arts, and even more loosely to the eight dimensions of the Eightfold Path.  

Sitting Meditation Scaffold

An historical aside on the meaning of a sphere may be helpful. The analogy of “sphere,” or “dhatu” (meaning “realm” in Sanskrit) was traditionally used to describe the tripartite nature of the Six Senses of classical Buddhism: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In each is found 1: an organ; 2: its object; and 3: its field of interaction, the level of the electromagnetic spectrum on which the transaction takes place. From the organ of the eye — with its object being form, color, contrasts, etc. and its field being light; to the mind — with its organ the brain, thoughts being its objects, and the field being the nervous system of the body; each of the six senses reflects this threefold model, with the sum total of eighteen realms comprising a comprehensive model of sentient existence.

When we turn inward from the boundary interfacing outer social and inner personal spheres (acknowledging Hakuin Zenji’s declaration that there is no actual separation of “inner” and “outer”), we find resonances with the social, natural and universal dimensions. Beginning with the interface of the senses in zazen, we recognize that sense-data is not simply coming from outside, but is also emanating from inside our being. This two-way dynamic is poetically captured in the central stanza from “Precious Mirror Samadhi (Hokyo Zammai)” by Tozan Ryokai, credited with being the founder of Soto Zen in China:

Though it is not constructed

It is not beyond words

Like facing a precious mirror

Form and reflection behold each other

You are not it but in truth it is you 

As we direct our attention either externally or internally, reflecting upon the form of our reality, it is revealed to have multiple dimensions in both realms. Simplifying innate complexity by reducing it to four major spheres impinging upon us, we may direct our attention to one at a time, or simultaneously to all four, taken together.

Nesting Spheres Internal

Note that in this iteration, the arrow is pointing inward. We are enlarging the inmost, personal sphere, as if placing it under a microscope, taking a closer look at its inner layers. Starting at the interface of the personal sphere with the external social, then moving inward, we immediately encounter the social realm of self-consciousness. That is, all of our social engagements have a personal aspect, namely the way we feel about them, and how they affect our worldview. The social dimension of the personal sphere naturally reduces to the evident separation of self and others. Which, while undeniably true, is also only relatively so. It is not an absolute.

Next we encounter the natural realm of biology, including all of the unceasing metabolic and life-sustaining processes of the organism that are proceeding apace, all unconsciously, as well as the biome, host to a world of micro-organisms, which also affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. And on deeper into the universal scale of the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic, where macrocosm meets microcosm of universal influences, such as the so-called random impact of cosmic particles on genetics, potentially altering our DNA. Each of the spheres has multiple levels on which we can trace the effect on our personal practice, as well as the effects of our practice, and indeed our behavior in general, on the other spheres. This amounts to another model in the category of “how it is.”  The zazen chart calls out some of the natural functions that are occurring during meditation.


A useful way of looking at the spheres is to model them as a tetrahedron, the simplest 3-dimensional model of any system (“system” defined as any entity that divides the universe into inside and outside, according to R. Buckminster Fuller). The illustration below shows the four spheres as separate but connected by struts that may be interpreted as 2-way vectors describing the relationships between the four. Counting the struts, we can see that there are six such connections.

4 spheres tetrad

Bodhidharma is said to have suggested a similar four-part model, describing four dimensions of observation in zazen: the breath; physical sensations; emotional sensations or mood swings; and finally, mental machinations of the mind, i.e. conceptual thinking. And of course, any such model is itself an example of the latter. Oversimplifying, his main point is that each of these components of sentient existence is seen to be ever-changing and impermanent. Thus the observer of all-inclusive impermanence must likewise be impermanent.



It may seem redundant to suggest that the personal sphere of practice itself would exhibit an internal, personal dimension. But what makes each of us unique, and therefore renders our practice of this same meditation, zazen, distinctly different, is precisely the personal attributes that are inborn or inherited, i.e. natural. Psychology refers to this aspect of personality as “temperament” whereas learned traits are referred to as “character.” Two identical twins, for example, will exhibit entirely different temperaments, though their process of maturing may bring them closer together over time, through the development of character.

We may regard this aspect of “the self studying the self by means of the self,” freely paraphrasing Uchiyama Roshi’s construction, as our personal karmic carryover, the dimension of personal existence and practice that forever separates our world, and our Zen life, from that of others. The interface of the personal with the personal.

The most immediate and perhaps important of the six is the relationship of our personal world and Zen practice to our own social sphere. Conflicts arise in this connection as friends, family, and co-workers become aware of our Zen practice, which tends to make us outliers in the social context. While meditation in general is mainstreaming in America, concerns from a Judaic and Christian, not to mention Muslim, perspective include that of the salvation of our soul, and that any deviance from the norm may represent some sort of aberration, indicating a maladjustment to society, as well as religious beliefs. This stems largely from the history of “beat” and “hippie” Zen, an unfortunate association that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.



As we practice meditation and study dharma, our internal relationship to the social realm in which we find ourselves, with its uniquely American characteristics, comes into focus. We confront issues to with our significant others who are curious about why we do Zen, or why we do not pursue the religion of our parents, for example. A spouse or parent may be uncomfortable with the amount of time and effort we devote to zazen, especially if they do not practice meditation. While these issues may manifest on the outer, social level, if we are honest we must admit that they have an inner resonance as well. We find ourselves reflecting upon the doubts of others that may occasion or exacerbate the arousal of doubt within ourselves.

