Zen Buddhism and the Occult

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
Although for Zen the supernatural, like all else, is illusionary, this does not prevent the supernatural from intruding into the world of Zen.


Zen Buddhism and the Occult

Although for Zen the supernatural, like all else, is illusionary, this does not prevent the supernatural from intruding into the world of Zen. Consider the idolatry (we have documented this elsewhere) in Zen practice. Historically, there is little doubt as to the reality of demons operating behind the mechanism of idolatrous practice. In Zen, as in yoga, chanting and physical postures may become vehicles to open the door to the supernatural world:

To help awaken us to this world of Buddha-nature, Zen masters employ yet another mode of zazen, namely, the chanting of dharani and sutras. Now, a dharani has been described as “a more or less meaningless chain of words or names that is supposed to have a magical power in helping the one who is repeating it at some time of extremity.” Anyone who has recited them for any length of time knows, in their effect on the spirit they are anything but meaningless. When chanted with sincerity and zest they impress upon the heart and mind the names and virtues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas enumerated in them, removing inner hindrances to zazen and fixing the heart in an attitude of reverence and devotion…. Dogen attached great importance to the proper position, gestures, and movements of the body and its members during chanting, as indeed in all other modes of zazen, because of their repercussions on the mind. In Shingon Buddhism particular qualities of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are evoked by the devotee through certain positions of his hands (called mudra) as well as body postures, and it is probably from the Shingon that this aspect of Dogen’s teaching derives. In any event, the prescribed postures do induce related states of mind…. Conversely, each state of mind elicits from the body its own specific response. The act of unself-conscious prostration before a Buddha is thus possible only under the impetus of reverence and gratitude. [1]

Zen’s emphasis on idolatry, mystical chanting, altered states of consciousness and psychic development can become vehicles to spirit contact. In Zen meditation, and in Eastern meditation generally, the practices adopted sooner or later bring one to the realm of psychic phenomena and spirits.[2] Lassalle observes that the following are to be expected in Zen practice, although they are considered “negative” in one sense, that through fascination with them the practitioner may be distracted from the goal of satori:

Here we shall mention only one of the so-called negative effects: the phenomenon of makyo (literally, world of spirits), that is to say, apparitions, fantasies, or illusory sensations. Figures or things not actually present appear to the person meditating. They can be of a pleasant or an unpleasant nature. Sometimes Buddhas appear; at other times the mediator may face the specter of a wild animal or something just as terrifying; or lights may appear to play before the eyes. Less often sounds are heard, but at such times a person may seem to hear his name called out clearly…. Zen masters explain these effects as natural products of the mind. [3]

While such phenomena could at times be entirely mental, they could also at times involve covert or overt consorting with the biblical “principalities and powers.” Many people, perhaps most, do not have the stamina to practice Zen for 20 years to achieve satori; some will undoubtedly be sidetracked into the psychic world as a result of Zen meditation. (Gedo Zen has as its main purpose the development and use of psychic abilities.) It seems clear that Zen meditation itself develops psychic powers, even if only some schools attempt to cultivate them. Since all Zen practice is the “same” (sitting, breathing, concentration), it is simply a matter of who wishes to use these powers, not whether they occur. In part, these powers seem to come by Zen’s particular method of concentration (joriki):

The cultivation of certain supranormal powers is also made possible by joriki, as is the state in which the mind becomes like perfectly still water…. The state of blankness in which the conscious functioning of the mind has been stopped. Now, although the power of joriki can be endlessly enlarged through regular practice, it will recede and eventually vanish if we neglect zazen. And while it is true that many extraordinary powers flow from joriki, nevertheless through it alone we cannot cut the roots of our illusory view of the world.[4]

In The Three Pillars of Zen we find an in-depth discussion of psychic powers (somewhat reminiscent of mediumism) and how one is to view and approach them:

Makyo are the phenomena—visions, hallucinations, fantasies, revelations, illusory sensations—which one practicing zazen is apt to experience at a particular stage in his sitting. Ma means “devil” and kyo “the objective world.” Hence makyo are the disturbing or “diabolical” phenomena which appear to one during his zazen. These phenomena are not inherently bad…. Broadly speaking, the entire life of the ordinary man is nothing but a makyo…. Besides those which involve the vision there are numerous makyo which relate to the sense of touch, smell, or hearing, or which sometimes cause the body suddenly to move from side to side or forward and backward or to lean to one side or to appear to sink or rise. Not infrequently words burst forth uncontrollably or, more rarely, one imagines he is smelling a particularly fragrant perfume. There are even cases where without conscious awareness one writes down things which turn out to be prophetically true. Very common are visual hallucinations. You are doing zazen with your eyes open…. Without warning everything may go white before your eyes, or black. A knot in the wood of a door may suddenly appear as a beast or demon or angel…. Many makyo involve the hearing. One may hear the sound of a piano or loud noises, such as an explosion (which is heard by no one else), and actually jump….

