Zen: The Path of Meditation



What is Zen Buddhism?

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Zen Symbol

While the Buddhist religion is united by certain core beliefs about reality, there are also variations within the faith. Zen Buddhism is perhaps the most well-known school of Buddhism in America. Its concepts have been influential on western society since the latter half of the 20th century. But what is it and how is it different than other Buddhist sects? This article intends to help the reader answer that question.

Numerically, there are about 9.6 million Zen Buddhists in Japan today, and numerous Zen groups have developed in North America and Europe within the last century. It is a religion that is becoming more visible in the West. (Go here for more on Religion in Japan)




Zen Beliefs and Practices

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Representation of Buddha

Both the words "Zen" (Japanese) and "Ch'an" (Chinese) derive from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning "meditation." Zen Buddhism focuses on attaining enlightenment (bodhi) through meditation as Siddharta Gautama did.

Zen Buddhism teaches that all human beings have the Buddha-nature, or the potential to attain enlightenment, within them, but the Buddha-nature has been clouded by ignorance. To overcome this ignorance, Zen rejects the study of scriptures, religious rites, devotional practices, and good works in favor of meditation leading to a sudden breakthrough of insight and awareness of ultimate reality. Training in the Zen path is usually undertaken by a disciple under the guidance of a master. (Also see Mantras in Buddhism.)

Zen in China

Zen began in China (where it is called Ch'an) in the 6th century CE. Its introduction to China is generally attributed to Bodhidharma, a South Indian monk who arrived in China in about 520 CE. Its philosophical background can be found in the Lankavatara Sutra, which was composed in the 4th century or earlier in India. As it developed in China, it was also influenced by Taoist concepts. This is especially apparent in the Ch'an emphasis on spontaneity and naturalness in all things, which significantly influenced Chinese painting, writing, and other arts.

Zen in Japan

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Buddha Eyes

Zen Buddhism arrived in Japan as early as the 7th century, but did not develop significantly there until the 12th century. Zen has since been an important force in Japan. It has had considerable influence on Japanese culture, "reaching far beyond the temple and entering into cultural and social areas of all kinds, including gardening, ink painting, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and even military strategies. " {2} Zen priests played an important role in the political unrest of 16th century Japan, both serving as diplomats and administrators and preserving Japanese cultural life. (See Religion in Japan and Chinese religion history.)

Schools within Zen Buddhism

Several schools of Zen developed in China in the 9th century. The Rinzai (Chinese, Lin-chi) sect of Zen was introduced to Japan by the Chinese priest Ensai in 1191. Rinzai Buddhism emphasizes the use of koans, paradoxical puzzles or questions that help the practitioner to overcome the normal boundaries of logic. Koans are often accompanied by shouts or slaps from the master, intended to provoke anxiety leading to instant realization of the truth. Unlike the Ch'an schools in China, Ensai also taught that Zen should defend the state and could offer prayers and incantations. "These teachings influenced the warrior class and led to a Zen influence over the martial arts of archery and swordsmanship." {3}

Soto Buddhism (Chinese, Ts'ao-tung) is another Zen sect that was transmitted from China to Japan. It arrived in Japan in 1227 upon the teacher Dogen's return from China. Soto emphasizes zazen, or sitting meditation, as the means to attain enlightenment. The Soto practitioner is encouraged to clear the mind of all thoughts and concepts, without making any effort towards enlightenment, until enlightenment occurs.

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Sources

  1. "Zen." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
  2. Rutherford, Scott (ed.) East Asia. London: Apa Publications (1998); pg. 285.
  3. "Buddhism: Mahayana: Dhyana (Ch'an/Zen)," Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service (2004).