Looking at influences from the social realm that impinge upon the personal, we may find our internal reaction to such conflicts affecting our practice, either making us even more committed, and raising or reinforcing doubts we may unconsciously harbor about our own practice. This is the tightrope that the third and fourth generations of Zen followers in any culture have to walk. If you think it was any different in the countries of origin — India, China, Korea and Japan — you have another think coming.

If you allow social considerations to affect your Zen practice, you are confusing the social and personal spheres. If, for example, you find your enthusiasm for Zen is dependent upon the presence of others, waxing and waning with attendance at the zendo, it is not yet genuine practice. If on the other hand you find it difficult to practice in the presence of others, or insist upon imposing your view of practice on others at the Zen center and at home, constantly finding fault, the personal is negatively affecting the social dimension of practice. As the ancient Chinese poem (Hsinhsinming by Sengcan) instructs us:

With practice hidden function secretly

Like a fool like an idiot

Just to continue in this way

Is called the host within the host

This last line reminds us of an ancient model of insight, using the framework of host and guest as an analogy from the personal and social realms to define the inmost consciousness in its dual aspect. The host within the host is the most intimate, the personal within the personal, form and reflection beholding each other. This highlights the struggle between the rational and the intuitive, the various dualities built into consciousness itself.

If you define Zen practice as necessarily “engaged” with activism in supporting or resisting the various social causes of the day, you are conflating the personal with the social. Any relationship to Zen practice, from the hermit in the cave, to the emperor who promotes Buddhism, is engaged. But if your personal practice has not reformed your personal worldview to the point of wisdom, relinquishing personal gain with regards to action and compassion, your social engagement may be just another example of the blind leading the blind. Engaging in dialog over the holidays with your own family can be challenging.

Zen practice begins with the personal examining, and effecting, the personal. Only after substantial inner work — resolving our personal relationship to the true conditions of existence: suffering (S. duhka) and its cardinal traits of imperfection, impermanence, and insubstantiality — can we expect to engage social conflicts with the requisite wisdom and compassion, and no attachment to outcomes.

This very essay is an exercise, perhaps in futility, attempting to translate personal experience into social expression, in an effort to clarify it for myself, as well as in the hope of affecting the social dimension of my audience: you and your practice, my dear reader. I have been reluctant my whole life to publish commentary on this Zen practice for similar reasons, resting assured that the person who is now would surely be embarrassed by what the person who was then had to say.




The natural and personal worlds are inseparable from an internal perspective, wherein whatever influences derive from our parentage and nurturing processes of growth and individuation come together to form the sum total of what we are and what we have to work with in terms of natural endowment. In Zen, any superiority in terms of naturally assimilating the teachings of Buddhism is attributed to merit accumulated in past lives, in all humility recognizing what little we can do to attain any such merit intentionally.

As stewards of the natural environment, we struggle with the limitations and stresses that the larger society places on the ecosystem of which we are a part. We can engage directly in improving our conservation and sustaining of resources on a personal level, as well as indirectly in collaborative communal programs. The natural world in turn reflects back on the personal, with positive and negative, as well as immediate and distant effects of our personal and collective actions.

Many of us are concerned that we have already tipped the scales in favor of long-term, irreversible decline in the global balance of environmental conditions that support sentient life, or at least human life, on the globe. Zen will train us to meet this eventuality with equanimity, even if our fellow human beings do not. In messing with Mother Nature, we reach a tipping point where fundamental forces that are more universal than natural, in the sense of supporting the status quo, take over.



The universal relevance to the personal begs the larger questions of the purpose of this existence and our place in it. Buddha’s insight is said to have transcended the personal, social and natural spheres, allowing him to embrace a universal view, or right view, of the overwhelming meaning if existence. He declared that his truth consisted in personal identity with this larger, universal truth, no dual separation. He also indicated that this event was entirely natural, and accessible to all who are willing to make the effort, by touching the earth, refuting the last temptation of Mara, who had elevated him to the status of a god. Zen is nothing if not down-to-earth.

Karma is Zen’s way of explaining things that otherwise elude explanation. Beyond the physical inheritance of parentage and DNA, Buddhism holds that there is some carryover, or “remainder,” from past lives. This obviously slips the bounds of what most would consider the natural boundaries of existence, as do all concepts of otherworldy heaven and hell. However you feel about this particular theory, you would have to admit that no two of us has exactly the same karmic consequences of past actions, or of past lives, appearing in this life.

Here we have to be careful not to mistake this idea for a kind of social cosmic cop-out, excusing us from behaving in our own best interests or that of others. The teachings of Buddhism are not meant to be misused in the employ of self-aggrandizement or societal indifference. Our intent in Zen is to do our best to manifest the teachings of wisdom and compassion in our everyday lives. But we do not know what that means.

Zen’s method for resolving these sticky issues is its meditation, zazen, in which we set aside the judgmental mind for the moment. This personal approach allows us to minimize the interference of the social sphere, and to approach the natural posture, breath, and attention that is at the heart of Zen meditation. In doing so we experience more physical balance, or samadhi: sitting upright in equilibrium with the field of gravity. Along with physical equipoise comes emotional samadhi: more calmness, less anxiety. And mental samadhi: more clarity, less confusion, particularly as regards the teachings of Zen. And finally, we may experience more social samadhi: more harmony, less conflict in relationships to the social, as well as the natural and universal spheres that shape our lives. Like a river, our boundaries are defined by the shore, but the shore is also shaped by the river.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *