Skip to main content

Zen Buddhism

The word zen is the Japanese form of the Chinese word ch’an which itself is a Chinese rendition of the Sanskrit word dhyāna, or meditation. It is one of the several schools of MAHĀYĀNA BUDDHISM, differing from the others in its emphasis on silent meditation rather than on devotional repetition of the name of Buddha, as in the Pure Land sect, or an intellectual study of the scriptures, as in the Three Treatise School. Historically, it began in China in the sixth century with a monk named BODHIDHARMA, who had traveled to China from India by sea. There is an apocryphal story (found only in Zen literature) that the Buddha himself was the real originator of Zen Buddhism when he gave a “sermon” to a group of disciples by silently twirling a lotus in his fingers. It is said that only Mahākaśyapa understood the meaning of this, attained enlightenment, and smiled. The Buddha, recognizing his enlightenment, gave him a “special transmission outside the scriptures,” as it is put in Zen literature. Thus it is said in Zen Buddhism that enlightenment is received not by scriptures or oral teachings (though both are important), but by direct experience. As such, this is not fundamentally different from the message of Buddha’s sermons (suttas or sūtras) as recorded in the Theravāda scriptures, the Tripiṭaka.

Although the story about the origin of Zen is of questionable historical accuracy, Helena P. BLAVATSKY states that the Buddha did have an esoteric teaching, largely (or completely) unknown to Western scholars, most of whom explicitly deny her claim. In her introduction to The Secret Doctrine (I:19-20) she identifies this esoteric teaching as dan or ch’an, going on to say that ch’an is only “a very small portion” of that esoteric doctrine, which “time and human imagination” as well as its transfer to “a soil less prepared for metaphysical conceptions than India” — she explicitly includes China and Japan — caused considerable alteration in the esotericism (p. 21).

Ch’an (or Zen) Buddhism identifies its succession of teachers as “patriarchs” and claims that Bodhidharma (fl. 460-534) was the 28th after the Buddha. He, in turn, had a number of successors in China, one of the most important being the 5th, Hung-jen (601-674). Whereas Bodhidharma had based his teachings on the Lankāvatāra Sūtra (Scripture about [Buddhism’s] Descent into Sri Lanka), Hung-jen emphasized the Vajracchedikā Sūtra (Diamond-cutter Scripture). The emphasis in the former is on the elements of existence (in Buddhism called dharmas) as ultimate reality, whereas the emphasis in the latter is on consciousness as the only reality (sometimes called the “Mind-Only Doctrine” or vijñāptimātratā). Hung-jen had two main disciples, Shen-hsiu (605?-706) and Hui-neng (638-713), who stressed, respectively, gradual enlightenment and sudden enlightenment (Japanese satori; Sanskrit sambodhi). The story, as told in The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liu-tsu t’an-ching), is that Hui-neng entered the monastery as an illiterate boy of humble background after hearing a monk chant a Buddhist scripture in the marketplace. When Hung-jen was considering a successor, he requested all his monks to write a single stanza summarizing Ch’an teachings. Shen-hsiu, it is said, in the middle of the night wrote the following verse on the monastery wall:

The body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind is a bright mirror’s stand.
One must constantly wipe it
So that no dust collects.

This elicited great admiration from the other monks. When one of them read it to Hui-neng, the boy said that it was all wrong and dictated the following counter-verse to be written:

Really, bodhi has no tree
Nor has the bright mirror any stand.
Buddha nature is forever clear and pure.
So where is there room for dust?

Hung-jen, recognizing that Hui-neng was truly enlightened, called him in and, according to the story, transferred his robe to Hui-neng, then directed him to flee the monastery before the other monks harmed him (since he was inappropriately illiterate and too young). He went south and established a monastery near Canton. Thus, at that point, according to tradition, Ch’an split into two main sects: the Northern or Gradual Enlightenment School and the Southern or Sudden Enlightenment School. Actually, the main doctrinal difference between them is in their concept of mind as composite or as essentially an indivisible unity. But they also differ in certain practices.

Ch’an survived the great persecution of Buddhism in 845 mainly because of the remote location of its monasteries, because of its similarity to Taoism, and because of a series of remarkable masters. It flourished during the T’ang and Sung Dynasties (618-907 and 960-1279 respectively) during which it further split into five different schools, the two most important being the Lin-chi (Japanese Rinzai) founded by I-hsuan (died 867) which taught sudden (or “lightning”, lin-chi) enlightenment, and Ts’ao-tung (Japanese Soto) founded by Chao-chou (known as Joshu in Japan) emphasizing gradual enlightenment. Rinzai was taken to Japan by Eisai (1141-1215), who had originally been a monk in the Tendai sect. Sōtō was brought to Japan by Dōgen (1200-1253), who had once studied under Eisai. The former stresses meditating on a saying or brief conversation known as a koan (Chinese k’ung-an or “public case”); the latter stresses zazen or “just sitting” in meditation. Zen had considerable influence upon Japanese culture (literature, painting, calligraphy, flower arrangement, landscape gardening, and the tea ceremony) and in the 13th-15th centuries Zen masters were also prominent in politics and education. Zen’s influence declined during the 16th-17th centuries, but was revived by Hakuin (1686-1769) from whom present-day Rinzai masters trace their spiritual lineage. Both Rinzai and S¯t¯ continue in Japan to this day as the principal sects of Zen.

In zazen, one sits erect with legs crossed (in a lotus or half lotus position) on a small cushion called a zafu. The eyes are kept slightly opened and looking at the floor, unfocused, about two feet in front of one. The right hand is laid palm up in the lap with the left hand cradled inside it, also palm up, the tips of the thumbs touching lightly. It is a common practice for beginners to still the chattering of the mind by counting their breaths; later one just sits quietly without being distracted by thought. Some theosophists, who practice meditation, utilize this method, which is much more difficult than it sounds. Followers of Zen usually gather at a center and chant scriptures as well as practicing zazen. It is common for practitioners to listen to a dharma talk by a Zen master after their meditation. Retreats are also held, either for one day (zazenkai) or more intensively for a week (sesshin). At these retreats, silence is maintained and simple dark clothing is worn, both to free the mind from worrying about what to wear and to eliminate any sense of difference from or superiority over other practitioners. Often, between periods of sitting, there will be kinhin, walking meditation. Evening meetings usually begin with sūtra chanting. Such retreats are usually called sanghas (“assemblies” or “gatherings”).

Koans are used to break the habit of the mind, which wants to analyze and categorize everything. From a theosophical point of view, the use of koans assumes that there is a state of consciousness (usually called buddhi in theosophical literature) which transcends the rational mind (or kāma-manas) and that in order to reach it, one has to abandon logic and reasoning. There are several varieties of koan: anecdote, illogical paradox, double entendre, blasphemy, and shock (often involving painful action or indecent language). A very famous example of illogic is “What is the sound of one hand?”, sometimes given as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Another famous example (in its Japanese version), using both illogic and a pun or double entendre, is the following exchange between a pupil and the monk Joshu (i.e., Chao-chou):

A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have the Buddha nature?”
Joshu answered, “Mu!”

Here the monk’s underlying assumption is that everything has the same essence, which is called the Buddha-nature, though it would seem to him socially unusual to think that even a dog might have it. The answer “mu” (in Japanese, “not so” or “nothing”) could mean “No,” which would be contrary to the theology, or “Woof” (since the Japanese imitate a dog’s bark with the sound “mu”), or “Empty,” which would be intended to remind the monk of the śūnyatā (emptiness) doctrine, but would require profound insight to understand completely. Or, more likely, it could mean all three simultaneously — in which case the first and third meanings are contradictory. But koans are not meant to be analyzed in this way, for that frustrates the very purpose of them!

Ch’an also spread from China to Korea and Vietnam where it is still practiced. In the late 19th century its Japanese form, Zen, arrived in the United States during the1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The Zen teacher, Soyen Shaku attended and spoke. He returned to Japan afterwards, but his student, D. T. SUZUKI, remained, married an American Theosophist, Beatrice Erskine Lane, and popularized Zen through their journal, The Eastern Buddhist, as well as through his numerous books, which are still in print today. He also appeared on television and was featured in popular magazine articles. Among his students were well-known artists and members of the intelligentsia. During the 1950s, Zen attracted members of the so-called “Beat Generation” such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. About the same time some Westerners, such as Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau, traveled to Japan to practice Zen seriously. In the sixties, monasteries and Zen centers began to develop in the West. They are now to be found throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia, as well as some other countries.

Richard W. Books/Mari Rhydwen


© Copyright by the Theosophical Publishing House, Manila