What is Zen?

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 Buddhism as a religion and philosophy derives from an Indian word meaning meditation (dhyāna, which became ch’an in Chinese, then zen in Japan) and is centered around meditative practice and direct awareness of life just as it is. Traditional Zen temples consist of periods of sitting practice (zazen) and walking practice (kinhin) as well as periods of mindful working (samu), and daily chanting of liturgy.

As far as history goes (or at least legend) an Indian monk 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 origin of kung fu, and meditating in front of a cave wall for nine years. Accounts of his life are thought to be largely fictitious (including the association with kung fu) 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 (his Japanese name) which are thought to bring good luck.   

If you wish to learn about the actual historical development of Zen, Barbara O’Brien’s book The Circle of the Way is an excellent primer, or there is always Wikipedia which is pretty accurate on this.

Bodhidharma and a Japanese Daruma doll in his likeness (the eyes are given pupils after purchasing to ‘awaken’ the doll)

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. 

Kōdō Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965) practicing Shikantaza

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 such as 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