All of us have heard the word Zen. Maybe you have even had moments of Zen. Moments where you felt a deep connectedness and understanding towards the world around you. Moments where you experienced insight and wisdom as you have never experienced before. But what exactly is Zen Buddhism?
The short answer is that it is a school of Buddhism from China, specifically, Mahayana Buddhism. It focuses on certain concepts like non-dualism and non-conceptualism that may be difficult to understand for the layperson.
To find out more about the Zen philosophy, practice, the history of this practice, and more – read on.
What is Zen Buddhism?
Zen is a type of Buddhism that originated in China. Literally, the word means meditation in Sanskrit.
Zen is a Japanese term for a Buddhist tradition which is practiced by people all over the world. The practice saw its origins in China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, and later on, it became popular in the western world. The tradition has many forms because each of the countries and cultures mentioned above gave their own meaning and tastes to it.
If we go back to the roots of the word, unlike its current English meaning, the word is not an adjective. It is a Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word Chan, which itself is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word Dhyana. Dhyana means meditation or concentration.
In this context, Zen or Chan refers to the quality of mind which happens when one practices sitting meditation. This practice is known as Zazen in Japanese, and many believe that it is the most important practice in Zen Buddhism.
Zen Buddhism is as variable as the people who practice it, almost all of its forms had some common features, simplicity, nonduality, and non-conceptual understanding. We will take a brief look at each of these principles, but ultimately Zen Buddhism is a way for its practitioners will their hearts and minds and find ways to connect with the world. The essence of this practice is to understand the meaning of life without logical thought and language leading you astray.
Zen Buddhism Definition as per Bodhidharma
Zen is a way of transmission of knowledge without using words or letters. It is knowledge transmitted directly from master to disciple.
In a single sentence, Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana tradition which focuses on simplicity, Zazen Meditation, non-duality, and non-conceptual understanding.
According to Bodhidharma, the definition of Zen Buddhism:
“A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.”
Some people define Zen as the face-to-face transmission of dharma outside the sutras.
In this context, dharma refers to the Buddhism teachings, and Sutras refers to the scriptures or sacred texts. These texts are the transcriptions of the oral teachings of the Buddha. Or, in other words, the Buddhist teachings in Zen are not dependent on words, as Bodhidharma says in his definition of Zen. In the history and practice of Zen throughout the years, the teachers have helped the students realize their Dharma in face to face interviews.
This is why the lineage of teachers in this practice is extremely important. The experience of Zen transmits from master to disciple, without interruptions, to create the Zen lineage. Real and genuine Zen teachers can trace their Zen lineages all the way back to Bodhidharma, and some of them even to Buddha himself.
History of Zen Buddhism
Buddhism in China can be traced back around 2000 years ago and it was brought here by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 5th century. He taught a distinctive class of Mahayana Buddhist at the Shaolin monastery of China. He was the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism.
The teachings by Bodhidharma started integrating with some of the developments that were already happening in China, such as the philosophies of Daoism and Confucianism. The tradition then absorbed some elements of both of these schools of thought and rejected some. In fact, Taoism affected Buddhism so profoundly that there are some philosophers and texts that are common to both the religions.
Slowly, the Chinese culture reshaped Indian and Central Asian Buddhism, and this reshaping created an entirely new school of thought, which was completely different from earlier forms of Buddhism. As a result, the practice of Chan emerged.
The golden age of Zen Buddhism
The golden age of this practice was during the rule of the Sixth Patriarch of China, Hui-neng. He shed most of the Indian aspects of this practice and made it more Chinese. In fact, the form of Zen Buddhism that we know of today was more or less crafted by him.
Most of the great Zen masters that we know of today came from this time, and they still speak through koans and stories. It was during this time that Zen Buddhism organized and settled into five different houses or Buddhist schools. All of these schools still exist and are quite distinctive from each other. In Japanese Zen, they are known as the Rinzai School and Soto School.
Zen spread to Korea in 7th century CE and to Japan in 12th century CE. Some people believe that the transmission of this practice to Vietnam was quite early as well, possibly as early as the 7th century. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a Japanese scholar, popularized Zen in the West in the 20th century by , after the Second World war.
Zen Buddhism Practices
Meditation practice in Zen Buddhism uses 2 basic methods, combined with a simple breathing exercise which is quite popular in the traditional meditation techniques, known as the observation of breath count.
Here are the two schools of thought for practicing Zen Buddhism:
1. Zazen, or Zen Meditation
Zazen literally means sitting Zen. In other words, it is a type of seated meditation and you are supposed to do it in the Zen style. It involves sitting upright in good posture, and paying attention to the breath in your stomach until your mind is fully alert and present in the current moment.
