About Zen (Wikipedia sources)


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For other uses, see Zen (disambiguation).
Bodhidharma and Dazu Huike, the first two Zen patriarchs
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese Thiền
Korean name
Japanese name
Sanskrit name
Sanskrit dhyāna

Zen (Chinese: ; pinyin: Chán) is a school of Mahayana Buddhism[note 1] that originated in China during the Tang dynasty as Chan Buddhism. It was strongly influenced by Taoism and developed as a distinguished school of Chinese Buddhism. From China, Chan Buddhism spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan, where it became known as Japanese Zen.[2]

Zen emphasizes rigorous self-control, meditation-practice, insight into Buddha-nature, and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others.[3][4] As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine[5][6] and favors direct understanding through zazen and interaction with an accomplished teacher.[7]

The teachings of Zen include various sources of Mahayana thought, especially Yogachara, the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras and the Huayan school, with their emphasis on Buddha-nature, totality, and the Bodhisattva-ideal.[8][9] The Prajñāpāramitā literature[10] and, to a lesser extent, Madhyamaka have also been influential in the shaping of the "paradoxical language" of the Zen-tradition.





The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (dʑjen) (pinyin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna (ध्यान ),[1] which can be approximately translated as "absorption" or "meditative state".[11]

Zen practice

Central to Zen is the practice of dhyana or meditation.

Observing the breath

Venerable Hsuan Hua meditating in the Lotus Position. Hong Kong, 1953.

During sitting meditation, practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or seiza postures, using the dhyāna mudrā. To regulate the mind, awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath or by bringing that awareness to the energy center below the navel (see also ānāpānasati).[web 1] Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used. This practice may simply be called sitting dhyāna, which is zuòchán (坐禅) in Chinese, and zazen (坐禅) in Japanese.

Observing the mind

In the Sōtō school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, as for example in the "Principles of Zazen"[web 2] and the "Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen".[web 3] In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.

Intensive group meditation

Intensive group meditation may be practiced occasionally in some temples. In the Japanese language, this practice is called Sesshin. While the daily routine may require monks to meditate for several hours each day, during the intensive period they devote themselves almost exclusively to the practice of sitting meditation. The numerous 30–50 minute long meditation periods are interwoven with rest breaks, meals, and short periods of work that are performed with the same mindfulness; nightly sleep is kept to seven hours or less. In modern Buddhist practice in Japan, Taiwan, and the West, lay students often attend these intensive practice sessions, which are typically 1, 3, 5, or 7 days in length. These are held at many Zen centers, especially in commemoration of the Buddha's attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi. One distinctive aspect of Zen meditation in groups is the use of a kyosaku, a flat, wooden slat used to strike meditators with the intention of keeping them focused and awake.

Insight – Kōan practice

Main article: Kōan
Chinese character for "nothing" (Hanyu Pinyin: ; Japanese pronunciation: mu; Korean pronunciation: mu). It figures in the famous Zhaozhou's dog kōan

At the beginning of the Sòng dynasty, practice with the kōan method became popular, whereas others practiced "silent illumination."[12] This became the source of some differences in practice between the Línjì and Cáodòng schools.

A kōan, literally "public case", is a story or dialogue, describing an interaction between a Zen master and a student. These anecdotes give a demonstration of the master's insight. Koans emphasize the non-conceptional insight that the Buddhist teachings are pointing to. Koans can be used to provoke the "great doubt", and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life. Kōan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai school, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.[13]

The Zen student's mastery of a given kōan is presented to the teacher in a private interview (referred to in Japanese as dokusan (独参), daisan (代参), or sanzen (参禅)). While there is no unique answer to a kōan, practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the kōan and of Zen through their responses. The teacher may approve or disapprove of the answer and guide the student in the right direction. The interaction with a Zen-teacher is central in Zen, but makes Zen-practice, at least in the west, also vulnerable to misunderstanding and exploitation.[14]

Zen chanting and liturgy

See also: Buddhist chant

A practice in many Zen monasteries and centers is a daily liturgy service. Practitioners chant major sutras such as the Heart Sutra, chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (often called the "Avalokiteśvara Sutra"), Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi, the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī, and other minor mantras.

The butsudan is the altar in a monastery where offerings are made to the images of the Buddha or bodhisattvas. The same term is also used in Japanese homes for the altar where one prays to and communicates with deceased family members. As such, reciting liturgy in Zen can be seen as a means to connect with the Bodhisattvas of the past. Liturgy is often used during funerals, memorials, and other special events as means to invoke the aid of supernatural powers.[citation needed]

Chanting usually centers on major bodhisattvas like Avalokiteśvara (see Guanyin) and Manjushri. According to Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who have taken vows to remain in saṃsāra to help all beings achieve liberation from it. Since the Zen practitioner's aim is to walk the bodhisattva path, chanting can be used as a means to connect with these beings and realize this ideal within oneself.

