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Discovering Truth in “The Three Pillars of Zen” by Philip Kapleau

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The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau is a renowned book that delves into the practice of Zen Buddhism. It offers valuable insights and guidance for those seeking to discover the truth within themselves through Zen meditation and mindfulness. This comprehensive guide will explore the key themes and teachings presented in the book, providing a deeper understanding of how to uncover truth and find inner peace.

The Essence of Zen

Zen Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China and later spread to Japan. It emphasizes direct experience and insight into the nature of reality, rather than relying solely on scripture or intellectual understanding. The essence of Zen lies in the practice of meditation, which allows individuals to quiet their minds and observe their thoughts without judgment. Through this process, practitioners can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

In The Three Pillars of Zen, Kapleau explores the fundamental principles of Zen and provides practical guidance for those interested in embarking on the Zen path. He emphasizes the importance of zazen, or seated meditation, as the primary means of attaining enlightenment. Kapleau also highlights the significance of mindfulness in daily life, encouraging readers to bring a sense of presence and awareness to every moment.

The Three Pillars: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment

The title of the book, The Three Pillars of Zen, refers to the three essential aspects of Zen practice: teaching, practice, and enlightenment. These pillars form the foundation upon which practitioners can build their understanding and experience of Zen.


The first pillar, teaching, encompasses the guidance and wisdom passed down from Zen masters to their students. Kapleau emphasizes the importance of finding a qualified teacher who can provide proper instruction and support on the Zen path. He shares stories and anecdotes from his own experiences with various Zen masters, illustrating the profound impact they had on his practice.

One of the key teachings in Zen is the concept of non-duality, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things. This understanding helps practitioners transcend dualistic thinking and see the world as it truly is, beyond concepts and labels. Kapleau explores this concept in depth, offering insights and practices to help readers cultivate a non-dualistic perspective.


The second pillar, practice, is the heart of Zen. It involves the diligent and dedicated application of meditation and mindfulness in daily life. Kapleau provides detailed instructions on how to establish a regular meditation practice, including guidance on posture, breath awareness, and dealing with common challenges that arise during meditation.

He also emphasizes the importance of integrating mindfulness into everyday activities, such as eating, walking, and working. By bringing a sense of presence and awareness to these mundane tasks, practitioners can cultivate a deeper connection with the present moment and develop a greater understanding of themselves and their surroundings.


The third pillar, enlightenment, is the ultimate goal of Zen practice. It refers to the direct realization of one’s true nature and the nature of reality. Kapleau explains that enlightenment is not a mystical or otherworldly experience, but rather a profound shift in perception and understanding.

He cautions against seeking enlightenment as a goal or attainment, as this can create attachment and hinder progress on the Zen path. Instead, Kapleau encourages readers to focus on the present moment and the practice itself, trusting that enlightenment will naturally unfold as a result of sincere and dedicated practice.

The Role of Meditation in Discovering Truth

Meditation is the cornerstone of Zen practice and plays a crucial role in the process of discovering truth. Through meditation, practitioners can cultivate a calm and focused mind, allowing them to observe their thoughts and emotions without attachment or judgment.

Kapleau provides detailed instructions on various meditation techniques, including breath awareness, mantra repetition, and koan introspection. He emphasizes the importance of finding a technique that resonates with each individual, as different approaches may work better for different people.

One of the key insights that can be gained through meditation is the impermanence of all things. By observing the ever-changing nature of thoughts, sensations, and emotions, practitioners can develop a deeper understanding of the transient nature of reality. This insight can help individuals let go of attachments and cultivate a sense of equanimity and acceptance.

Meditation also allows practitioners to develop mindfulness, which is the practice of bringing a non-judgmental awareness to the present moment. By cultivating mindfulness, individuals can become more attuned to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, allowing them to respond to life’s challenges with greater clarity and wisdom.

The Role of Mindfulness in Daily Life

While meditation is a formal practice that is typically done in a seated position, mindfulness can be applied to every aspect of daily life. Kapleau emphasizes the importance of bringing a sense of presence and awareness to all activities, whether it be eating, walking, or engaging in conversation.

One of the key teachings in Zen is the concept of “chop wood, carry water,” which emphasizes the importance of fully engaging in each task, no matter how mundane or repetitive. By bringing mindfulness to these activities, individuals can cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the present moment.

Kapleau provides practical suggestions for integrating mindfulness into daily life, such as taking mindful pauses throughout the day, setting intentions before engaging in activities, and practicing deep listening in conversations. These practices can help individuals develop a greater sense of presence and connection with themselves and others.

Applying Zen Teachings in Everyday Challenges

One of the strengths of The Three Pillars of Zen is its practicality. Kapleau provides guidance on how to apply Zen teachings in everyday challenges and difficulties. He explores various aspects of human experience, such as anger, fear, and desire, and offers insights and practices to help individuals navigate these emotions with greater wisdom and compassion.

For example, when faced with anger, Kapleau suggests observing the physical sensations and thoughts that arise without getting caught up in the story or reacting impulsively. By cultivating this awareness, individuals can respond to anger with greater clarity and understanding, rather than being consumed by it.

Similarly, when confronted with fear, Kapleau encourages individuals to investigate the root causes of their fears and question their validity. By shining the light of awareness on fear, practitioners can often discover that it is based on false assumptions or projections, allowing them to let go of unnecessary worry and anxiety.

By applying Zen teachings in everyday challenges, individuals can develop a greater sense of resilience, equanimity, and compassion. They can learn to navigate life’s ups and downs with greater ease and grace, finding peace and truth in even the most difficult circumstances.


The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau offers a comprehensive guide to discovering truth through Zen practice. By exploring the teachings, practices, and insights presented in the book, individuals can embark on a transformative journey of self-discovery and inner peace.

Through the practice of meditation and mindfulness, individuals can cultivate a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. They can develop the ability to observe their thoughts and emotions without attachment or judgment, leading to greater clarity and wisdom.

By integrating Zen teachings into daily life, individuals can bring a sense of presence and awareness to every moment, finding beauty and truth in even the most ordinary activities. They can navigate life’s challenges with greater resilience and compassion, cultivating a deep sense of peace and fulfillment.

Ultimately, The Three Pillars of Zen serves as a guidebook for those seeking to uncover the truth within themselves. It offers valuable insights and practical guidance for anyone interested in embarking on the Zen path, providing a roadmap to self-discovery and enlightenment.