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Zen 101: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

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Zen painting

Korean Zen ink painting

Jens-Olaf/Flickr, Creative Commons License Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic

You've heard of Zen. You may have had moments of Zen. But what the bleep is Zen?

The popular idea of Zen is that it's, like, Japanese Dada, with kung fu monks. I regret that the popular idea is a tad romanticized.

The nerdy answer to the question What is Zen? is that Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in China about 15 centuries ago. In China it is called "Ch'an" Buddhism. Ch'an is the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which refers to a mind absorbed in meditation. "Zen" is the Japanese rendering of Ch'an. Zen is called "Thien" in Vietnam and "Seon" in Korea. In any language, the name could be translated "Meditation Buddhism."

Here I want to provide a bare-bones introduction to Zen. Note that what follows is barely a handshake. I will use the word "Zen" for all schools, just to keep it simple.

This article also assumes you know what Buddhism is. If you aren't sure, read the Introduction to Buddhism.

A Very Brief Zen History

Zen began to emerge as a distinctive school of Mahayana Buddhism when the Indian sage Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) taught at the Shaolin Monastery of China. (Yes, it's a real place, and yes, there is a historic connection between kung fu and Zen.) To this day Bodhidharma is called the First Patriarch of Zen.

Bodhidharma's teachings tapped into some developments already in progress, such as the confluence of philosophical Taoism with Buddhism. Taoism so profoundly impacted early Zen that some philosophers and texts are claimed by both religions. The early Mahayana philosophies of Madhyamika (ca. 2nd century CE) and Yogacara (ca. 3rd century CE) also played huge roles in the development of Zen.

Under the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638-713), Zen shed most of its vestigial Indian trappings, becoming more Chinese and more, well, Zennish. Some consider Huineng, not Bodhidharma, to be the true father of Zen. His personality and influence are felt in Zen to this day.

Huineng's tenure was at the beginning of what is still called the Golden Age of Zen. This Golden Age flourished during the same period as China's Tang Dynasty, 618-907. The masters of this Golden Age still speak to us through koans and stories.

During these years Zen organized itself into five "houses," or five schools. Two of these, called in Japanese the Rinzai and the Soto schools, still exist and remain distinctive from each other.

Zen was transmitted to Vietnam very early, possibly as early as the 7th century. A series of teachers transmitted Zen to Korea during the Golden Age. Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), was not the first Zen teacher in Japan, but he was the first to establish a lineage that lives to this day. The West took an interest in Zen after World War II, and now Zen is establishing itself in North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

How Zen Defines Itself

Bodhidharma's definition:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood.

Zen is sometimes called "the face-to-face transmission of the dharma outside the sutras." Throughout the history of Zen, teachers have transmitted their realization of dharma to students by working with them face-to-face. This makes the lineage of teachers critical. A genuine Zen teacher can trace his or her lineage of teachers back to Bodhidharma, and before that to the historical Buddha, and to those Buddhas before the historical Buddha.

Certainly, large parts of the lineage charts have to be taken on faith. But if anything is treated as sacred in Zen, it's the teachers' lineages. With very few exceptions, calling oneself a "Zen teacher" without having received transmission from another teacher is considered a serious defilement of Zen.

While we're talking about teachers, I should mention Zen masters. In my experience, the phrase "Zen master" is hardly ever heard inside Zen. Popular notions of "Zen master," however smarmy, roughly correspond to what a Zen teacher is. The title "Zen master" in Japanese, "zenji," is only given posthumously. In Zen, living Zen teachers are called "Zen teachers." An especially venerable and beloved teacher is called "roshi," which means "old man." I'm not sure how that works when the teacher is a woman, however. In any event, if you ever run into someone who advertises himself as a "Zen master," be skeptical.

Bodhidharma's definition also says that Zen is not an intellectual discipline you can learn from books. Instead, it's a practice of studying mind and seeing into one's nature. The main tool of this practice is zazen.

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