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Zen is the Japanese name of a well known branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism, practiced originally in China as Chan, and subsequently in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Zen emphasizes the role of meditation (zazen) in pursuing enlightenment. Zen can be considered a religion, a philosophy, or simply a practice depending on one's perspective. Besides this, it has been described as a way of life, work, and an art form.

Zen is the common name for this branch of Buddhism in Japanese as well as in English, however Zen is an international phenomenon, with centers in many countries around the world.


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 / simplified 禅); "Chán" was later borrowed into Korean as Seon, Vietnamese as Thiền and into Japanese as "Zen."

According to traditional accounts, Zen was founded in China by a Central Asian or Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese). He was the 28th in the line of transmission from the Buddha's disciple Kasyapa. He traveled from Conjeeveram, near Madras (now Chennai), India, to Guangdong (Canton), China in 520 CE, where he met the Liang-dynasty (502-557) emperor Wudi and had a famous exchange declaring that good deeds done with selfish intention were useless (conferred no merit) for gaining enlightenment. He then went to a monastery near Luoyang in eastern China and, according to legend, spent nine years meditating before a cliff wall before accepting any disciples.

As a legendary culture hero Bodhidharma has also been linked to the Shaolin Temple and the subsequent spread of East Asian martial arts in the oral traditions of schools like Kung Fu and T'ai Chi Ch'uan, as well as in much popular wuxia fiction.

Later, Korean monks studying in China learned what was by then called Chan, and which had by then been influenced somewhat by Chinese Taoism. After the tradition was expanded to Korea, it came to be called Seon there (sometimes misspelled as Soen in the West). Korean monks then brought it to Japan around the seventh century, where it came to be called Zen.

Sanskrit Name
Sanskrit ध्यान dhyāna
Chinese Name
Hanyu Pinyin Chn
Wade-Giles Ch'an2
Cantonese Jyutping sim4
Traditional character
Simplified character
Korean Name
Revised Romanization Seon
McCune-Reischauer Sŏn
Japanese Name
Romaji Zen
Vietnamese Name
Quốc ngữ Thiền

It is important to note, however, that Chan, Seon and Zen continued to develop separately in their home countries, and all maintain separate identities to this day. Although lineage lines in China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere appear to show direct descent from Bodhidharma, changes in belief and practice have inevitably appeared with the profusion of Chan/Seon/Zen.

The Japanese Rinzai Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki maintained that a Zen satori (awakening) was the goal of the training, but that which distinguished the 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, or bhikku in Pali) 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.

Some contemporary Japanese Zen teachers, such as Daiun Harada and Shunryu Suzuki have criticized Japanese Zen as being a formalized system of empty rituals with very few Zen practitioners ever actually attaining realization. They assert that almost all Japanese temples have become family businesses handed down from father to son, and the Zen priest's function has largely been reduced to officiating at funerals.

Some Japanese Zen sects and teachers have also been criticized for their involvement in Japanese militarism and nationalism especially during World War II. In particular an American Soto Zen priest Brian Victoria has exposed a number of instances where Buddhist teachings were used to justify acts of killing. [1] (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0834804050/103-9814091-3292632?v=glance)

Zen is also associated with Japanese tea ceremony.

Zen and Buddhism

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Dharma wheel

List of topics
By region and country
Schools and sects
Terms and concepts

Zen is considered by some as not necessarily a Buddhist religion as a number of non-Buddhists, particularly Christians, have been formally acknowledged as Zen masters. Zen is often described as a way of life not dependent on one's particular culture.

At the same time, the institutions that support Zen practice have historically all been Buddhist and uphold the fundamental teachings of Gautama Buddha. Even today there are very few non-Buddhist Zen teachers and fewer organizations to support non-Buddhist practice. So, for all practical purposes Zen is Zen Buddhism.

Though Zen meditation practice does derive from the Buddha's original Eightfold Path teaching, where dhyana is one element of the eightfold way, Zen has been occasionally criticized byTheravada Buddhists for not adequately emphasizing the other elements of the Eightfold Path and for not emphasizing study of the traditional Buddhist canon or for being ignorant of, or unconcerned with, Buddhist philosophy in general. In practice, however, most Zen teachers, monks and centers have good relationships with those of other Buddhist schools and often cooperate with them.

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 Chan 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 Baizhang 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. The heavy influence of the Lankavatara Sutra, in particluar, has led to the formation of the "mind only" concept of Zen, in which consciousness itself is recognized as the only true reality.