This practice is central in Zen centers all over the world. Monks wake up early every morning for Zen training and meditation practice. They do long retreats, which involve many hours of sitting silently on the cushion come on without moving. Sitting meditation literally involves just sitting down and trying to make sense of your mind.
The difficulty of Zazen
On the surface, this practice seems intensely and deceptively simple. However, there is more here. As one goes through various stages of Zazen, the significance of this practice becomes clear. In fact, in the monastery, the life of all its residents focuses around the sitting in the meditation hall. Some people also believe that that zazen is a state of mind that extends into activities of daily life.
You can extend zazen into work, eating, sleeping, walking, standing. Ancient Zen monks also used arts like painting, gardening, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, etc. to practice Zen. In Soto Zen, which is a Japanese school of Zen meditation very popular in the western world, there is a very strong focus on the moving Zen. In this meditational practice, one experience is a process of discovery as they become aware of the original enlightenment.
Although there are many other ways of practicing Zen meditation, this is the central core that all monks and students come back to.
Why practice Zazen?
As it is seen with many other aspects of Buddhism, people have to practice Zen Buddhism for a while before they can learn to appreciate it. At first, the practice may appear as simple mind training, and in a way, it is. But if you stay with it and are consistent, your understanding of the world around you will change.
One of the most difficult parts of the practice that people find hard to understand is sitting without any goals or expectations. But for most people, it takes years of sitting with goals and expectations before all these parts get exhausted, and they learn to just sit at last. But on the way, they also learn a lot about themselves.
2. Koan Practice
In Koan Zen, riddles and puzzles are designed in such a way that just reasoning intellectually cannot solve them. A Koan Is a paradoxical or enigmatic statement or question about reality that we cannot understand with our conceptual mind.
Thinking about these conundrums is a part of a set curriculum that must be practiced by Zen students. One of the most popular Koans is – What is the sound of one hand clapping? While this may seem nonsensical to you and me, and most of Koan do, the aim of the practice is to break the barriers of the conceptual mind.
How are koans practiced?
Koan practice usually starts with the Zazen practice, which we discussed above. Once the practitioner becomes aware of their body and breath by practicing sitting meditation, they bring up the Koan in their mind. And almost like a physical object, the Koan is kept in the mind and placed there. The practitioner repeats it over and over again, while continuing counting their breath.
The students do this until the words and meanings of those words in the Koan get dissolved, and the only thing that remains is the Koan itself. This practice is usually done as an intensive retreat, and should be led by a qualified Koan teacher. The practitioner visits the teacher for private interviews and presents their understanding of the Koan.
No matter how lame the answer of the practitioner may be, they do it over and over again, each time receiving an answer from the teacher, which reorients the search again. Eventually, with hard work, luck, and a few hence, the essence of the Koan will penetrate the practitioner’s mind.
Like all methods, it is possible that the Koan that’ll scan Spiral into self-protective and self-referential views. However, it is the job of the teacher to see that this does not come to be, but in some cases, it may not be preventable. There are many different systems for studying Koan, but most of them focus on Being spontaneous, open, and humorous.
At best, the Koan method is a unique and brilliant expression of the spiritual sensibilities of the human mind.
Zen Buddhism – The Three-step Process
When one engages in Zen meditation, they should follow the three-step procedure in the exact order mentioned below. Moreover, when the session concludes, the procedure will reverse so that the practitioner can return to a normal standpoint.
Here are the three steps in the order in which the monks practice them:
1. The adjustment of the body
The adjustment of the body refers to preparing yourself in such a way that your Body can achieve the optimal state of being free.
To do this, you must have a proper diet, have appropriate physical exercise, and avoid any habit that may be harmful for nurturing an optimum mind body condition. Specifically, it means that you must have the correct meditation postures when practicing Zen Buddhism.
There are two postures which are recognized by Zen – The Lotus posture, and the half Lotus posture. These postures are effective in helping the practitioner still their mind and focus completely on the practice at hand. However, there is no expectation for a layperson to assume these postures. A person new to Buddhism should start their practice by sitting on a chair while keeping the spine straight.
The adjustment of the body is essential to experiencing the practical benefits of meditation and Zen Buddhism.
2. The adjustment of the breathing
Zen meditation is very closely related to the practice of breathing. In general, Zen does not recommend any complicated breathing exercises. You must simply observe the breath count you inhale and exhale. You should breathe in through the nostrils and breathe out through the mouth a couple of times before you start the exercise.
