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A Comprehensive Guide to Zen Buddhism

A Comprehensive Guide to Zen Buddhism

Very aptly described as the religion of the future, Zen Buddhism has developed into a widely practiced philosophy, followers of which can be found globally, in all parts of the world. If you are new to Zen Buddhism and would like to know more about it, here's an exhaustive overview on it.
Mrunal Belvalkar
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Buddhism has been in existence since a very long time, more than a couple thousand years. The birth of Buddhism is taken to be concurrent with the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha. Early patriarchs of Buddhism were rather austere. This is due mainly to the fact that Buddhism came to be from the ancient Shramana. Shramana, marked by strict asceticism and extreme discipline, remained unexplored by masses. However, Buddhism, as we know it today, is based almost entirely on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Gautama Buddha was of the firm opinion that extreme disciplinarian attitude was unnecessary to achieve enlightenment, and he always expounded this thought and attitude through his teachings. In this sense, Buddhism may be regarded as a "practical" form of Shramana developed by Gautama Buddha.

The earliest students of Gautama Buddha brought Buddhism to China, laying the foundations of Chan, from which Zen Buddhism emerged. These students traveled to many countries in Asia. Being an ideology rather than a religion, Buddhism grew and branched out into several forms in these countries, one of the forms being Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism forms the base of the Chinese "Chan" and Japanese "Zen"; they are both very similar. The term "Zen" is now unanimously used to indicate both the forms of Buddhism.

By the time of the fourth and fifth patriarch of Buddhism, during the reign of the Tang dynasty, traditional Shramana-inspired Buddhism was overcome by a less stringent practice, that entirely did away with the Shramana's disciplinarian approach. However, modern-day Zen Buddhism has its roots in the Hongzhou school of Mazu Daoyi, one of the influential Chan abbots. The so-called "rural" Chan, as practiced at Mazu's school, became pivotal in bringing political stability to China, since the Song Dynasty used Chan to gain a strong footing in China, post the period of "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms". The "rural" Chan ultimately went on to become one of the largest and most prevalent sects of Chinese Buddhism. The traditional Five Houses (or schools) of Chan that we now hear about, were established around the same period, and have transpired through generations.
Spread of Zen Buddhism in Asia
Three main schools of Buddhism have been identified by scholars - Mahayana (found in East Asia), Vajrayana (predominant in Tibet, Mongolia and parts of Russia) and Theravada (prevalent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia). Chan is a part of Mahayana school of Buddhism. Around the time that the Five Houses of Chan were established, several other ideologies emerged in the Chinese monasteries. Each benefited its own set of followers and practitioners. However, Zen Buddhism has, over the years, gained world-wide popularity.

India is regarded as the birthplace of Buddhism, since it was at Bodh Gaya (in the present-day Indian state of Bihar) that Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment, and at Sarnath in Varanasi (in the present-day Indian state of Uttar Pradesh) that he began expounding Buddhism. From India, Buddhism percolated into several Asian countries; Zen Buddhism, however, became primarily prevalent in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Zen Buddhism is known by different names in these countries (Chan in China, Zen in Japan, Seon in South Korea and Thien in Vietnam); however, the ideology, and most of the beliefs and practices remain the same.

Zen was brought to China by Bodhidharma, the 28th Indian patriarch. He is regarded the first of the six ancestral founders of Chan in China. Dainichibo Nonin, on the other hand, introduced Zen in Japan, although it was Myoan Eisai who established one of the Five Houses of Zen in Japan. Students, upon their return from Mazu's school in China, brought Zen to South Korea. China also educated the Indian monk, Vinitaruci, who then expounded Zen in Vietnam, marking the first appearance of Zen in Vietnam.
What is Zen
Zen Buddhism (which I will hereafter call simply Zen) is a form of Buddhism that is quickly gaining popularity all over the world. Before we delve into what Zen is all about, let me first brief you on some of the key features of Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana school. It will help us to understand the different aspects of Zen, and also what makes it so popular (especially in the Western countries). Following that, we will take a look at Zen Buddhism beliefs, teachings and practices.
1] About Buddhism and Mahayana
Buddhism - if I must attempt to summarize its essences in a single sentence - is an ideology, based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, that relentlessly probes and prompts us to question (in order to realize) the true nature of our existence. Buddhism focuses on realizing the fact that all human suffering is a product of Karma, the cosmic web of cause-effect that surrounds all life. Realization of this fact allows us to free ourselves from suffering and recognize the nonexistence of the self, the Sunyata; it eventually takes us on to the path of liberation.