Zen is not primarily an intellectual philosophy nor a solitary pursuit. Zen centers emphasize meticulous daily practice, and hold monthly intensive meditation retreats. Practicing with others is valued as a way to avoid the traps of ego. In explaining the Zen Buddhist path to Westerners, Japanese Zen teachers have frequently pointed out, moreover, that Zen is a way of life and not solely a state of consciousness. D.T. Suzuki wrote that the aspects of this 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. A round cushion (zafu) placed on a padded mat (zabuton) is used to sit on, or a chair may be used. 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 ("just-sitting") that is, 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 daily time spent in zazen varies, Dogen recommends even 5 minutes daily for householders is beneficial. The key being daily regularity, as Zen teaches that the ego will naturally resist, and the discipline of regularity is essential. Practicing Zen monks may spend 4-6 periods of zazen 30-40 minutes each during a normal day. During the monthly retreat sesshins of 1, 3, 5, or 7 day duration, they may spend 9-12 periods of scheduled group zazen, and occasionally more individual zazen late at night. The zazen periods are usually interleaved with brief periods of walking meditation to relieve the legs.

Dogen's teacher Rujing was said to spend less than 4 hours in actual sleep each night, spending the balance in zazen (see Dogen's formative years in China by Takashi James Kodera ISBN 0710002122). However, in practice, it is not uncommon for monks to actually sleep during zazen. Some meditation researchers have theorized that Zen adepts who are able to achieve the deeper levels of samadhi in meditation are actually fulfilling the same need as REM sleep, so that when zazen time is added to actual sleep time, they are in effect still getting the normal amount of daily sleep that the brain requires. However, such ability to enter into deep samadhi during zazen is apparently fairly rare, and may not arise even after decades of meditation.

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 western Zen movements, a person not ordained may be able to fulfill some or all of these roles.

A central part of all Zen sects is the notion of "Dharma transmission," the claim of a line of authority that goes back to the Buddha. Originally this derived from the description of Zen attributed to Bodhidharma:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the soul of man:
Seeing into one's own nature and attainment of Buddhahood. [2] (http://www.angelfire.com/electronic/awakening101/welter.html) [3] (http://www.mro.org/zmm/dharmateachings/talks/teisho18.htm)

Since at least the Middle Ages, Dharma Transmission has become a normative aspect of all Zen sects. Every Zen teacher stands within one lineage or another. Some sects, including all Japanese lines possess formal lineage charts that are drawn up for the ceremonial practice of transmission, which document the lineage back to Shakyamuni Buddha.

Honorific titles associated with teachers typically include, in Chinese: Fashi (法師) or Chanshi (禪師); in Korean, Sunim or Seon Sa; in Japanese: Osho (priest) Roshi (old master) or Sensei (teacher); and in Vietnamese, Thich adopted in place of a surname. Note that many of these titles are common among Buddhist priests of all schools present in the specific cultural context. Some titles, such as the Japanese sensei are also used beyond the Buddhist 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." At the same time these teachers willingly acknowledge their lineage connections, naming who authorized them as teachers.

This is important as there are a number of people in the west, some leading relatively large centers, who claim to be Zen teachers but who will not say where they trained or who authorized them to teach. This is a radical departure from normative Zen where "lineage" is considered crucial. As such it is reasonable to assume such people are not what they claim to be. People seeking a teacher should be aware that there are a surprisingly large number of such self-declared masters.

Some schools such as the Kwan Um publish lists of their teachers. The American Zen Teachers Association is in the process of providing lists of their members at the Association's website. When posted, while not a complete record of legitimately authorized Zen teachers in North America, it will be an enormous help to those attempting to find people who at least have formal authorization in some traditional lineage.

Of course even formal authorization should not be considered "enough." The moral lapses of any number of contemporary Zen teachers should be a warning in this regard. As the relationship between a teacher and a student requires complete intimacy and a profound trust on the part of the student, any one seriously considering studying with a Zen teacher should read widely about the prospective teacher, ask people who've studied Zen for some years, do web searches, and perhaps most importantly look closely at the teacher's students. Much can be discovered in such simple acts.

Koan practice

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Chinese character for "nothing." Chinese: w (Japanese: mu).

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 or linguistically meaningless. The 'answer' to the koan involves a transformation of perspective or consciousness, which may be either radical or subtle, possibly akin to the experience of metanoia in Christianity. They are a tool to allow the student to approach enlightenment by essentially 'short-circuiting' the logical way we order the world. Through assimilation of a Koan it is possible to 'jump-start' an altered mindset that then facilitates enlightenment.

An example of a Zen koan is: "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. Though most Zen groups aim for a "sudden" enlightenment, this usually comes only after a great deal of preparation.

For examples of 'successful' koan practice resulting in enlightenment experiences, see the anecdotes of Rinzai koan practice recounted in the first book in English to engage Zen as a practice, 'The Three Pillars of Zen' by Philip Kapleau. For examples of years of futile and fruitless koan practice see the book 'After Zen' by Janwillem van de Wetering. The most important book on the subject in English is probably Isshu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki's 'Zen Dust,' sadly long out of print. Fortunately the text, while lacking the extensive footnotes, continues to be available as 'The Zen Koan: It's History and Use in Rinzai Zen.' Probably the best relatively brief survey of koan study is the introduction to Victor Sogen Hori's 'Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice" which can be found on the web. Also of importance, although marred by the ideological perspectives of several of its authors, is the anthology edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright, 'The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism.'