Once you have alternate, both the inhale and exhale should be through the nostrils. This is done while performing abdominal breathing, that is, the air should be brought in all the way down to the lower abdominal and breathed out from there as well. This helps in infusing your mind and body with fresh life energy, and removing all the negative toxic energy.
You should also do this practice only in a place where there is plenty of ventilation.
3. The adjustment of the mind
Once your body posture and breathing are adjusted, you must learn to adjust the mind. This is done by disengaging from the concerns of everyday life. Before reaching this stage, it is inevitable that you will experience 3 stages of breathing.
The first is the rough and gross breathing which involves hearing the audible sound of inhales and exhales. After that, the breathing will become more subtle and you can feel the pathway of the inhales and exhales. In the third stage, there is no feeling of the inhales and exhales, and you will settle into the deeper state of mind.
It should be noted that it is in this third stage that the adjustment of the mind occurs. During this time, the interval between the inhalation and exhalation will be prolonged. You will experience psychological isolation from the rest of the world and enter the internal world of your psyche.
You may also become aware of ideas, concerns, anxieties, desires, and experiences of your everyday life. However, these ideas and images are distractions and you must learn to observe them without getting involved in them.
The No Mind State
As the adjustment of the mind deepens with time, you will start noticing that there are three distinct stages to this process:
1. The stage of concentration
In this stage, you will find yourself concentrating on the lower abdomen as you breathe. There will be a dual relationship between you and the focus of your concentration. With time, this relationship will be broken and you will enter into the stage of meditation.
2. The stage of meditation
In this state, the activity of your ego consciousness will lessen and the barriers you have set up around your mind will be removed slowly as you enter the next.
3. The stage of absorption
In this state, there will be no dualistic framing of the mind. Your mind will start seeing itself non dualistically and there will be no separation between the object of your mind and the activity of your mind. As this process deepens more and more experience over time, you will reach a stage where nothing appears in your consciousness.
According to Zen Buddhism, it is this final stage when nothing appears in your mind that is known as the no mind state. Zen uses this term to refer to a state where there is no conscious activity. It is a state in which there is no ego consciousness and your mind is not limited by desires, ideas, and images.
It is simply the transcendence of your mind from everyday life, without actually leaving the everyday life.
Zen Buddhism Beliefs
Zen is a concept that is very difficult to understand. Here is a breakdown of the core beliefs of this practice in the simplest way possible:
1. Enlightenment without intellectualism
The core tenet of this practice is to achieve enlightenment by looking at your original mind or original nature directly, without using your intellect. Zen Buddhism is more focused on intuitive understanding of the world than philosophizing it.
It is concerned with what actually is, instead of what we think or feel about what is. Without trying to interpret anything, zen simply Focuses on Things as they are.
2. Understanding matter and energy
In Zen Buddhism, there is no difference between energy and matter. Even the simplest of things like a rock or a table is an event, instead of a thing. Every single thing around you is always happening. This is in agreement with modern scientific knowledge. Even as human beings, we do not come into the world, rather we come out of the world.
We are all expressions of the world, instead of just a fluke of consciousness in a big blind universe.
3. The importance of the present moment
The most distinctive characteristic of this practice is the focus on the present moment. As per the western concept of time, all of us are constantly looking over at our past trying to learn lessons from it. At the same time, we are also projecting into our hypothetical future where we can apply these lessons.
As a result, the present moment is compressed to a tiny sliver between an infinite future and an endless past. Zen is focused on expanding and retaking the present moment. Which teaches you that there is no point in getting anywhere if the only thing you’re going to do when you get there is to think about the next future moment.
Life exists in the present, or nowhere at all.
4. Rebirth and reincarnation
Then Buddhism teaches us that the doctrine of reincarnation can be more accurately seen as a cycle of constant rebirth and death, and the coming and going of energy within the universe. This teaches us that we are all a part of the universe, before and after death.
5. Perceiving the world
Then Buddhism believes that nobody knows the answers to the most difficult questions of life, and not only that, it is impossible to answer them. This is because humans perceive everything through the filter of their experiences, ego, and personality. This is the nature of our limited condition, that is, our mind.
It is impossible for us to see all the actors in this theater and even more difficult to understand the roles of the people that we do not see. Zen Buddhism believes that humans are just humans and all we see is the illusion, not the truth.
Zen Buddhism and Enlightenment
Zen believes that all humans possess enlightenment in them. They just have to wake up and see it.
In Zen Buddhism, it is believed that enlightenment is the inherent nature of all the people, I’m not a special quality that is possessed only by a few. The practice believes that enlightenment is already present in all of us and we all have the ability to realize it.
