Most people know something about Zen as it is a term which is in popular consciousness and often used in advertising to suggest calmness and wisdom. Zen as a religion and philosophy derives from an Indian word meaning meditation (dhyāna) and is a form of Buddhism centered around meditative practice (of course, meditation is a practice associated with most Buddhist traditions but Zen seems to have been a response to some of the accumulation of dogma and ritual in Buddhism to strip practice back to the bare essentials. It later acquired much ritual of its own but that is another story!).
A man called Bodhidharma was said to have brought Buddhism to China from India in the fifth or sixth century. He is described as having a large red beard and is associated with teaching physical combat at the Shaolin temple which led to the origins of kung fu. Both this and his role in Buddhism seem largely legendary but his position in Chinese and Zen mythology is unlikely to change anytime soon and he is considered to be the first Zen ancestor. In Japan, his likeness is sold as Daruma dolls which are thought to bring good luck! If you wish to learn about the actual historical development of Zen, the Wikipedia account seems pretty accurate.
In contemporary Japan there are two main schools of Zen, Sōtō and Rinzai. Both have the same origin and teachers in their early lineage. There are also Zen schools in China (Ch’an), Vietnam (Thien) and Korea (Seon). The key difference between Rinzai and Sōtō Zen is that while the Sōtō tradition focusses almost solely on a sitting practice known as Shikantaza (‘just sitting’), Rinzai also emphasises the use of kōans, teaching stories which act as tests of a student’s understanding, as a way to achieve awakening. Sōtō Zen does not ignore kōans but they are used largely as teaching methods rather than ways to achieve a breakthrough in understanding.
As Zen is a form of Buddhism, it rests on the same principles as all Buddhist lineages – the Four Noble Truths:
1. Life contains suffering (dukkha).
2. Suffering arises because we cling to our ideas of how life should be rather than accepting how it actually is.
3. There is a way out of suffering.
4. The way out of suffering is through the Eightfold Path which teaches ethical discipline, awareness and wisdom.
Ethical discipline is taught through the practice of sixteen precepts, or training rules, which include familiar ideas to most spiritual and religious traditions such as not killing, not stealing and not telling untruths, and helps to minimise creating suffering both for ourselves and others.
Awareness and wisdom is achieved though the practice of Shikantaza (‘just sitting’) and study of Zen texts and teachings, usually with the guidance of a teacher. When sitting Shikantaza, we drop away of all ideas how life should be and instead rest in the wholeness of all experience. As a result, the suffering caused by the friction between reality and our concept of reality falls away. That does not mean we no longer experience any pain or negative thoughts and emotions but they are just allowed to be as they are, without comparison to some ideal situation.
Although Zen is recognisable as a form of Buddhism and takes the historical Buddha as its original source, it is also clear that other religions in China (Taoism and Confucianism) and Japan (Shinto) have had an influence in its evolution. During its early Chinese history, Taoism and Buddhism especially exchanged many ideas and even completely stole the texts of the other replacing the name of Lao Tzu with that of the Buddha and changing the terminology appropriately and vice-versa!
You may have clicked on this page because you have an interest in Zen or becoming ‘more Zen’ to which I would advise you to find a reputable teacher and sangha (Buddhist community) in your area, or one online (for which I can heartily recommend my own Treeleaf Zendo). Feel free to also check out my other pages for information on suggested reading, to see if Zen is for you, on the central practice of Shikantaza, common liturgy and chants used in Zen practice centres and my advice for anyone practicing Zen with physical disability or chronic illness, as I do myself. My own Zen practice comes from Sōtō Zen so that is what you will find here rather than anything Rinzai. You can read a little about the history of the Sōtō school here.