Zen - NOTE

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Zen (Japanese: Zen, 禅; Chinese: Chán, 禪; Korean: Seon, 선)


Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that particulary emphasizes the practice of meditation. Because Zen is the name for this branch in Japanese as well as in English, this article will concern itself with both traditional Zen in Japan and with Zen as an international phenomenon. For information specific to Asian countries other than Japan, please follow the appropriate links below.

Zen is a modern English word derived from the Japanese name of the tradition. However, the roots of the tradition are traced to Indian Buddhism, where it was known as dhyana, its Sanskrit name. This name was transliterated into the Chinese Chán (禪). Chán was later transliterated into Korean as Seon, and then into Japanese as Zen. In all these languages, the name means roughly "meditation".

The exemplar of the great Zen teachers was Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who, according to tradition, founded Zen Buddhism at China's Shaolin Temple in the fifth century CE. Later, Japanese monks studying in China learned of Zen and brought it back to Japan around the seventh century, where several divergent schools of thought emerged.

The following Zen traditions still exist in Japan: Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. Originally formulated by the eponymous Chinese master Linji (Rinzai in Japanese), the Rinzai school was introduced to Japan in 1191 by Eisai, whose disciple Dogen went on to found the Soto Zen school. Obaku was introduced in the 17th century by a Ingen, a Chinese monk.

Influenced by Taoism, Zen de-emphasizes study and worldly deeds, and concentrates instead on meditation and a non-rational awareness of the world and the way the mind reacts to it.

Zen tradition holds that the highest form of spiritual practice is meditation, usually known as zazen after its Japanese name. Zazen translates approximately to sitting meditation, although it can be applied to practice in any posture. During zazen, practitioners usually assume a lotus, half-lotus, burmese, or seiza position. Rinzai practitioners typically sit facing the center of the room, while Soto practitioners sit facing a wall. Awareness is directed towards complete cognizance of one's posture and breathing. In this way, practictioners seek to transcend thought and be directly aware of the universe.

The Zen schools (especially but exclusively Rinzai) developed the famous koans, paradoxical "riddles" or "puzzles" designed to shock the mind out of its rationalistic rut and into a non-discriminatory awareness.

Many modern students have made the mistake of thinking that since much of Zen sounds like nonsense, then any clever nonsense is also Zen. This is not the case, but see Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius for modern semiserious religions influenced by this idea.

Zen Buddhism stands in the Middle Way of dialectics between idealism and materialism. In The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen in China, Hui Neng instructs his accomplished disciples in the chapter on his Final Instructions, "After my entering Nirvana, each of you will be the Dhyana Master of a certain district. I am, therefore, going to give you some hints on preaching, so that you may keep up the tradition of our School."

"First mention the three categories of Dharmas, and then the thirty six 'pairs of opposites' in the activities of the Heart-Mind. Then teach how to avoid the two extremes of 'coming in' and 'going out.' In all preaching, stray not from the Heart-Mind. Whenever someone puts a question to you, answer in the antonyms, so that a pair of opposites; will be formed, such as coming and going. When the interdependence of the two is entirely done away with there would be, in the absolute sense, neither coming nor going. ... Whenever a question is put to you, answer it in the negative if it is an affirmative one; and vice versa. If you are asked about an ordinary man, tell the questioner something about a sage; and vice versa. From the correlation or interdependence of the two opposites the doctrine of the Middle Way may be grasped. If someone asks what is darkness, answer thus: Light is the root condition and darkness is the reciprocal condition. When light disappears, darkness appears. The two are in contrast to each other. From the correlation or interdependence of the two the Middle Way arises."

Esoteric meaning of Zen

From this point of view, Zen is, instead of a religion, rather an undefinable origin, beyond all words and concepts, which can only be experienced on an individual level. In Zen, Prajna, i.e., direct intuitive wisdom, is to Buddhism what Gnosis is to Hellenism and Christianity. All religions originated from more concrete expressions of Prajna, and as such Zen is not bound to any materialist view of religion at all, even not Buddhism. Zen is then the fundamental perfection of awareness in relation to everything existing, and is known by all the great saints and sages of all times. Zazen is then, both a method to bring people to liberation and an expression and realization of the perfection already present in every person.

Glossary of Terms used in Zen

  • Dharma - The Law of Reality which is the Teaching of All Buddhas.

  • Doan - Term for person sounding the bell that marks the beginning and end of Zazen

  • Dojo - "Place of the Way" in Japanese, used interchangeably with Zendo

  • Dokusan - Private interview between student and teacher.

  • Fukudo - Term for person who strikes the Han

  • Gassho - Position used for greeting, with palms together and fingers pointing upwards in prayer position.

  • Han - Wooden board that is struck announcing sunrise, sunset and the end of the day

  • Ino - One of the leaders of a sesshin

  • Jisha - Roshi's attendant during sesshin or dokusan

  • Kensho - Enlightenment. Kensho has the same meaning as satori, but is customary used for an initial awakening experience.

  • Kinhin - Walking meditation

  • Koan - An often paradoxical story used to move a student's mind into awareness

  • Kyosaku (keisaku) - A flattened stick used to strike the shoulders during zazen, to help overcome fatigue or reach satori.

  • Makyo - Unpleasant or distracting thoughts or illusions that occur during zazen.

  • Mokugyo - A wooden drum carved from one piece, usually in the form of a fish.

  • Mondo - A short dialogue between teacher and student.

  • Rinzai - Zen sect emphasizing sudden enlightenment and koan study

  • Rohatsu - A day in December (usually 8th) that marks the attainment of Nirvana by Buddha

  • Roshi - Teacher

  • Satori - Enlightenment

  • Sesshin - A Zen retreat where practioners meditate, eat and work together for several days.

  • Shikantaza - technique of meditation that emphasizes "just sitting"

  • Soto - Major sect of Zen emphasizing gradual enlightenment and shikantaza

  • Tanto - One of the main leaders of a sesshin.

  • Teisho - Lecture by Zen teacher

  • Tenzo - Head cook for a sesshin

  • Zazen - Sitting meditation

  • Zendo - A hall where Zen (usually meaning zazen) is practiced (see Dojo)

See also: Eastern philosophy, Buddhism in China, Ryoju Kikuchi (Tamo Samma)

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