What is Zen?

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The word Zen is Japanese.  It is their pronunciation of the Chinese word ch'an which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning wisdom-meditation. 

The Founder

Bodhidharma (b. 450 CE) is the Indian master who is credited with having brought the form of Buddhism emphasizing meditation to the Far East. 

He was from Kanchi, renowned as the site of the Great Stupa, in what was then the Pallava kingdom of South India.  When his spiritual mentor, Prajnatara, advised him to go to China, he left by ship and  arrived in the south of that country in about 475. 

According to his devotees, he is considered the 28th master in a direct line from Buddha Shakyamuni. 

Shi Da Yang is one Chinese form of his name.  In Japanese, he is called Daruma Taishi.

The 15th-century Japanese image by Bokkei [above] is courtesy Buddhanet.  Here, as in many other scroll paintings, he is portrayed as a fiercely wild-eyed monk.  One traditional explanation for this extraordinary appearance is that he sat in meditation in a cave facing a blank wall for nine years.  So as not to succumb to sleep before attaining enlightenment, he cut off his own eyelids.  Legend says that tea-plants sprang from the place where his eyelids fell.   The site of his 9-year meditation is a cave in China not far from the site of the Shaolin Temple.

A few years after his death, which is conservatively given as 528, a Chinese official reported encountering Bodhidharma in the mountains of Central Asia.  He was described as walking with a staff from which hung a single sandal, and told the official that he was on his way back to the land of his birth.  Legend also says that when this account reached India, the monks opened Bodhidharma's tomb only to find a single sandal.

Near the end of The Life of Milarepa, we learn that the great Tibetan yogi had met "Dharma Bodhi, the Indian saint," but that would place his life some 500 years later. 

Also, some think that Bodhidharma and Padampa Sangye, Machig Labdron's teacher, are one and the same person.

The Method

Tao-husan's Further Lives of Exemplary Monks, dating from 645, mentions the collected sermons of Bodhidharma.  In the 20th-century, T'ang dynasty manuscript copies were found in China's Tunhuan caves that were in use from the 7th through the 8th centuries.  Previously, only 14th-century copies were known. 

In the collection known as The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, the master says:

The only reason I've come to China is to transmit the instantaneous teaching of the Mahayana: This mind is the Buddha.  I don't talk about precepts, devotions or ascetic practices such as immersing yourself in water and fire, treading a wheel of knives, eating one meal a day, or never lying down. These are fanatical, provisional teachings.  Once you recognize your moving, miraculously aware nature, yours is the Mind of all Buddhas. 

The two Sutras that formed the basic texts of early Ch'an, the Lankavatara and the Diamond, are shared with Vajrayana Buddhism.

During his life he had few disciples, only the names of three are known.  Bodhidharma transmitted his lineage to Hui-k'o, who reportedly cut off his own arm to show he had got the transmission. 

In Japan

As we have seen, Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch'an.  It developed in Japan in the Kamakura period when, in 1191, a monk named Eisai brought the Ch'an method to Kyoto. 

Ch'an or Zen is like Mahamudra [Kagyu method] and Dzogchen [Nyingma method] in that it is direct and immediate.  Therefore, Zen has always stressed meditation over study and theory, and has been known as "the transmission that does not depend on teaching" or in Japanese: kyoge betsuden.

  • The Zen form of meditation [zazen] with pictures.

The 28 Patriarchs according to D. T. Suzuki, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to the 20th-century Western world.  
1. Sakyamuni.
2. Mahakashyapa.
3. Ananda.
4. Sanavasa.
5. Upagupta.
6. Dhritaka.
7. Micchaka.
8. Buddhanandi.
9. Buddhamitra.
10. Bhikshu Parshva.
11. Punyayasas.
12. Asvaghosha.
13. Bhikshu Kapimala.
14. Nagarjuna.
15. Kanadeva.
16. Arya Rahulata.
17. Samghanandi.
18. Samghayasas.
19. Kumarata.
20. Jayata.
21. Vasubandhu.
22. Manura.
23. Haklenayasas.
24. Bhikshu Simha.
25. Vasasita.
26. Punyamitra.
27. Prajnatara.
28. Bodhi-Dharma.

  • See Patriarchs of the Dhyani  (Skt.)> Chan (Chinese)> Zen (Japanese) schools.

Zen Buddhism in the West


Concerning the Popularity of Zen Buddhism

"The idea of Zen is trendy, I think, rather than the reality. The people I know who practice Zen have a generally tougher time of it than those studying Tibetan Buddhism. The meditation sessions are longer, there's more discipline of posture, and there's less in the way of ritual and color to entertain the mind." 

Its trendiness is due to two factors: 

"The appeal of the simple Zen aesthetic -- the "tea ceremony approach" --  one perfect branch in one perfect vase, one perfect scroll in the alcove, and the accident of history that [juxtaposed Existentialism with the return of soldiers from Korea along with the appearance of] good translations of Zen material [such as collections of haiku poetry and the work of T. Daisetz Suzuki, not to mention Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery.]  

Alan Watts (The Way of Zen) was one of the first to teach in a way that made Buddhism accessible to Westerners.

The Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, adopted it and disseminated some of the ideas.  Paul Reps' Zen Flesh, Zen Bones also made quite an impact, as did books touching on Buddhist concepts such as mindfulness, for example Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

[These books came out] in a funky style at a time when people were beginning to look for new ideas and ways of life. And, packaged a certain way, Zen has a lot of appeal -- you just go through life, then someone hits you with a stick and pow! enlightenment!

