Writing an article about Zen is almost a contradiction in terms. That is unless I simply leave the rest of it blank…

Just a finger, pointing to the moon…

Just a finger, pointing to the moon…

 But, I don’t want to do that!

At its basic level, Zen is an exotic a form of Buddhism. The Buddha lived approximately 2500 years ago on the Indian subcontinent (the exact dates of his life and death are still uncertain). Around 450 years after his death the collected sayings and teachings of his “Middle Way” were collated into canonical form and spread ever Eastwards, surviving the almost total destruction of Buddhism in its native lands.

Early Chinese Buddhism


Lord Buddha teaching, Laos

The large diaspora of Buddhist thought existing in China (Over 80,000 pages!) can be partly explained by the Buddha having spoken out against distributing his teachings solely in Sanskrit (A language of the priest class).

“My Dharma has nothing to do with beautiful language. Just make sure the meaning of the teachings is not lost. This is my thinking. You should speak the teachings according to whatever pronunciations the various sentient beings can take in and understand”

– The Buddha (Vinaya-matrka)

This is unlike the Christian Bible, which was transmitted only in Latin to preserve the core message and the need for priests who could be trained to read it. Thus as the Buddha’s teachings were carried through the countries of the East the canon was translated into local languages and took on local flavours.

Words have a power.

Buddha statue in Beijing

Buddha statue in Beijing

Around 100AD Buddhism came to China via the trade routes between the two nations. This early Buddhism was taken by the locals to be a foreign version of Daoism (Taoism) and for the Buddha to be a Daoist Immortal of sorts. This Daoist focussing lens would affect the Chinese form of Buddhism for the next thousand years, but its greatest influence was in this early transmission period. At their core, both religions believe similar things and up to a point one can clearly imagine how the Buddhist texts, when translated into Chinese, would echo Daoism.

Daoism and Buddhism


Mount Wudang Daoist

One of the problems with comparing these two traditions properly is that they both almost always use just their own terms in a circular manner. This is a reliable method of preserving a tradition of course, but it makes the whole thing only “hang on itself” and resist comparison. There follows an attempt in writing their similarities in the same terms. This is not as shocking as you may think as in the 4th Century the Chinese, trying to make sense of Buddhism (and especially the operation of Karma, which scared the elite), came up with “Keyi”, which translates as “Concept Matching”. Only after special status was given to the Buddhist Lotus Sutra (which speaks of Emptiness) by new translators in the beginning of the 5th Century, did the Chinese start looking for differences in this “Foreign Daoism” rather than similarities.

Daoist temple atop mount Wudang

The roof of a Daoist temple atop mount Wudang

Daoists believe that there is no God, only an unknowable “energy” that pervades the Universe and gives rise to the things contained within it. This “energy” is not alive like the west imagines a God to be, it is not even “intelligent”, it is like a naturally occurring pattern and its influence drives what we call nature. It is “behind” reality, “invisible” to our inspection and detectable only by its influence. It is an operation of the universe and the fabric of reality upon which the cosmos, and everything in it, is interweaved. It cannot be put down in words exactly what this “energy” is and its ineffable nature means our experience of reality is relative. Daoists have come up with a set of principles by which life may be lived that reflect the way this “energy” acts upon reality. Daoists believe that in living in harmony with this “energy” is like being in tune with music, a harmonious vibration that leads to a natural life, the best life you can have. The name they give to the “energy” principle is the Dao (Tao). Since it is without form the Daoists reject duality of “self” and “other”, believing that all reality is in fact one weaved together by the Dao. Daoism has no central author or dogma, but it has the concept of the sage and the greatest was said to be an ancient and legendary Chinese librarian called Lao Tzu who wrote a short book just before he retired.

Contrast that with the Buddha’s teachings:

Giant Buddha Statue in Japan

Giant Buddha Statue in Japan

Buddhists believe that there is no God and reality is like waves that rise and fall upon a great sea. For the Buddhist there is no part of reality that is permanent and unconnected from other parts, including the parts that make up “you” – the same way that a sea is made up of drops of water flowing together and dependant on each other. Since everything is impermanent and subject to change, the “I”, the “self”, is not actually a thing, rather it is the (current) convergence of impermanent energies.