However, because our minds are constantly clouded by feelings like anger, ignorance, and greed, we may not be aware of our own awakened nature. One of the sayings in Zen Buddhism is that the ordinary mind is the way. This means that the enlightened mind which understands the true nature of our reality and the ordinary mind which gets angry at little things are actually the same.
The Zen practice of Zazen is aimed at helping us clear out the mind by becoming aware of these impurities and learning how to let them go. It is the job of the Zen teacher to guide his students so that they can experience the Enlightenment that has always resided in their mind.
Kensho in Zen Buddhism
In Zen Buddhism, enlightenment is often called by another word in Japanese, called Kensho. It means seeing one’s true nature. It is also often described as an opening experience, during which a person wakes up suddenly to the true nature of the self. In fact, this belief is so prevalent in Zen that it is believed that to be a human being is to be Buddha. The Buddha nature is just another term for human nature.
However, it should be noted that this process of awakening goes on forever and that is why Zen Buddhism is a lifelong commitment. While some people may experience gradual enlightenment after years of practice, others may also experience it suddenly. Both of these experiences are valid. Since there is always something to be learned in Zen Buddhism, it is possible that they may even happen to the same person at different times.
Zen Philosophy is different from Western philosophy. It rejects the Aristotelian view and believes that reality and nature can only be understood by lifting the veil of Logic and Reason.
Or, I should rather say, Zen anti-philosophy.
If philosophy can be defined as a kingdom of reason, Zen is the opposite. Western philosophy has always tried to explain human nature by using ego-consciousness, logic, reasoning, etc. As the starting points. However, Zen philosophy believes that reason alone is incapable of knowing and understanding what reality is.
For instance, before the practice, mountains will be seen as mountains. During the practice, mountains are not mountains. And after realization, mountains are truly mountains again.
This way, in the process of discovery, the Zen practitioner moves from an ordinary common-sense viewpoint to an extraordinary viewpoint, and then returns to the everyday world where there is no either-or logic. Reasoning and Aristotelian Logic are no longer the standard for understanding and knowing reality and the world around us.
Why Zen does not align with Aristotelian philosophy
Contradictory statements, paradoxes, and even statements that appear to be complete nonsense are quite commonly seen in Zen literature. The koan method described above is one example of this point. Another instance is the sentence – the River does not flow, but the bridge does. If you try to understand this by relying on Logic and Aristotelian Understanding, it will appear meaningless and nonsense.
It is obvious that by using the above method, Zen Buddhism has developed an understanding of reality, human nature, the world around us, and everything else in a way that is quite different from the western philosophy.
Unlike standard philosophical doctrines, this system is not built on Knowledge and Reasoning. It does not follow ego consciousness or the epistemological way of knowing the world. Instead, it views such methods as binding and trapping oneself which will lead to suffering and attachment. Instead, Zen Buddhism offers the practitioner to embody freedom.
Does Zen Philosophy Make Sense?
Most of you will be tempted to say no. But of course, that isn’t true. However, I will grant you that making sense of Zen philosophy requires an understanding of language that is quite different from the way we normally understand it.
Zen literature is full of exchanges and riddles that make no sense to a lay person. However, they’re not random mutterings of old monks. They intend to convey something very specific. Bodhidharma said that Zen is directly pointing to the mind.
You can only gain understanding of Zen Through experience, not true intellectual debate or by reading proses explaining it. According to Zen teacher Robert Aitken, an explanatory language can be used to describe Zen teachings, but it generally dilutes the meanings.
Therefore, there is no secret decoding software that will help you understand Zen. You must practice it for a while, especially under the guidance of a teacher, to understand it. And even then, it may not happen.
Do not be fooled by the explanations of koans seen on the Internet. Even when Done under academic supervision, most of them are painfully wrong. You cannot find answers through reading and studying, you must live them. And if you truly want to understand Zen, you must commit to do it face to face.
Zen Buddhism Symbol
In Zen Buddhism, Enso is a circle that is drawn with a hand. It is drawn with one or two uninhibited brush strokes. Also, it represents a single moment where the mind is free to let the body create. It also symbolizes strength, elegance, the universe itself, and the void. The symbol is also very characteristic of the minimalism usually seen in Japanese culture and aesthetics. Often, it is also known as the circle of enlightenment.
The circle itself may be open or closed, and it is usually drawn using an ink brush to apply the ink on a type of thin Japanese paper known as washi. If the circle is incomplete, it is believed that it allows movement and development. It can also be a symbol of the beauty of imperfection. On the other hand, when the circle is closed it acts as the symbol of perfection.
