Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Sometimes going back to basics does no harm, and it may shed some light on a person’s foggy thoughts. In the days I spent in the mountains recently, high on the thin air, I had a lot of Zen thoughts, which I jotted down for later reference. This talk is a result of some of those reflections, plus some notions gleaned from the BBC. There may be a few repetitions here and there. I hope there won’t be too many contradictions.

What is Zen?

What we know as Zen or Ch’an is a school of Buddhism that came about in China as a merger of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. “Ch'an” is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which means, more or less, meditation. “Zen” is the way the word Ch'an is pronounced in Japan.

Christmas Humphreys, one of the leading pioneers in the history of Buddhism, wrote, "Zen is a subject extremely easy to misunderstand." He was right.

Many people think Zen is a sort of mystical hocus pocus. A new-age fad. It’s neither one.

Zen is not a concept that can be described in words. Zen is something a person does.

Despite that, these words may help you grasp some idea of what Zen is about. But remember, Zen does not depend on words. It has to be experienced in order to be understood.

The Essence of Zen

At the core of Zen is the concept that all human beings are Buddha—that is, everyone has an intrinsic awareness—and that all they have to do is to discover that certainty for themselves. This is what is meant by that overworked word, enlightenment. As you know, I prefer the word awakening.

As ice by nature is water, all beings by nature are Buddhas. Apart from water there is no ice. Apart from beings, there are no Buddhas.

Zen sends us looking inside us for awakening. There's no need to search outside ourselves for the answers. We find the answers in the same place we found the questions.

We can't learn this truth by philosophizing, or by rational thought, or by studying scriptures, or by taking part in worship rites and rituals, or by following many of the other things that that are common to what are called religions.

Zen is not a religion.

The first step to realizing this truth is to give up logical thinking and avoid getting trapped in a web of words and concepts.

The History of Zen

Zen Buddhism was brought from India to China by the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE. From China it spread to Korea and Japan Zen's golden age began with the Chinese so-called 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. Although Zen Buddhism survived the persecution it was never the same again in China.

Zen was popularized in the West by the Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), although it was known in the West before that.

Learning Zen

Westerners usually find it difficult to shake off their intellectual and dualist ways of thinking, which can get in the way of Zen.

Zen Buddhists pay less attention to sacred writings as a means of learning than they do to actually practicing Zen. The most common way of teaching is for awakening 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 students can become more aware and realize their own Buddha-nature. In ancient times, mild physical violence was used to jar a student out of intellectualizing or out of getting stuck in some other way.

Students of Zen aim to achieve awakening by the way they live, and by mental actions that approach the truth without philosophical thought or intellectual endeavor.

Some Clues to the meaning of Zen

Because Zen is so hard to explain a few quotations may help you get an idea of what it’s all about.

--Zen is not a philosophy or a religion.

--The essence of Zen Buddhism is achieving awakening by seeing one's original 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 philosophizing.

--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 directly to something before thinking, before ideas about something come up.

--The key to Buddhahood in Zen is simply self-knowledge.

--To be a human being is to be a Buddha. What is called Buddha-nature is just another name for true human nature.

--Zen is being completely alive.

--Zen tries to free the mind from the bondage of words and logic.

--Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being.

--Zen is meditation.

--Zen, in its own words, is a special transmission outside the scriptures without reliance on words or letters

--Zen is directly pointing to the core of humanity.

-Zen is seeing into one's own nature.

Some Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and are often used, for example, by Christians seeking an understanding of their convictions.

Zen often seems irrational. It requires an intense discipline which, when practiced properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.

Finally, the essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.

Paradoxically, to a Zen person, life has no meaning.


Blogger Mike said...

"The first step to realizing this truth is to give up logical thinking ..."

Isn't that a logical statement? How can one ignore logic, when the very description depends on logic?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 10:05:00 AM  

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