Mahayana (Maha = Great; yana = vehicle), also called Bodhisattvayana, is that school of Buddhism that leads followers on to the path towards seeking complete enlightenment, or buddhatva (buddhahood). The central concept of Mahayana Buddhism is that of Pratityasamutpada (Pratit = to perceive; samutpada = simultaneous creation). Everything in the world is interdependent, weaved together intricately in a web of cause and effect. This fact, if understood and grasped in the true sense, can lead to liberation of mankind from all suffering. This is what Pratityasamutpada means: to grasp the nature of the world as a sphere of interlinked causal relationships. (In English, Pratityasamutpada is commonly referred to as "dependent origination" or "conditioned genesis".)

As you may have deciphered, the realization of this "truth" cannot be taught per se. It cannot be learned through scriptures or texts, and it isn't. It is a revelation, and different individuals (or "sentient beings", according to Buddhism) will take their own time to come to realize it. You may have also deciphered the fact that this is a highly individualistic approach to liberation. How soon you come to truly realize Pratityasamutpada, the moment at which you come to realize Pratityasamutpada, will all depend on how you think, how much you think, how cluttered your thoughts are, and how well you can let go of worldly things in order to let your mind grow and encompass different concepts. Finally, there is no place for a "God" (or the idea of One as expressed in other religions in the world) in such a scenario. Buddhism is all about taking your own existence to a higher level; it is about liberating yourself. Buddhism does not advocate the existence of a so-called "higher, superior Being" (or a lack thereof).

These are the primary reasons that make Zen so popular, especially in Western countries. Zen is a discipline; a way of life. It only focuses on realizing the truth. It neither propounds nor eradicates any belief. This makes Zen extremely flexible, and free. Anyone can practice Zen without compromising on their beliefs, and this is pivotal in its popularity, especially in the West.
2] Zen Buddhism: A Comprehensive View
Zen, or for that matter any form of Buddhism, is a dharma, rather than a religion. There is a subtle difference in the two, the scope of which magnifies greatly as you come to understand the concepts. Dharma is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as "that which preserves and perseveres the order of Nature". Dharma preserves "Rta", the order of Cosmos and the Universe; hence, it is necessary to preserve dharma; and so, irrespective of whether you call yourself a Christian or Muslim or Hindu, the "Dharma" of every human being is the same.

What then is religion? Religion teaches you to identify and live by this dharma, and everything that you do in accordance with (or in opposition to) dharma, becomes your karma. Whether your karma preserves dharma or not, will greatly influence your quality of life, because only when the order of the Universe is preserved will all life be sustained and exist in harmony. (The concept of Karma being a web of cause-effect must have become clearer to you now.)

Coming back, Zen is, hence, a dharma; it is a code of conduct, a way of life. This is one of the reasons why Zen has become known worldwide. Anybody can practice Zen. Zen embraces people of all backgrounds. To top that off, Zen Buddhism practices are universal, and unconditional. You do not need to visit a temple or a monastery every day to practice Zen, because in Zen, the focus is turned towards yourself; the focus is not without but within.
Bara Nidanas
  • Avidya = Ignorance
  • Samskara = Formations
  • Vijnana = Consciousness
  • Namarupa = Mind and Body
  • Sadayatana = Six Sense Bases
  • Sparsa = Contact
  • Vedana = Feeling
  • Trsna = Craving (Desire)
  • Upadana = Clinging
  • Bhava = Becoming
  • Jati = Birth
  • Jara-marana = Old Age and Death
i) Zen Buddhism Ideology: Dhamma-vinaya
Gautama Buddha led his students on to the path of dhamma-vinaya, or "the path of discipline". One must choose to lead this path, adhering diligently to its ways. Dhamma-vinaya teaches that all "dukkha" (human suffering) is a result of either "trsna " (desire, craving, or longing) and "avidya" (ignorance). To uplift all sentient beings from this state and lead them towards enlightenment, Gautama Buddha laid down "Bara Nidanas" (enlisted in the table above); these have been regarded the cause and effect of all phenomena of life. In order to become enlightened, one must identify and overcome these twelve causes-effects.
ii) Zen Buddhism Practices
Though quite late in the article, this would be the right time to look into the etymology of the word "Zen". The (Japanese) word Zen and the (Chinese) word Chan both originated from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning meditation, meditative state, contemplative state, marked by sitting still, while (or without) chanting a hymn or shloka. The main practice of Zen is hence, meditation.
Zen Buddhism meditation is slightly different from other forms of meditation, in that it may be carried out individually, or in groups. Usually, meditation as we know it is more of an individual practice; however, Zen Buddhism meditation is also practiced in groups, with these sessions being more intense, and lasting for longer hours. Practitioners usually sit in the lotus position, or the Japanese seiza posture while meditating.

