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Zen Buddhism Overview

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Green Gaia

Veteran Member
Zen is the Japanese name of a well known branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism, practiced especially in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. It stresses the role of meditation in pursuing enlightenment. But besides this, it has been termed, by one Western commentator, "a way of life, work, and art ." Because Zen is the common name for this branch in Japanese as well as in English, this article will concern itself both with Zen as practiced in Japan and with Zen as an international phenomenon.

Spread of Zen

Traditionally, Zen traces its roots back to Indian Buddhism, where it was known by "dhyāna" (ध्यान), a Sanskrit term for meditation. This name was transliterated into Chinese as Chán (禪); "Chán" was later transliterated into Korean as Seon, Vietnamese as Thien and then into Japanese as "Zen."

According to these traditional accounts, an Indian monk named Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China in the fifth century. Later, Korean monks studying in China learned of Zen and spread it as far as Japan around the seventh century. Bodhidharma has also been linked to the spread of the East Asian martial arts traditions by popular history and mythology. However, little information supports this idea, and most students of martial history classify it as legend, not fact. Many of the martial systems that are identified with Zen practices tend to have more of a foundation in Taoist thought and design.

The Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki maintained that a Zen satori (understanding) was the goal of the training, but that what distinguished the Zen tradition as it developed in China, Korea, and Japan was a way of life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In India, the tradition of the mendicant (holy beggar) prevailed, but in China social circumstances led to the development of a temple and training-center system in which the abbot and the monks all performed mundane tasks. These included food gardening or farming, carpentry, architecture, housekeeping, administration, and the practice of folk medicine. Consequently, the enlightenment sought in Zen had to stand up well to the demands and potential frustrations of everyday life.

Zen in Japan

The following Zen traditions still exist in Japan: Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. Originally formulated by the eponymous Chinese master Linji (Rinzai in Japanese), the Rinzai school was introduced to Japan in 1191 by Eisai. Dogen, who studied under Eisai, would later carry the Caodong, or "Soto" Zen school to Japan from China. Obaku was introduced in the 17th century by Ingen, a Chinese monk.

Zen teachings and practices

Zen teachings often criticize textual study and the pursuit of worldly accomplishments, concentrating primarily on meditation in pursuit of an unmediated awareness of the processes of the world and the mind. Zen, however, is no mere quietistic doctrine: the Chinese Zen master Baizhang (720-814 CE), (Japanese: Hyakujo), left behind a famous saying which had been the guiding principle of his life, "A day without work is a day of no eating." When Baizhan was thought to be too old to work in the garden, his devotees hid his gardening tools. In response to this, the master then refused to eat, saying "No working, no living."

These teachings are in turn deeply rooted in the Buddhist textual tradition, drawing primarily on Mahāyāna sutras composed in India and China, particularly the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and the Samantamukha Parivarta, a chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The body of Zen doctrine also includes the recorded teachings of masters in the various Zen traditions.

Zen is not primarily philosophy of an intellectual variety. In explaining the Zen Buddhist path to Westerners, Japanese Zen masters and authorities have frequently pointed out, moreover, that Zen is a way of life and not solely a state of consciousness. D.T. Suzuki thought the aspects of this way of life were: a life of humility; a life of labor; a life of service; a life of prayer and gratitude; and a life of meditation.


Zen meditation is called zazen. Zazen translates approximately to "sitting meditation", although it can be applied to practice in any posture. During zazen, practitioners usually assume a lotus, half-lotus, Burmese, or seiza sitting position. Rinzai practitioners typically sit facing the center of the room, while Soto practitioners sit facing a wall. Awareness is directed towards complete cognizance of one's posture and breathing. In this way, practitioners seek to transcend thought and be directly aware of the universe.

In Soto, shikantaza meditation, sometimes translated as "just-sitting," i.e., a meditation with no objects, anchors, "seeds," or content, is the primary form of practice. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found in Dogen's Shobogenzo.

The teacher

Because the Zen tradition emphasizes direct communication over scriptural study, the role of the Zen teacher is crucial. Generally speaking, a Zen teacher is a person ordained in any tradition of Zen to teach the dharma, guide students of meditation and perform rituals; in some cases, especially in modern Zen movements, a person not formally ordained may be able to fulfill some or all of these roles. Honorific titles associated with Zen teachers typically include, in Chinese: Fashi or Chanshi; in Korean, Sunim; in Japanese: Roshi or Sensei; and in Vietnamese, Thich adopted in place of a surname. Note that many of these titles are common among Buddhist priests of all schools.