Zen teachers advise that the problem posed by a koan is to be taken quite seriously, and to be approached quite literally as a matter of life and death. There is a sharp distinction between right and wrong ways of answering a koan — though there may be many "right answers", practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the koan and of Zen with their whole being.

The Zen student's mastery of a given koan is presented to the teacher in a private session (called in various Japanese schools dokusan, daisan or sanzen). The answer to a koan is more dependent on "how" it is answered. 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.

It is misleading to suggest there is a single correct answer for any given koan, though there are "correct" and "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.

Following the tradition of "living koans," a number of western Zen teachers supplement the traditional koan curriculum using various western sources, such as apparently paradoxical sayings from the Bible.

Radical teachings

Some of the traditional zen fables describe Zen masters using controversial methods of 'teaching', which modern zen enthusiasts may have a tendency to interpret too literally. For example, though Zen and Buddhism deeply respect life and teach non-violence, the founder of the Zen Rinzai school, Linji said: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a Patriarch, kill the Patriarch."

A contemporary Zen Master, Seung Sahn, has echoed this teaching in saying 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 the zen teacher (e.g. Seung Sahn). Of course, kill here is not literally killing. What is meant is to kill one's devotion to teachers or other external objects. Rather than see concepts outside of themselves, zen practitioners must integrate these objects with their concepts of self.

When visiting Zen centers, people who began with the stories featuring apparent iconoclastic encounters are often surprised by the conservative and ritualistic nature of the practice. Since, most zen centers in the west, like their counterparts in the east, emphasize regular meditation on both a daily basis and in monthly retreat as well as a discpline based in practice schedules and everyday household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and gardening as the path of enlightenment.

Zen and Western culture

Since the 1930s in the United Kingdom, and at least since the Beatnik movement of the 1950s in the United States, the West has had a growing interest in Zen.

In Europe, the Expressionist and Dada movements in art tend to have much in common thematically with the study of koans and actual Zen. The early French surrealist Rene Daumal translated D.T. Suzuki as well as Buddhist sanskrit texts.

Eugen Herrigel's book Zen and the Art of Archery (ISBN 0375705090), described his training in the Japanese Zen martial art of Kyudo [4] (http://www.tokokyudojo.org/info/), which inspired many early Zen practitioners.

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

The Dharma Bums, a novel written by Jack Kerouac and published in 1959, gave 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 story was based on actual events that occurred when Snyder pursued formal Zen studies in Japanese monasteries between 1956 and 1968.

Many youths in the Beat generation and among the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s misunderstood the goals and methods of Zen. While the scholar D.T. Suzuki may have brought attention to concepts in Zen such as humility, labor, service, prayer, gratitude, and meditation, the "hip" subculture often focused on states of consciousness in themselves. Japanese Zen master Zenkei Shibayama commented: "It may be true that the effect which such scientifically prepared drugs as LSD produce may have some superficial resemblance to some aspects of Zen experience.... When the effect of the drug is gone, the psychological experience one may have had is also weakened and dispersed, and does not endure as a living fact."

The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, was a 1974 bestseller, but is not specifically about Zen per se, but deals with the notion of the metaphysics of "quality" from the point of view of the main character. Pirsig was attending the Minnesota Zen Center at the time of writing the book.[5] (http://www.psybertron.org/timeline.html) Pirsig explains in the book that, despite its title, the book "should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice."

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 — see koan — although the Church of the SubGenius and especially Discordianism have been influenced by this idea.

More "mainstream" forms of Zen, led by teachers who trained in East Asia or were trained by such teachers have begun to take root in the west. In North America the largest "lineages" are derived from the Japanese Soto school, followed in number by the Korean derived Kwan Um School of Zen. There are also a number of Japanese derived Rinzai centers and a few centers based in Chinese Chan.

The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has developed the Order of Interbeing as an independent school that combines some aspects of Zen together with other disciplines. There is now an American Zen Teachers Association, which gathers the majority of Zen teachers in North America and sponsors an annual conference. Soto lineage teachers in North America have also recently formed a Soto Zen Buddhist Association where they are exploring the possibilities of a "western Soto."

See also

External links

et:Zen-budism es:Zen eo:Zen-budhismo fr:Zen id:Zen it:Buddhismo Zen he:זן בודהיזם nl:Zen ja:禅 no:Zen pl:Zen pt:Zen ru:Дзен sv:Zen vi:Thiền tông tr:Zen zh:禅宗


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