However, as with other doctrines of the dharma, Zen Buddhism meditation can take on several forms, depending on the region where it is being practiced. For example, Japanese Zen Buddhism has three main schools - Rinzai, Soto and Obaku-shu. In the Rinzai school, the technique of meditation involves the use of a Koan - a dialog through which the Zen master places a philosophical riddle in front of the student, to test the student's growth in Zen. The master, hence, channelizes the student's thoughts. In the Soto school, however, no fixture is used, which perhaps makes it more challenging. In any case, the common theme of meditation is to turn in on yourself and observe, introspect... your thoughts, your mind, and everything within your "self".

A Note About Koan - Koan evolved as a part of Chinese Zen, especially with the popularity of Zen in the higher educated class of the society. Koan evolved as a product of free dialog (or brainstorming sessions, as I like to call them) between students and masters, as the students learned the ways of Zen. By engaging in Koan, students tried to realize the nature of true self. The moment of this realization is pivotal; the moment of the realization is Koan. Earlier, Koans used to be recorded in literary form; however, the practice was soon discouraged due to its potential to limit thinking and/or approach methods of prospective students and masters to only that interpretation of the Koan has been recorded.
wu symbol
"Wu" (meaning "Nothing") from the famous Zhaozhou's dog Koan
Chanting is a common practice in all forms of Buddhism belonging to each of the schools: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Liturgy is carried out in Zen as well. Though there are believers and non-believers of chanting, Zen in itself is very individualistic in nature, and essentially free of a rigid structure or form of practice. Hence, different regions of the world do or don't engage in chanting.

The different schools of Buddhism are known for reciting particular chants; with respect to Zen, chanting the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra is common practice. The Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, abbreviated as the Heart Sutra, is a discourse of 14 Sanskrit shlokas. Chanting serves the purpose of preparing the mind for meditation and is, hence, of great importance in Zen. Another purpose of engaging in chanting is to instill within your "self", the ideals of the particular bodhisattva the chant talks about. By chanting particular sutras, one is able to familiarize the self with the concept that there is no difference between the bodhisattva and the self; it brings you closer to realizing the true nature of the world.
Scriptures in Zen Buddhism
As with chanting, different schools of Zen, and different Zen masters hold different views and opinions on the use of the literary techniques in Zen. Many propose that scriptures are unnecessary, unwanted and limit the mind's scope. They tie you down to a particular view presented in the scripture.

This may seem paradoxical in the light of the use of Koan. How can the two views coexist? But coexist they do (and this shall be explained in the next section, the Dichotomy of Zen Buddhism). Due to its disregard for the literary form, Zen has (wrongly) been proposed as anti-intellectual. However, the use of Koans refutes this view. In fact, the use of Koans in Zen meditation came to be with the increasing popularity of Zen in the higher literate classes of the society.

The fear of the early Zen masters isn't difficult to understand - doesn't a book grasp our mind deeper than a visual can, or a sound can? You might become biased or prejudiced towards a certain thing if you let yourself be limited to a particular view expressed in a literary discourse on the thing.

All in all, Chan does not strictly disapprove of scriptures, but warns the practitioners about the nature of the scriptures - they are not the destination, but a mere path to it; they do not equate enlightenment, but may be used as a means to communicate to one another, the path towards enlightenment.
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters.
By pointing directly to [one's] mind,
It lets one see into [one's own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.
3] Dichotomy of Zen Buddhism
One of the most striking features of Zen is the fact that it does not advocate one single view, doctrine, approach or teaching as the sole and/or best path towards enlightenment. In this aspect, it is rather radical and starkly different from religions of the world. What is of prime (and only) importance in Zen is the moment when you attain true wisdom, when life and the world reveals to you its true nature, or when you become a bodhisattva. It is the moment of realization that is important, not the path towards it.

