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’s Dao is obvious. The differences between Daoism and Chan mostly center on Thusness being a void state and not the state aimed at by the Daoists (One with the Dao leading to becoming a Sage).

What the Buddha’s quotes above mean is that the dogma in the teachings themselves is also impermanent (obvious when one thinks about the line “all phenomena are impermanent). Bodhidharma took this to mean that the truth was not to be found in the analysis of the canon, but in the void of emptiness brought about by Dhyana meditation. When in this void of Thusness, there are no conditioned entities or concepts. In other words: no “labels” can be created without at the same time separating reality into the dualistic “This

[label]” and “Not-this [label]”. From this understanding we come to a characteristic of later Zen Buddhism in that it is full of seemingly complicated “This thing” “Not-this thing” arguments that can confuse very quickly. Sometimes this confusion is on purpose, but more often than not it simply referring back to the nature of Thusness being un-contingent and devoid of labels/concepts. This leads to a common trap experienced by Chan Buddhists of all types in that “Void” itself becomes a concept rising in the mind. A classic error highlighted by another story of Huineng.

The Chan Patriarch was coming to the end of his life and offered to appoint the successor who could write a poem showing their understanding. The top pupil of the temple wrote the following poem:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a standing mirror bright,
At all times polish it diligently,
And let no dust alight,

Huineng, who was only a youth working in the kitchens, was read this and asked a monk to write up his response:

Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree
The bright mirror is also not a stand
Fundamentally there is not a single thing –
Where could any dust be attracted?

Clearly the first pupil had fallen into the trap and conceptualised the void. Huineng is probably the most important Chan master in all history as his sutra (the Platform Sutra) is the main historical record of Chan back to Bodhidharma (That was until the – very few – writings of Bodhidharma pupils were discovered in a walled-up cave in Northern China in the early 20th century). Huineng’s sutras are probably not literally true historical record, as they were his teaching method, but they highlight his beliefs and understandings. His (supposed) mummy is still seated in zazen meditation pose in the Nanhua temple in Caoqi.

A monk practices

A monk practices

The school of thought crystallised by Huineng was to solidify Buddhism and ensured its survival in China (along with Daoism and Confucianism) for the next 400 years. One practical difference between the Chan and Indian forms of Buddhism is found in the monastic life. Chan (and Zen) focus on work by the monks, “A day of no work—a day of no eating” goes the famous Chan saying. This means Chan Buddhist Monks don’t need to beg for food in the morning like those in Laos, for example, as they are allowed to “work”.

Laos monks begging each morning

Laos monks begging each morning

This puts a very different view on the monastic life and Chan/Zen monks are very hard working indeed.

Transmission to Japan


Zen Garden, Japan

Two main methods of Chan training were developed and different sects put emphasis on one of them or the other:

  1. Silent Illumination through Meditation in Zazen.
  2. Koan Riddle Introspection.

Koans are a form of poem or riddle with no clear answer. Examples include:

Who is it who now repeats the Buddha’s name?
Who is dragging this corpse about?
What is this?
What is it?

They started as short stories of previous enlightened Buddhist masters, but soon developed into testing riddles that pointed to direct enlightenment. The student is given the koan to study and examines it for meaning. He is then called back before the master to answer the riddle. Should his answer point to an enlightened insight then he progresses. If it doesn’t he is sent away with a pat on the back to try again.

A Buddha hidden in the back of a giant statue

A Buddha hidden in the back of a giant statue

While Buddhism transferred naturally to Japan through trade, none of the Chan schools flourished there until the two methods were transported by the Japanese themselves to become Zen (the Japanese translation of “Chan”).

Zazen Silent Illumination was transported in 1223 by the monk Dogen who was sent across the sea to study Chan with a mind to solve the riddle of “Why Buddha’s have to obtain enlightenment if all are born with Buddha Nature inside?” He tried the Koan schools, but found their lack of scripture reading to not be for him (something he was extremely critical of later in life). He then trained in the Silent Illumination method at Mount Tiantong. He received instruction he recounted as follows:

“To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.”

After 4 years in China he took this teaching back to the Kyoto temple called Kenninji and wrote up a guide on how to use Zazen meditation as the core of practice. Eventually this led to his setting up his own school of Zen that became known as Soto (the rumour is that his precocious nature and disdain for the “lax” monks in Kyoto led to him being driven out on his own).

