Zen Buddhism

General Information

The is a recognized denomination of Buddhism. It is popular among non Buddhists in the U S; it seeks to transmit the spirit of Buddhism without demanding allegiance to all the teachings of Buddha. It uses mondo, a question - and - answer technique to reveal truths (some religious) from within the seeker which will bring bodhi (enlightenment). Wisdom and love are major emphases.

Many critics see Zen Buddhism as non religious, as a sham religion. True Buddhists see it as an attempt as a short cut to true enlightenment. Others see it as an atheistic approach to life.

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Zen Buddhism

{zen bood' - izm}

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Zen or Ch'an Buddhism represents a sectarian movement within the Buddhist religion that stresses the practice of meditation as the means to enlightenment. Zen and Ch'an are, respectively, Japanese and Chinese attempts to render the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana.

Zen's roots may be traced to India, but it was in East Asia that the movement became distinct and flourished. Like other Chinese Buddhist sects, Ch'an first established itself as a lineage of masters emphasizing the teachings of a particular text, in this case the Lankavatara Sutra. Bodhidharma, the first Ch'an patriarch in China, who is said to have arrived there from India c. 470 AD, was a master of this text. He also emphasized the practice of contemplative sitting, and legend has it that he himself spent 9 years in meditation facing a wall.

With the importance of lineages, Ch'an stressed the master - disciple relationship, and Bodhidharma was followed by a series of patriarchs each of whom received the Dharma (religious truth) directly from his predecessor and teacher. By the 7th century, however, splits in the line of transmission began to develop, the most important of which was between Shen - hsiu (606 - 706) and Hui - neng (638 - 713), disciples of the 5th patriarch, Hung - jen. According to a later and clearly biased legend, Hui - neng defeated Hung - jen in a stanza - composing contest, thereby demonstrating his superior enlightenment. He was then secretly named 6th patriarch but had to flee south for fear of his rival's jealousy.

The split between Shen - hsiu and Hui - neng accounts for the southern and northern branches of Ch'an, which competed vigorously for prestige and state support. Hui - neng's branch dominated in the long run, and by 796 an imperial decree settled the matter in his favor posthumously. By then, however, Hui - neng's branch was itself beginning to subdivide into several different schools.

The subsequent history of Ch'an in China was mixed. The sect suffered from the great persecution of Buddhism in 845. It recovered better than many Buddhist schools, however, partly because, in contrast to other monastic communities, Ch'an monks engaged in physical labor, which made them less dependent on state and lay support. During the Sung dynasty (960 - 1279), Ch'an again prospered and was a leading influence on the development of Chinese art and neo - Confucian culture.

It was during this period that Ch'an was first established in Japan. Within 30 years of each other, two Japanese monks, Eisai (1141 - 1215) and Dogen (1200 - 53), went to China, where they trained respectively in the Lin - chi (Japanese, Rinzai) and Ts'ao - tung (Japanese, Soto) schools of Ch'an. These they then introduced into Japan. Rinzai emphasizes the use of Koans, mental stumbling blocks or riddles that the meditator must solve to the satisfaction of his master. Soto lays more stress on seated meditation without conscious striving for a goal (zazen). Both schools fostered good relations with the shoguns and became closely associated with the Japanese military class. Rinzai in particular was highly influential during the Ashikaga period (1338 - 1573), when Zen played an important role in propagating neo - Confucianism and infusing its own unique spirit into Japanese art and culture.

The heart of Zen monasticism is the practice of meditation; it is this feature that has been most popular in Zen's spread to the West. Zen meditation highlights the experience of enlightenment, or satori (Chinese: wu), and the possibility of attaining it in this life. The strict training of Zen monks, the daily physical chores, the constant wrestling with koans, the long hours of sitting in meditation, and the special intensive periods of practice (sesshin) are all directed toward this end.

At the same time, enlightenment is generally thought of as being sudden. The meditator needs to be jolted awake, and the only one who can do this is his Zen master. The master - disciple relationship often involves private interviews in which the Zen trait of unconventionality sometimes comes to the fore; the master will allow no refuge in the Buddha or the sutras but demands from his disciple a direct answer to his assigned koan. Conversely, the master may goad the disciple by remaining silent or compassionately help him out, but with the constant aim of trying to cause a breakthrough from conventional to absolute truth.

Joseph M Kitagawa And John S Strong

H Dumoulin, History of Zen Buddhism (1963); T Hoover, Zen Culture (1977); C Humphreys, Zen: A Way of Life (1971); S Ogata, Zen for the West (1959); N W Ross, ed., The World of Zen (1960); D T Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927 - 1934), Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1957), and Manual of Zen Buddhism (1960); J Van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery (1974); A Watts, The Spirit of Zen (1958); P Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (1967).

Also, see:

Mahayana Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism



The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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