Of course, there are compassionate, insightful and competent Zen teachers, too.

We know it isn't that easy -- someone who can be enlightened by one blow has already done all the groundwork and prepared themselves.  But the Zen stories are artful and spare and don't tell you that. 

Read Paul Repps' Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and you'll see what I mean.  Everything is oblique and elegant, and nothing is overstated. Very Japanese, very assimilable to a trendy perspective.

The Zen that is being taught these days would hardly be recognized by the early Ch'an masters (eg, the Sixth Patriarch Hui-Neng, not to mention those before him,) for some Zen practices are only stylized imitations of the real Ch'an.  All the rigid and postured sitting meditation now being taught is exactly what Master Hui-Neng told his disciples not to [do]. 

What is the sound of one hand . . . ?

A koan (in Korean kong-an) is puzzling proposition or phrase, but it is not merely a paradox designed to shock the mind. It is an integral part of a system honed over centuries to help bring a student to a direct realization of ultimate reality.  From the Japanese ko meaning public, and an meaning proposition, koans can be questions, excerpts from sutras, episodes in the life of a master, or just a word from a famous dialogue (Jap.: mondo) or teaching.

There are about  1,700 traditional koans in existence.  An appropriate koan can have the effect of creating gaps in the train of thought of a practitioner but

" . . . they weren't supposed to have a right answer; yet today many people STUDY them as if there was a right answer, and, when asked the question, simply give the model answer. 

- " I think the point is also, that koans are not puzzles in the sense that there is a solution."

- "I am not a Zen student, but that is the very essence I get from them as well . . .  .  I did a retreat recently and in the middle of a conversation with a Zen teacher in an interview, he all of a sudden came out with the question, "Why can't you see your buddha nature?" (we had been discussing this.)

Well, I was, in my infinite wisdom . . . about to answer him, with all my this and that, and what nots, but there was this split second of a moment -- a space where everything fell away -- EVERYTHING -- all doubt, all conception about where i was and who i was . . . and then I "returned."  But the feeling remained, the imprint of that memory of all doubt suddenly gone, all every "thing" and had. . . I stayed "there" just a wee bit longer, I would have indeed "seen" buddha nature . . .   .

To say it was profound is an understatement.  It was then that I really got a (small bitty) taste of what I had read about in books.

It wasn't meant to be a "koan" and yet it was in that it did the 'job' (cut through.) I think anything can be a koan, you can make your own even --open up a shop! Koans for sale . . .  OK, being a little silly.

When I relayed this experience to a friend of mine, she said, "Maybe you did" [see your Buddha nature.]

"Don't know" is a common little mantra that Zen practitioners say aloud and to self.  I like it."

~ elizabeth at The Kagyu Mailing List

-Because Ch'an can be quite profound, it is easy for people to sound like a highly realized Ch'an master by uttering some unfathomable, totally-out-of-left-field "insights." 

-Since these things are so experiential and non-intellectual [the Sixth Patriarch was illiterate] that it is often difficult for tell the difference between babble and profound insight. "

    ~ a variety of comments edited from the Kagyu email list, May 2000.

The influential founder of the Shambhala organization, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, skillfully used the popularity of Zen in the West as an aid to developing students' understanding.  It continues to be one of the influences in that organization.   For example, traditional Japanese Zen archery or kyudo is offered as a means to develop mindfulness and concentration.

A Contemporary koan - - a little humor

A monk went to his abbot and showed him a raster 

[radar topography] rendering of the syllable HUNG

"Khen Rinpoche", he asked, "is this how one should 

visualize HUNG during the creation phase?"

Saying nothing, the abbot placed a floppy disk 

in his mouth and left the room. 

At that moment, the monk made a vow to practice 

only Tonglen [sending and receiving -- of compassion] 

for the rest of his life. 

Dudro [?] Rinpoche says of this:

'The disc of awareness is perfectly formatted from the beginning,

But the ASCII file of verbosity has an allocation error!
When the wind horse is driven by the breath
Of this analog-based vehicle of leisure and endowment,
Binary perplexities dissolve in the Blue Screen of Death.'

More Silliness   

Is it true that in Japan, Sony Vaio machines have replaced the impersonal and unhelpful Microsoft error messages with their own 17-syllable haikus?  

  • Windows NT crashed. I am the Blue Screen of Death. No one hears your screams.                  
  • A file that big?   It might be very useful.   But now it is gone. 
  • The Web site you seek   Can not be located.   Countless more exist. 
  • Aborted effort:  Close all that you have worked on.   You ask way too much.
  • Yesterday it worked.   Today it is not working.   Windows is like that.
  • First snow, then silence.  This thousand-dollar screen dies So beautifully.
  • A crash reduces  Your expensive computer  To a simple stone.
  • Three things are certain: Death, taxes, and lost data.  Guess which has occurred.
  • You step in the stream,  But the water has moved on.   This page is not here.
  • Out of memory.  We wish to hold the whole sky,  But we never will.
  • Having been erased,  The document you're seeking  Must now be retyped.
  • Serious error.  All shortcuts have disappeared.  Screen.  Mind. Both are blank.

            ~   Tucson Computer Soc. Listserv, May 26, 1998


Jap. Hekigan Roku; Chin. Pi-Ye-Lu)  compiled in 1125, and is still an important collection of koans.

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