One of the Kyoto temples

One of the Kyoto temples

This form of Zen is the most well known in the West thanks to a number of high quality books written by (modern) Zen masters settled in the US. Its teaching is focussed on Zazen being the only true Zen practice:

“To practice the Way singleheartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life.”

This echoes all the way back to Bodhidharma insights. Dogen created a very large volume of writings and records of his teachings, thoughts and sessions with other monks. This record shows that while he is one of the fathers of Zen, he thought it a silly name:

“If you use the name of Zen School you are not decedents of Buddha ancestors and also have poisonous views…”

His masterwork is called “Shobogenzo” and when he finally died of illness, in 1253, his pupils carried his message forwards with gusto.

The other great form of Zen transmitted from China is Rinzai; the inheritor of the Koan school and the foundation of that most Japanese of spiritual practices; the tea ceremony.

Traditional Japanese tea

Traditional Japanese tea

Japanese monks had visited China to learn Chan from the 6th century forwards. These monks found among the Chan schools a sect founded by Linji (translated “Rinzai” in Japanese) Gigen (d.866 AD). They were the masters of the Koan method and had an emphasis on sudden awakening missing from the Tendai tradition found in Japan. Rinzai Chan was brought back from China by Myoan Yosai in 1187 who then left the Kyoto temples and founded Shofuku-ji on the island of Kyushu. Rinzai has a much more convoluted history than Shoto, but its practice and nature brought rich and powerful adherents and during the Samurai eras large, important temples were constructed in Kyoto to house Rinzai masters and become teaching centres of excellence of all Chinese arts.

A Kyoto temple

A Kyoto temple

Rinzai emphasises “Seeing one’s true nature” as the heart of their teachings as well as a further deepening of any enlightenment before it can be formally recognised. Like Shoto, Rinzai has lots of Zazen, but this is coupled with Koan practice and hard work “done with mindfulness”. It is a rough, tough form of Zen that Bodhidharma would have certainly approved of. Rinzai himself was famous for beating his students with a stick to bring forth enlightenment and his koans were known for being very difficult to parse. He also shouted a lot, using the martial style shouts now seen in Karate known as Katsuo (Kiai in Japanese). For example, it is recorded in the teachings that:

A Monk asked: “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
The Master gave a Katsuo.
The monk bowed.
The master said, “This is one who can hold his own in a debate!”

Sometimes these interactions are quite funny and speak a lot for the western view of Zen masters:

Another Monk asked: “Master, from where is the song you sing? Where does your style come from?”
The Master said, “When I was with Obaku, I questioned him three times, and three times was beaten”.
The Monk hesitated.
The master gave a Katsuo, then hit him and said, “One cannot drive a nail into an empty space!”

Amongst the influential Japanese Rinzai masters was the great Takuan Soho, most remembered thanks to his connection to famous martial artists and for the invention of a pickle that still bears his name.

True Self is the Self that existed before the division of heaven and earth and before one’s father and mother were born. This Self is the Self within me, the birds and the beasts, the grasses and the trees and all phenomena. It is exactly what is called ‘Buddha Nature”.
This Self has no shape or form, has no birth, has no death.
– Takuan Soho (The Unfettered Mind)

Most notably was his friendship with the great swordmaster Yagyu Munenori (1571–1646) whom he wrote to as a penpal and his sponsorship from the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who built for him the temple Tokai-ji in Edo (Tokyo). This deep-rooted connection to the Samurai meant that during the Tokugawa period Rinzai Zen flourished.

Both these Zen traditions survived Japan’s transition from Samurai led feudalism to a modern country during the Meiji Restoration, but the state religion changed to Shinto forcing Buddhism to adapt. However, Zen’s adoption by the Elite of Japan meant that it has had immeasurable influence on many aspects of Japanese life. From gardening to cooking, fighting arts to making tea, Zen has granted the Japanese a mindset focussed on the now and reaching into the void for creativity.

A Zen garden in Kyoto

A Zen garden in Kyoto

In modern times other forms of Buddhism have risen, most importantly of all “Pure Land” Buddhism that brings the concept of faith into the Buddhist Canon. Nevertheless, Zen remains the quintessentially Japanese form with a core of Indian Buddhism around the blended steel of Daoism and Chan. A history of thought stretching back 2500 years.



Images from my Travels or my Computer Wallpaper Collection, which you can download here: http://www.outsidecontext.com/2009/07/16/the-buddhist-wallpaper-collection/