In the Zazen Yojinki we find the following about makyo: “The body may feel hot or cold or glasslike or hard or heavy or light. This happens because the breath is not well harmonized (with the mind) and needs to be carefully regulated.” It then goes on to say: “One may experience the sensation of sinking or floating, or may alternately feel hazy and sharply alert. The disciple may develop the faculty of seeing through solid objects as though they were transparent, or he may experience his own body as a translucent substance. He may see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Penetrating insights may suddenly come to him, or passages of sutras which were particularly difficult to understand may suddenly become luminously clear to him….” Makyo, accordingly, is a mixture of the real and the unreal, not unlike ordinary dreams….

Never be tempted into thinking that these phenomena are real or that the visions themselves have any meaning…. Above all, do not allow yourself to be enticed by visions of the Buddha or of gods blessing you or communicating a divine message, or by makyo involving prophecies which turn out to be true. This is to squander your energies in the foolish pursuit of the inconsequential.[5]

Nevertheless, “as your practice progresses many makyo will appear.” [6]

Zen’s claim that it is “the only teaching which is not to one degree or another tainted with elements of the supernatural” is clearly false.[7] Merely to redefine occult phenomena as “illusions” does not make them so. Zen practice is an occult practice since it produces occult phenomena. Further, discarding these powers is not official doctrine. Nothing is “official doctrine” or “absolute” in Zen, only recommended. Psychic powers may be retained and used by the disciple if his “Zen mind” should desire it.

Zen theory also employs Hindu-Buddhist alleged psychic anatomies, which are themselves theoretically connected to occult powers. The “chakras,” for instance, are so-called psychic centers, which when “opened” produce psychic abilities:

In short, by realigning the physical, mental, and psychic energies through proper breathing, concentration, and sitting, zazen establishes a new body-mind equilibrium with its center of gravity in the vita hara…. Hara literally denotes the stomach and abdomen and the functions of digestion, absorption, and elimination connected with them. But it has parallel psychic and spiritual significance. According to Hindu and Buddhist yogic systems, there are a number of psychic centers in the body through which vital cosmic force or energy flows…. Hara is thus a wellspring of vital psychic energies…. The Zen novice is instructed to focus his mind constantly at the bottom of his hara (specifically, between the navel and the pelvis) and to radiate all mental and bodily activities from that region.

With the body-mind’s equilibrium centered in the hara, gradually a seat of consciousness, a focus of vital energy, is established there which influences the entire organism…. The “organs,” which collect, transform, and distribute the forces flowing through them, are called cakras, or centers of force. From them radiate secondary streams of psychic force…. In other words, these cakras are the points in which psychic forces and bodily functions merge into each other or penetrate each other. They are the focal points in which cosmic and psychic energies crystallize into bodily qualities, and in which bodily qualities are dissolved or transmuted again into psychic forces.[8]

Many books document the frequent hazards that accompany psychic development and occult involvement. We also document this in detail in The Coming Darkness and the Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs. In light of their occult practices, followers of Zen should be far more cautious concerning the so-called “illusions” of their minds.



  1. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 45.
  2. See our Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs chapters on meditation, yoga, altered states, Eastern gurus, enlightenment, mandalas, visualization.
  3. H. M. Lassalle, Zen Meditation for Christians (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974), pp. 39-40.
  4. Kapleau, p. 47.
  5. Ibid., pp. 38-41.
  6. Ibid., p. 99.
  7. Ibid., p. 78.
  8. Ibid., pp. 14, 67-68.


  1. david on June 25, 2017 at 1:29 am

    Ya I’m seeing ominous faces all the time now… in the details of artwork… in the perfect faces in the crumpled folding of sheets… demons in the wall designs..
    I wonder what they are.
    I also ‘hear’ thoughts or intuitions of others passing by.. (when it’s about me..)
    and I am generally experiencing a good deal of calm and bliss.

    It would be awesome if I developed some sort of power that is actually somehow useful.

  2. James on December 16, 2018 at 9:04 am

    While I can appreciate your skepticism – even fear – of a foreign practice, meditation (Zen or other) is far from the occult and is little more than an expansion of one’s consciousness. While some Zen practices (and teachers) lean toward a more mystical tone, the essence is sitting meditation (zazen). Would that all humans practiced it – the world would be kinder, more aware, and more accepting.

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