A special transmission outside the scriptures
Without reliance on words or letters
Directly pointing to the heart of humanity
Seeing into one's own nature.
Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It began in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century.
The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.
Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and are often used, for example, by Christians seeking a mystical understanding of their faith.
Zen often seems paradoxical - it requires an intense discipline which, when practised properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.
Zen - the word
'Zen' is the way the Chinese word Ch'an is pronounced in Japan. 'Ch'an' is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which means (more or less) meditation.
Zen - the essence and the difficulty
Christmas Humphreys, one of the leading pioneers in the history of Buddhism in Britain, wrote that "Zen is a subject extremely easy to misunderstand." He was right.
Zen is something a person does. It's not a concept that can be described in words. Despite that, words on this site will help you get some idea of what Zen is about. But remember, Zen does not depend on words - it has to be experienced in order to 'understand'.
Enlightenment is inside
The essence of Zen Buddhism is that all human beings are Buddha, and that all they have to do is to discover that truth for themselves.
All beings by nature are Buddhas,
as ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
apart from beings, no Buddhas.
Zen sends us looking inside us for enlightenment. There's no need to search outside ourselves for the answers; we can find the answers in the same place that we found the questions.
Human beings can't learn this truth by philosophising or rational thought, nor by studying scriptures, taking part in worship rites and rituals or many of the other things that people think religious people do.
The first step is to control our minds through meditation and other techniques that involve mind and body; to give up logical thinking and avoid getting trapped in a spider's web of words.
Zen Buddhism was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE. It was called Ch'an in China.
Zen's golden age began with the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), and ended with the persecution of Buddhism in China in the middle of the 9th century CE. Most of those we think of today as the great Zen masters came from this period. Zen Buddhism survived the persecution though it was never the same again in China.
Zen spread to Korea in the 7th century CE and to Japan in the 12th century CE. It was popularised in the West by the Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870 - 1966); although it was found in the West before that.
Zen in practice
If you're a westerner you may find it hard to shake off the intellectual and dualist ways of thinking that dominate western culture: these can make it difficult for westerners to come to Zen.
Zen Buddhists pay less attention to scripture as a means of learning than they do to various methods of practising Zen. The most common way of teaching is for enlightenment to be communicated direct from master to pupil.
Zen practices are aimed at taking the rational and intellectual mind out of the mental loop, so that the student can become more aware and realise their own Buddha-nature. Sometimes even (mild) physical violence is used to stop the student intellectualising or getting stuck in some other way.
Students of Zen aim to achieve enlightenment by the way they live, and by mental actions that approach the truth without philosophical thought or intellectual endeavour.
Some schools of Zen work to achieve sudden moments of enlightenment, while others prefer a gradual process.
Clues to the meaning of Zen
Because Zen is so hard to explain here are some quotations that may help you get an idea of it:
- The essence of Zen Buddhism is achieving enlightenment by seeing one's original mind (or original nature) directly; without the intervention of the intellect.
- Zen is big on intuitive understanding, on just 'getting it', and not so hot on philosophising.
- Zen is concerned with what actually is rather than what we think or feel about what is.
- Zen is concerned with things as they are, without trying to interpret them.
- Zen points to something before thinking, before all your ideas.
- The key to Buddhahood in Zen is simply self-knowledge.
- To be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature - true human nature.
- Zen is simply to be completely alive.
- Zen is short for Zen Buddhism. It is sometimes called a religion and sometimes called a philosophy. Choose whichever term you prefer; it simply doesn't matter.
- Zen is not a philosophy or a religion.
- Zen tries to free the mind from the slavery of words and the constriction of logic.
- Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom.
- Zen is meditation.