Usually, people draw this symbol in one stroke that is both fluid and expressive. Also, once enso is drawn, it is not changed. It is evidence of the character of the creator. It also represents creation in a brief moment, interrupting time. Many people view the drawing of enso as a spiritual practice that can be done once per day.
Beginner Zen Books
If you are anything like me, all this talk about Zen must have only half penetrated your mind. Zen is not easy to understand, clearly, and it will take more than one article to fully understand it. However, to aid you in your journey, we have compiled this list of the best Zen books for beginners that will help you break down this enigmatic doctrine.
1. The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Written by a Vietnamese Zen master, this book is a wonderful introduction to Mahayana Buddhism and mindfulness.
2. The Eight Gates of Zen, by John Daido Loori, Roshi
If you want a little bit more than an introduction, this book is perfect for you. It is the closest you can get to understanding Zen without a Zen master. It explains zazen, the student-teacher relationship in Zen, the literature, rituals, mortality, and arts in Zen.
3. The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
Watts’ books are a great way to understand Zen in a fun and interesting way. However, it should be noted that despite his popularity and influence, he is not an authority on Zen.
4. Taking the Path of Zen, by Robert Aitken, Roshi
Robert Aitken is one of the most brilliant Zen writers, and his explanation of koans is understandable and accessible even by the most lay Zen person. If you already know a bit about Zen, this is a great book for you.
5. Zen Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki
This wonderful book may not be for the absolute beginner, but if you have already had one or two sessions of Zen, it is quite accessible.
Buddhist and Zen Buddhist – The Differences
The differences between Buddhism and Zen Buddhism are:
|Practices||Buddhist practices involve meditation, the eightfold path, mindfulness, etc.||Zen Buddhism is focused on non-dualism, non-conceptualism, meditation, and simplicity.|
|Founder||Buddha||Monks who broke from the original teachings of Buddhism and incorporated Confucianism and Taoism in it.|
|Place of origin||Indian subcontinent||China|
|Belief in God||Buddhism rejects the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God||There is a Buddha inside each of us and it lives forever|
|Literal meaning||People who follow Buddha are called Buddhism.||Japanese translation of the Chinese word Chan which is further The Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which means meditation.|
|Life after death||We are stuck in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This can be broken only by attaining Nirvana.||Nirvana.|
|Clergy||The Buddhist Sangha consists of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, male monks and female nuns. They are supported by lay Buddhists.||Only monks and nuns.|
|Human nature||All human beings are ignorant and must be woken up.||All humans have the enlightened state within them.|
|Place of worship||Monasteries, temples, shrines||Pagoda, temple|
|Goal||To attain Nirvana and enlightenment, to be released from the cycle of birth and rebirth.||Same as Buddhism.|
|Means of salvation||The Eightfold Path||Meditation and Koan practice.|
Zen Buddhism Quotes
1. “Zen wants us to acquire an entirely new point of view whereby to look into the mysteries of life and the secrets of nature. This is because Zen has come to the definite conclusion that the ordinary logical process of reasoning is powerless to give final satisfaction to our deepest spiritual needs.”― D.T. Suzuki
2. “In zazen, leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”― Shunryu Suzuki
3. “Taking it all in all, Zen is emphatically a matter of personal experience; if anything can be called radically empirical, it is Zen. No amount of reading, no amount of teaching, no amount of contemplation will ever make one a Zen master.”― D.T. Suzuki
4. “We cannot expect any ecstasy greater than right here, right now—our everyday lives.”― Kosho Uchiyama Roshi
5. In Zen there must be satori; there must be a general mental upheaval which destroys the old accumulations of intellection and lays down the foundation for a new life.”― D.T. Suzuki
On Parting Notes
It is very clear that Zen is not one of the most popular sects of Buddhism. This is because it is a very difficult path, and especially for lay people, it may not be easy to understand it. However, the practice is ultimately about coming face to face with your real self in a manner so direct and intimate, that it could never be easy, no matter how you tried to do it.
But if you don’t mind the challenge, the journey is definitely worth trying.
Namrata is a Doctor i.e. dentist turned writer and a clinical researcher. Eager to learn about anything and everything, she is what you would call a jack of all trades and master of none. With a zeal for reading novels, books, and anything she could get her hands on ever since she was little, she embarked into a writing career purely out of luck. After indulging in a freelancing career for nearly two years, she can now write on anything - from dentistry to decor, travel to technology, medicine to management - but the psychology remains her first love. Having dealt with mental health issues in the past, she hopes to raise awareness for the same and help people with her work in association with The MindFool team