The doctrines of Zen have, hence, been regarded as rather paradoxical. You may have guessed some of these dichotomies yourself. For example: while Zen discourages the dependency on scriptures on one hand, it uses the Koan during meditation on the other. Another dichotomy is in the view of the real world and our perception of the real world; this one might be easier for you to relate to. How can the world as we perceive it, be only a manifestation of our mind and not be the real world (or the world as it actually is)? But that is what many dharmas and religions expound - that our perception of the world is only an illusion; maya.

The views of Zen on the concept of the "self" too are paradoxical. Enlightenment allows us to be in a state where we know that there is no such thing as a "self" and a "nonself". The whole deal comes down to simply existing; existentialism in its purest form. Now, to attain enlightenment, one must free oneself from the Bara Nidanas. But if there is no "self", how are you going to do that? Zen teaches that every form of life has Buddha-nature, or the capacity to be enlightened. Zen also teaches that there is no such thing as a "thing"; the true nature of the world is no-"thing"-ness; all that there is, is a void, an emptiness. This emptiness has been called the form of the world. There is no form, there is only emptiness; the emptiness is the form, and the form is emptiness. This is also a paradoxical view... or perhaps the paradox is the truth?

These dichotomies have been a cause of much confusion to novices, and a subject of much discussion for practitioners of Zen. Perhaps through discourse on the topics, the answer to life, the universe and everything will be revealed to mankind...?
I don't think so. I don't think in that way or otherwise. I don't think not or not not.

- Sanjaya Belatthaputta
(ascetic Shramana guru from India)
Zen in the United States
In the United States, the first Zen practitioners to arrive were Chinese. Cheap manpower was bought from China and Japan to work in the United States, and this manpower brought along with itself, its culture, practices, beliefs and traditions, and established many Buddhist temples in the United States.

The Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago in 1893 can be regarded as the event that formally introduced Buddhism as such to the western world. Among the representative of the different countries and religions that attended the meeting was Soyen Shaku of Japan. He is, hence, regarded the first Zen monk to arrive in the United States. However, formal teaching of the ways of Zen was initiated by Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, after gaining formal education under professor of philosophy and student of comparative religion, Paul Carus. Suzuki taught Buddhism and Zen at the Columbia University and is often credited to be single-handedly responsible for popularizing Zen in the United States and the Western countries in general.

Following Suzuki's expounding of Zen, many concrete developments took place, that helped Zen gain a firm footing in the western world. The Zen Studies Society was established by Cornelius Crane in the year 1956. It served as Dr. Suzuki's work center. The following year, Alan Watts' book "The Way of Zen" was published, which Watts has accepted to be his assimilation of Dr. Suzuki's teachings. In the year 1962, Shunryu Suzuki founded the San Francisco Zen Center for practicing Soto Zen. The Californian Rinzai-ji school and the Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji school of New York also gained prominence around the same period.

Among the pioneer Chinese Zen masters was Hsuan Hua, who founded the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association in 1959. It is a non-profit international organization that influenced Buddhism in many western countries along with US.

A common trend in the western world has been the aggregation of certain theosophical principles and doctrines with Buddhist views. This may be traced back to the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge. Of these, Henry Steel Olcott is said to be one of the earliest westerners to convert to Buddhism. Alan Watts also was a believer of theosophy.
Special Commentary: Influence of Zen Buddhism in Cinema
Everything that we know about, has found a place in our art; religion, fantasy, philosophy, politics, just about everything. Films have been a medium with great potential and impact. To conclude this article on a rather interesting note, I am going to throw some light on the use of Zen Buddhism in Cinema; especially one blockbuster film series that still leaves me in awe every time I see it - Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.
Robert Alexander Farrar Thurman, born August 3, 1941 is an important figure in the western world when it comes to Buddhism. He has written and translated a number of books on Tibetan Buddhism and holds a special place in the Columbia University as a Je Tsongkhapa Professor. He was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans in the year 1997. So what does this man have to do with the influence of Zen on Cinema? Uma Thurman, best known for playing The Bride in Quentin Tarantino's movie series 'Kill Bill', is Robert Thurman's daughter.