“Transient are all component things.
When this with wisdom, one discerns, then one is disgusted with unsatisfactoriness
This is the path to purity”.
– The Buddha (dhammapada:227)

In a very real way there is no duality of “you” and the “Universe” – they are the same thing. What you call “you” is what the Universe is doing right now. This puts “consciousness” at the primacy of reality with all objects being a creation of the mind. To return to the wave analogy, when we watch the sea it appears that the wave is travelling forwards, but really it is just the sea rising and falling up and down in a sequence and the movement is an illusion. Thus it is with your “self”, where the sequence of events you experience, combined with the memory of the past, give rise to the illusion of the self.

A Buddha statue in Sarnath, India

A Buddha statue in Sarnath, India

However, one day the wave will fall and your life will end, then the wave will rise and your energy will live again (in a new combination of components). This happens over and over and thus you are reborn anew in a cycle. You don’t have a “soul” that survives this transition as, since all your components are impermanent, there is no separate “soul” to continue. Buddhists believe that this truth was discovered by an Indian wandering prince, who had renounced his position to seek a way of curing the world of suffering. His name was Siddhartha and, after many years of struggle, the nature of reality was made clear to him in a moment of enlightenment and he became the Buddha.

Mahabodhi temple India, the place of enlightenment

Mahabodhi temple India, the place of enlightenment

He then spent the next 45 years teaching his method of release from the cycle of suffering, which advocated a Middle Path and a life of compassion for all living things. Through this, eventually, all the Karma accumulated in life will be spent and you will not be reborn, rather you will sublime into an unknowable state called Nirvana.

“Whatever arises dependently
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.
Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.”
– Nagarjuna

Both these teachings see the Universe as existing in impermanent flux. Both believe that the fundamental truth of reality can be practically obtained by enlightenment and that living within the set of principles that such an enlightenment leads to is the path to happiness. Moreover, both traditions rely heavily on meditation to produce insights.

This convergence came to a head in 520AD when in Loyang there was a serious debate on the subject of “Did Lao Tzu leave China to be reborn in India as the Buddha?” Clearly early Chinese thought equated these two as equal sages, or perhaps the Daoists were doing to the Buddha what the Indian Hindu’s did when they successfully claimed the Buddha as a mere Avatar of Vishnu. 30 years later the country descended into turmoil and many of these combined Buddhist=Daoist ideas suffered extreme persecution and fell into the abyss or were forced into the ascetic life in the mountains.

After this chaos subsided, Buddhism in China was restored to new heights by four great schools including the returning ascetic monks who formed an initially highly secret Buddhist sect we now call Chan.

The Rise of Chan


Bodhidharma Statue India

This sect traces its lineage to a form of Indian Buddhism primarily focussed on the insights gained through meditation (Dhyana). The legend has it (a legend created/remembered by the Chan Buddhists themselves) that the master of this form carried his understanding from India to China. His Dharma (Buddhist) name was Bodhidharma and his way, with its “direct” methods, was unlike the Buddhism that had travelled before him. He arrived around 520 AD either by boat, or by walking over the mountains, and was soon in Loyang where he was granted audience with the Buddhist Wu Emperor. However, Bodhidharma thoroughly confused the emperor with quizzical answers to his questions and a distain for the methods of the preceding priests and so he soon moved on from the capital to one of the holy mountains of China called Song, home of the now-famous Shaolin Buddhist Temple. He is said to have lived in a nearby cave and legend has it he stared at the cave wall in deep meditation for 9 years. Over time he attracted some dedicated pupils including a dhuta (extreme) ascetic called Huike. Eventually this tough and direct version of Buddhism found fertile soil in the East Mountain Community (in Huangmei) under Daoxin and then his pupil Hongren (601 – 674).

Chan Belief and the Operation of Karma


The key to understanding Buddhism’s Middle Path is the Buddha’s explanation of Karma. This is a term appropriated from the Hindu Vedas, and which has a subtly different meaning for the Buddhists. Karma is the operation of cause and effect, or to put it more correctly:

Cause, Action and Effect.

In the flux of impermanence, where the whole of reality is co-dependent, and you are but a wave of energy momentarily collated, what happens must be the result of many other things happening. This is simple cause and effect. Karma is the law that what happens to “you” (remembering the above) are the results of your “doings”. In other words, performing actions brings about karma for you. An accumulation of karma results in your part of the “wave” rising again and your rebirth. The operating effect of Karma may be so long term to be across multiple “lives” or it may be something happening directly in front of you.

For example: if I light a candle, it burns. It is my doing, my action that lights the candle. It is my karma that is created in burning it. Cause and effect mean nothing to the candle unless I light it. Performing karma-creating actions pushes around the wheel of life just a little and in the same motion leashes me to it.

