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Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism which originated in China (where it was known as Ch’an) and then spread to Japan and Korea early in the 13th century. The two major surviving branches of Zen are the Rinzai and Sōtō schools.
Zen Buddhism is centrally concerned with gaining insight into the nature of things and the nature of the self through meditation. It de-emphasizes the importance of knowledge of sutras and Buddhist doctrine. Instead, wisdom is gained through practice. This school of Buddhism contends that wisdom can be expressed in everyday life – in interactions with one’s self, with others and with the world around them – by viewing the world with a holistic and non-dualistic perspective and with a sense of presence in, and a cherishing of, the here and now. As such, Zen can be viewed more as a way of being than a religion – a way of being by which the Zen practitioner can embody “buddha-nature.”
Central Ideas and Claims
In Zen Buddhism, enlightenment, or ‘the perfection of nondiscriminatory wisdom’ (hannya haramitsu in Japanese), requires practical and experiential knowledge. Zen believes that theoretical knowledge cannot allow one to be emancipated from one’s human suffering, as such knowledge is hampered by the limitations of language, constructed at least in part on dualistic ways of thinking and understanding the world. Therefore, it is by way of transforming the way one views the world that one can prepare for embodying nondiscriminatory wisdom.
There are two main surviving branches of Zen: the Sōtō school and Rinzai. Both branches place primary emphasis on sitting meditation (zazen). The Rinzai school, brought to Japan by Eisai (1141-1215), also employs an additional method of meditation called kōan. A kōan is formulated as an apparently illogical question or riddle that intellectual reasoning alone cannot solve. The aim is that concerted application to the puzzle will allow the practitioner to move beyond normal thinking processes. One well known example of a kōan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?’. A Zen practitioner’s answers must be assessed by a Zen master before he or she is granted a seal of transmission. Transmission can only occur from one Buddha to another. The Rinzai school has four mottoes for this process of self-cultivation: “being a special transmission outside of the scriptures,” “having no dependence on words and letters,” “pointing directly into [one’s] human mind,” and “seeing into [one’s] nature to become a buddha” (The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record).
The Sōtō school, founded by Dōgen (1200-1253), does not employ the use of kōans, but instead follows a method called “just sitting” (shikan taza). “Just sitting” refers to the diligent practice of meditation without intervention of self-interest, concern, or desire. The Sōtō school differs from the Rinzai school in that it does not consider meditation as a means of achieving enlightenment, but rather meditation and enlightenment are one together. Dōgen thereby collapsed the distinction between “acquired enlightenment” (shikaku) and “original enlightenment” (hongaku). According to the Sōtō school, meditation is a deepening process of becoming aware of the original enlightenment. For this reason, the Sōtō school has been called the school of “gradual enlightenment”, whereas the Rinzai school, placing emphasis on the achievement of enlightenment as opposed to the process, has been called the school of “sudden enlightenment”. While the journey might differ between the two schools, the outcome is ultimately the same: the embodiment of wisdom and compassion.
History, Lineage and Legacy
‘Zen’ is the way the Chinese word ‘ch’an’ is pronounced in Japan. ‘Ch’an’ is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word ‘dhyana’, which means meditation.
Buddhism spread north from India into Central Asia and reached China by the middle of the 1st century. A school of Chinese Buddhism known as Ch’an (the ancestor of Japanese Zen), was born from the interaction of Buddhism with the Chinese philosophy, Taoism. The goal of Taoism is to live in harmony with nature by learning to balance the complementary forces of Yin and Yang.
Zen Buddhism came to Japan from China and Korea early in the 13th century. Ch’an is about a return to the basics. All the teachings, texts, practices, codes of morality, and behavior that had developed from the simple teaching of the Buddha were intended as aids to achieving enlightenment. Ch’an swept all of this aside and focussed instead on the direct insight that transformed Siddhartha Gautama into the Buddha.
Dōgen (1200-1253) was the seminal master of the Japanese Sōtō Zen School. He initially trained in the Tendai School before gravitating to the Zen school. In 1227, having had his enlightenment confirmed by his master in China, Dōgen returned to Japan, intending to propagate Sōtō Zen there. Dōgen went on to establish the temple Eihei-ji which remains one of the two main temples of the Japanese Sōtō Zen School to this day.
Eisai (1141-1215) is credited with bringing the Rinzai line of Buddhism to Japan from China. On his return to Japan from China in 1191, Eisai attempted to propagate Rinzai Zen in Kyoto, but ran into opposition from the Tendai fraternity. He escaped to Kamakura, where he established his first temple, Shofukuji, in 1215.
- Gautama Buddha
- Bodhidharma: Bodhidharma is credited with having brought the Ch’an form of Buddhism (ancestor of Zen) to China early in the 6th century.
- The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713 A.D.): a semi-legendary but central figure in the early history of Chinese Chan Buddhism. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is said to be a record of his teachings
- Dōgen (1200-1253)
- Eisai (1141-1215)
- Mumonkan: a great textbook of the Ch’an (Zen) school of Buddhism produced in China in the early 13th century.
- The Laṅkāvatāra, Heart, Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa, and Diamond Sutras.
- Original Ch’an texts: the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng; the Memoirs of Eminent Monks, a compilation of biographies of monks in China by Hui Jiao; and the Jingde Record of the Transmission of the Lamp.
- Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō
- Nagatomo, S. ‘Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/japanese-zen/
- Snelling, J. The Buddhist Handbook. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1991.
- Yokoi, Y. Zen Master Dogen: An Introduction with Selected Writings. New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1976.
- Bodhidharma and Red Pine. The Zen teaching of Bodhidharma. San Francisco, Calif: North Point Press, 1989.
- Dumoulin, H. et al. Zen Buddhism: a history. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom (Treasures of the world’s religions), 2005.
- Kapleau, P. (ed.) The three pillars of Zen: teaching, practice, and enlightenment. 35th anniversary ed., updated and revised. New York: Anchor Books, 2000
- Sekida, K. et al. (eds). Two Zen classics: the Gateless gate and the Blue cliff records. 1st Shambhala ed. Boston, Mass: Shambhala : Distributed by Random House, 2005.
- Suzuki, S. et al. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Boston: Shambhala (Shambhala library). 2006