Many a discourse have been conducted on the movie series 'Kill Bill' (released in two parts in 2003 and 2004) - especially with respect to the main theme of the movie. The movie has been famously dubbed as "a tale of revenge and redemption". It tells the story of a woman out to seek revenge against her ex-lover and ex-colleagues, for massacring her wedding party and killing her unborn child. The woman succeeds, by the end of the sequel. However, in spite of it being a gory story of revenge, many film enthusiasts have described Kill Bill to also be a story of redemption. How?
If you have seen Kill Bill as keenly as I have (and continue to every once in a while), you may have noticed that each of the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad epitomized a particular human fault - Vernita Green was jealous of The Bride, and hence, angry; O-Ren Ishii was full of pride; Budd was filled with apathy and self-doubt; Elle Driver was ignorant; and finally, Bill - the master of ceremonies, instructed and led on his colleagues and subordinates to kill The Bride out of attachment with The Bride, which left him deeply hurt when The Bride walked out on him. Buddhism recognizes Jealousy, Anger, Pride, Self-doubt, Ignorance and Attachment as pivotal cause-effects of human suffering. The Bride wasn't just referring to the assassins when she said "I have vermin to kill."

Calling Kill Bill a tale of redemption may now make more sense to you. Beatrix Kiddo was a nobody, till Bill took her under his wing and made her an assassin, giving her the identity - Black Mamba. The vermin within her, was put there, by Bill and his teachings; and it was put in other members of the assassin squad as well. In killing the assassins, The Bride is cleansing herself of vermin. The most significant proof of this point of view is the fact that her true identity is not revealed in the prequel of the movie at all, but in the sequel, and that too at a much later stage than would be expected and in an unexpected scenario (The Bride is shown to be sitting in a school classroom). The significance of this directorial touch is the returning of The Bride to the innocence of her childhood, after having killed the vermin.
However, in spite of this stark symbolism, many people hold their ground and argue that Kill Bill is only a story of revenge. How can a woman who resorts to murder be redeemed by the act? I will refute this point with my personal take. What I believe Tarantino wanted to show was the degree of vehemence required to fight these human evils that reside so firmly within us. The violence, in my opinion, is not totally unfounded; it only goes on to explain how fiercely we must act to uproot these evils from within ourselves. In fact, if you take another look at the story, you will notice that the degree of violence used to depict the assassination of each of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad members varies; and if you look at the member as not a person but an evil, or vermin, you will realize that the degree of violence corresponds aptly to the difficulty of eradicating the particular evil from our "self". The Bride had to engage in the longest battle (one that was both emotionally and physically taxing) to kill O-Ren, to kill Pride. The Bride had to come out of a coffin by overcoming self-doubt; in the process, she also became aware, her ignorance was alleviated: Doubt (Budd) and Ignorance (Elle) nullified each other.

And Bill? Beatrix and Bill were lovers, and doesn't love, of all our attachments, hurt the most? Beatrix had to deal with utmost care and tact - and even got distracted for a few moments - while killing Bill (Attachment). Bill even so much as tried to lure Beatrix back (as is evident from the dialog quoted alongside). But Beatrix, now full of wisdom, stuck to her aim and dealt with tact to severe her ties with Bill (Attachment).

It is a well-known fact that the character of The Bride was the brainchild of Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman together. The credits that roll at the end of the film accredit the film story to be based upon the character 'The Bride' created by Q & U. Uma Thurman was educated on the doctrines of Buddhism since a tender age by her father. The Buddhist aspect of the film remains veiled from many-a-viewer, who take the movie for its face value as only a tale of revenge. However, ask anyone who reveres the film, and pat will come the reply - "Yes, The Bride is redeemed."
For those regarded as warriors, when engaged in combat, the vanquishing of thine enemy can be the warrior's only concern. Suppress all human emotion and compassion. Kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God or Buddha himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.

- Hattori Hanzo
(from the movie Kill Bill Vol. I)
I have vermin to kill.

- The Bride
(from the movie Kill Bill)
I'm calling you a killer! A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, going to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That's you... trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That's you trying to blend in with the hive. But you're not a worker bee. You're a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.

- Bill
(from the movie Kill Bill Vol. II)
Zen Buddhism has now become a well-established aspect of the world - call it faith, religion, dharma or (as I like to say) a way of life. Many see in Buddhism the potential to become a universal religion of futuristic world. I will conclude with a quote by Albert Einstein from 'The Buddha in the Eyes of Eminent Scholars' - "The religion of future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description... If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."