According to the seed that’s sown, So is the fruit you reap there from,

Doer of good will gather good, Doer of evil, evil reaps,

Down is the seed and thou shalt taste The fruit thereof.

– The Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)

If I have “unspent” Karma (even from past “lives”) then I will be reborn again into this world of suffering. What the Buddha suggests is a cure for this in the form of his Middle Path through life that leads to two things:

  1. Enlightenment to the nature of the Universal reality.
  2. An eventual end to the creation of Karma through action and thereby an end to rebirth.

What happens to “you” after you have finished all your Karma is unknowable. The thinking is that you sublime reality into something called Nirvana. What that is, no-one knows as to sublime means to “go beyond” and in this case the thoughts we have to describe Nirvana are themselves in this Universe and so cannot “go beyond” to describe it.

Nevertheless, the Buddha’s enlightenment was to realise that Karma is what causes rebirth and it should be dealt with. So what causes Karma? The Buddha placed bad Karma’s roots as “ignorance” and “craving”, which are two negative things, suggesting that “negative” Karma increases suffering in the Universe and is what keeps you on the wheel. The mutual interdependence of everything ultimately means that there is no demarcation between what appears to be an individual and the Universe, and so causing harm is to directly create karma and eventually harm oneself. By following Buddha’s teachings, understanding his 4 Noble Truths and becoming enlightened, one stops producing this destructive “bad” Karma by no longer sowing the seeds for it. Therefore, a virtuous life (or lives, plural) directly leads to the removal of the “splash causing ripples in the pond” and thereby to the possibility of obtaining Nirvana.


How do Zen and Bodhidharma fit into all this?


Lord Buddha Vietnam

Translated into Chinese, the word Dhyana transliterates as Channa, which is where the Chinese sect got its name of Chan from. The essence of Chan comes from the (most likely apocryphal) story that the Buddha gathered his disciples and silently held up a flower. When one eventually smiled, he was passed the special teaching “outside the scriptures” that runs as follows:

“No reliance on words.
Transmission outside the scriptures.
Point directly at the minds of men.
See your Buddha Nature and be enlightened.”
– Daoyi (709 – 778)

By “Buddha Nature” the dhyana sect suggests a mental state of identifiable to the Buddha’s is the goal. In other words they believe that all people can be enlightened through the same processes that enlightened the Buddha. Indeed, all are already Buddhas, they just don’t comprehend this. The extreme persuasiveness of this idea is clear, as it promises that enlightenment is in your own grasp. Moreover, it is something immediate and not just reserved for a special few. Chan advocated a “sudden” enlightenment in the adherent, the testing of this by a master and the following it up with a “spiritual deepening”. The main method of seeking this enlightenment is called “Thusness”.

Chan Thusness


Giant Lord Buddha, Thailand

Thusness is seeing the truth of reality. For Bodhidharma this was the realisation that all reality is actually contained within the “pearl” of his own mind.

“For the first time I realised that within the square inch of my own mind there is nothing that does not exist. The Bright Pearl comprehends clearly and darkly penetrates the deep tendency of things”.
– Bodhidharma (Text 3)

All things that arise in the mind are parts of the Universe in flux. An example to explain this comes from the Chan Buddhist Patriarch Huineng a few generations down the line:

Two monks were arguing over a flag atop a pole.
One said, “The flag is moving”.
The other said, “No – the wind is moving”.
Huineng was passing and stopped to say, “No! Your mind is moving”.

For Bodhidharma the primary cultivation of Thusness came through meditation in the form of “wall gazing”.

Bodhidharma, Japan

Bodhidharma, Japan

He had little love for intellectual analysis of written materials, which he felt didn’t assist in changing Karma. This anti-dogma stance came from parts of the original Pali canon where the Buddha pointed out that “all dharmas are devoid of self”, “all phenomena are impermanent” and “all phenomena are suffering”.

Dharma is a word that was, strangely, invented by the British to be able to conceptualise the Buddha’s ideas more clearly. It is therefore not very well translated and basically means both the system of analysis called the Middle Path and the actions required to achieve it. In some circles however the explanations of the Buddha (clearly not withstanding the quotes above) are taken to be so in line with reality that they are the operation of natural reality itself. Thus People often use Dharma to mean “nature’s way”.

Lord Buddha, Bodh Gaya, India

Lord Buddha, Bodh Gaya, India

Again, the drawing near of Chan’s Dharma to Daoism&#