The term Zen master is often used to refer to important teachers, especially ancient and medieval ones. However, there is no specific criterion by which one can be called a Zen master. The term is less common in reference to modern teachers, because they are generally reluctant to proclaim themselves "masters."

Green Gaia

Veteran Member
Koan practice

The Zen schools (especially but not exclusively Rinzai) are associated with koans (Japanese; Chinese: gongan; Korean: gong'an). The term originally referred to legal cases in Tang-dynasty China. In some sense, a koan embodies a realized principle, or law of reality. Koans often appear paradoxical but are not meant to be apprehended rationally. Rather, Zen practitioners are said to recognize and actualize a koan in experience. An example of a Zen koan: "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?". It is sometimes said that after diligent practice, the practitioner and the koan become one.

According to some interpretations, koans are by design absolute nonsense. This is in an effort to exhaust the intellect. Once the intellect is no longer relied upon, then enlightenment is more readily received or apprehended. However, other accounts hold that the problem posed by a koan is quite serious, and there there is a sharp distinction between right and wrong answers to it.

The principle in more detail, is that the only way one can stop the intellect from getting in the way of achieving enlightment is to force it to consider impossible scenarios (the koans) until it finally realizes the futility and gives up entirely. Once the intellect is out of the way, enlightenment is more readily attained. Though most Zen groups aim for a "sudden" enlightenment, this usually only comes after a great deal of preparation.

The Zen student's mastery of a given koan is presented to the teacher in a private session (called dokusan in Japanese). The answer to a koan is more dependent on "how" it is answered rather than the correctness of the answer. Or, to put it somewhat differently, the answer is a function not merely of a reply, but of a whole modification of the student's experience; he or she must live the answer to the koan rather than merely offering a correct statement.

There is no single correct answer for any given koan, though there may be a set of correct and a set of incorrect answers, and indeed students in a cheating mindset would often compile books of accepted answers to Koans to help prepare for the interview; these collections are of great value to modern scholarship on the subject.

"Zen" in Western pop-culture

Since the 1930s in England, and at least since the 1950s in America, there has grown a popular interest in Zen. In 1959, a book titled The Dharma Bums, written by Jack Kerouac, was published giving its readers a look at how a fascination with Buddhism and Zen was being absorbed into lifestyle experimentation by a small group of mainly West-Coast American youths. Besides the narrator, the main character in this novel was Gary Snyder, thinly veiled as “Japhy Ryder” by his friend Kerouac. The described events were based on actual ones that occurred in 1955 and ’56. Snyder actually pursued formal Zen studies in Japanese monasteries on and off from 1956 to 1968, though numerous other Americans merely thought and talked about Zen.

Many youths in the so-called “Beat generation” and among the “hippies” of the 1960s and ‘70s misunderstood the traditional goals and methods of Zen Buddhism. While a scholar like D.T. Suzuki may have brought out aspects of Zen like humility, labor, service, prayer, gratitude, and meditation, the “hip” subculture often focused on states of consciousness in themselves.

Many modern students have made the mistake of thinking that since much of Zen sounds like nonsense, especially in translation and out of context, any clever nonsense is also Zen. This is not the case, but see Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius for modern semiserious religions influenced by this idea. The Expressionist and Dada movements and art tend to have much in common thematically with study of koans and actual Zen.

The British-American twentieth-century philosopher Alan Watts had a personal interest in the Zen school of Buddhism and wrote and lectured extensively on it. In part, he was interested in it as a vehicle for a mystical transformation of consciousness. But his interest was alsoin the historical example of a non-Western, non-Christian way of life that had fostered both the practical and fine arts.

The novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by the writer Robert M. Pirsig deals with the notion of 'quality' from the Zen-like point of view of the main character.

Radical "Zen"

Some Zen masters use very controversial methods of education. Unorthodox expressions of Zen values and beliefs are very common. Lin Chi Zen Master said if you meet Buddha kill Buddha. If you meet Patriarch kill Patriarch. Zen Master Seung Sahn says that in this life we must all kill three things: first we must kill parents; second we must kill Buddha; and last, we must kill Seung Sahn.

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