Lay services

Though in western Zen the emphasis is on zen-meditation, and the application of Zen-teachings in daily life, Japanese Zen also serves a function in public religion. Funerals play an important role as a point of contact between the monks and the laity. Statistics published by the Sōtō school state that 80 percent of Sōtō laymen visit their temple only for reasons having to do with funerals and death. Seventeen percent visit for spiritual reasons and 3 percent visit a Zen priest at a time of personal trouble or crisis.[15]

Zen teachings

Though Zen-narrative states that it is a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words",[16] Zen does have a rich doctrinal background, which is firmly grounded in the Buddhist tradition.[17] It was thoroughly influenced by the Chinese understanding of Yogacara and the Buddha-nature doctrine,[18][19] Zen integrates both Yogacara and Madhyamaka,[20] and the influence of Madhyamaka can be discerned in the stress on non-conceptual insight and the paradoxical language of the koans.[18][web 4][21][note 2] Most essential are "the most fundamental teaching that we are already originally enlightened",[22] and the Bodhisattva ideal, which supplements insight with Karuṇā, compassion with all sentient beings.[23]

To point out 'essential Zen-teachings' is almost impossible, given the variety of schools, the extended history of 1500 years, and the emphasis on suchness, reality just-as-it-is, which has to be expressed in daily life, not in words.[citation needed] But common to most schools and teachings is this emphasis on suchness and Buddha-nature, the Bodhisattva-ideal, and the priority of zazen.[citation needed]

Zen teachings can be likened to "the finger pointing at the moon".[24] Zen teachings point to the moon, awakening, "a realization of the unimpeded interpenetration of the dharmadhatu".[25] But the Zen-tradition also warns against taking its teachings, the pointing finger, to be this insight itself.[26][web 5][web 6][27]

The various traditions lay various emphases in their teachings and practices:

There are two different ways of understanding and actually practicing Zen. These two different ways are termed in Chinese pen chueh and shih-chueh respectively. The term pen chueh refers to the belief that one’s mind is from the beginning of time fully enlightened, while shih-chueh refers to the belief that at some point in time we pass from imprisonment in ignorance and delusion to a true vision of Zen realization: “Our enlightenment is timeless, yet our realization of it occurs in time.” According to this belief experiencing a moment of awakening in this life is of central importance.[28]


Main article: Rinzai school

The Rinzai school is the Japanese lineage of the Chinese Linji school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Linji Yixuan.The Rinzai school emphasizes kensho, insight into one's true nature.[29] This is followed by so-called post-satori practice, further practice to attain Buddhahood.[30][31][32]

Other Zen-teachers have also expressed sudden insight followed by gradual cultivation. Jinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, followed Zongmi, and also emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full buddhahood. This is also the standpoint of the contemporary Sanbo Kyodan, according to whom kenshō is at the start of the path to full enlightenment.[33]

To attain this primary insight and to deepen it, zazen and kōan-study is deemed essential. This trajectory of initial insight followed by a gradual deepening and ripening is expressed by Linji in his Three Mysterious Gates and Hakuin Ekaku's Four Ways of Knowing.[23] Another example of depiction of stages on the path are the Ten Bulls, which detail the steps on the path.


Main article: Sōtō

Sōtō is the Japanese line of the Chinese Caodong school, which was founded during the Tang Dynasty by Dongshan Liangjie. The Sōtō-school has de-emphasized kōans since Gentō Sokuchū (circa 1800), and instead emphasized shikantaza.[34] Dogen, the founder of Soto in Japan, emphasised that practice and awakening cannot be separated. By practicing shikantaza, attainment and Buddhahood are already being expressed.[35] For Dogen, zazen, or shikantaza, is the essence of Buddhist practice.[36] Gradual cultivation was also recognized by Dongshan Liangjie.[web 7]

Sanbo Kyodan

The Sanbo Kyodan combines Soto and Rinzai teachings.[33][37] It is a Japanese lay organization, which is highly influential in the West through the work of Hakuun Yasutani, Philip Kapleau, Yamada Koun, and Taizan Maezumi. Yasutani mentions three goals of Zen: development of concentration (joriki), awakening (kensho-godo), and realization of Zen in daily life (mujodo no taigen).[33] Kensho is stressed,[37] but also post-satori practice.[38][note 3]

Zen scripture

Main article: Zen and Sutras

The role of scripture in Zen

Contrary to the popular image, literature does play a role in the Zen-training. Zen is deeply rooted in the teachings and doctrines of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[39] Unsui, Zen-monks, "are expected to become familiar with the classics of the Zen canon".

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