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Is Zen religion?

Or is a belief in something spiritual?

Or even ancient teachings on how to live life?

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in China during the 6th century as Chan. From China, Zen spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan. The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word dzjen, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which can be approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state.”

Zen emphasizes insight in Buddha-nature and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefits of others. As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine and favors direct understanding through zazen and interaction with an accomplished teacher. The teachings of Zen include various sources of Mahayana thought, especially Yogacara, the Tathagatagarbha Sutras and Huan, with their emphasis on Buddha-nature, totality, and the Bodhisattva-ideal. The Prajnaparamita literature and, to a lesser extent, Madhyamaka have also been influential.

The history of Chan in China can be divided in several periods. Zen as we know it today is the result of a long history, with many changes and contingent factors. Each period had different types of Zen, some of which remained influential while others vanished.  (a) The Legendary period, from Bodhidharma in the late 5th century to the An Lushan Rebellion around 765 CE, in the middle of the Tang Dynasty. Little written information is left from this period. It is the time of the Six Patriarchs, including Bodhidharma and Huiheng, and the legendary “split” between the Northern and the Southern School of Chán; (b)   The Classical period, around 950 CE. This is the time of the great masters of Chan, and the creation of the yu-lu genre, the recordings of the sayings and teachings of these great masters; and (c) The Literary period, from around 950 to 1250, which spans the era of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In this time the gongan-collections were compiled, collections of sayings and deeds by the famous masters, appended with poetry and commentary. This genre reflects the influence of literati on the development of Chan. This period idealized the previous period as the “golden age” of Chan, producing the literature in which the spontaneity of the celebrated masters was portrayed.

Four phases in the history of Chan: (1) Proto-Chan (c. 500-600) In this phase, Chan developed in multiple locations in northern China. It was based on the practice of dhyana, and is connected to the figures of Bodhidharma and Huike. Its principal text is the Two Entrances and Four Practices; attributed to Bodhidharma; (2) Early Chan (c. 600-900)  In this phase Chan took its first clear contours. Prime factions are the Northern, Southern and Oxhead Schools; (3) Middle Chan (c. 750-1000) In this phase developed the well-known Chan of the iconoclastic Zen-masters. Prime factions are the Hongzhou school and the Hubei faction; and (4) Song Dynasty Chan (c. 950-1300). In this phase Chan took its definitive shape, including the picture of the “golden age” of the Chan of the Tang-Dynasty, and the use of koans for individual study and meditation.

When Buddhism came to China from India, it was initially adapted to the Chinese culture and understanding. Buddhism was exposed to Confucianist and Taoist influences. Chan has been referred to as a “natural evolution of Buddhism under Taoist conditions.” Buddhism was first identified to be “a barbarian variant of Taoism”.

Judging from the reception by the Han of the Hinayana works and from the early commentaries, it appears that Buddhism was being perceived and digested through the medium of religious Daoism (Taoism). Buddha was seen as a foreign immortal who had achieved some form of Daoist non-death. The Buddhists’ mindfulness of the breath was regarded as an extension of Daoist breathing exercises. Taoist Te a practice termed ko-i, matching the concepts, while the emerging Chinese Buddhism had to compete with Taoism and Confucianism.  The first Buddhist recruits in China were Taoists. They developed high esteem for the newly introduced Buddhist meditational techniques, and blended them with Taoist meditation. Representatives of early Chinese Buddhism like Sengzhao and Tao Sheng were deeply influenced by the Taoist keystone works of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Against this background, especially the Taoist concept of naturalness was inherited by the early Chan disciples: they equated – to some extent – the ineffable Tao and Buddha-nature, and rather than feeling bound to the abstract “wisdom of the sutras”, emphasized Buddha-nature to be found in “everyday” human life, just as the Tao.

The actual origins of Chan may lie in ascetic practitioners of Buddhism, who found refuge in forests and mountains. Chan was repressed in China during the 1960s in the Cultural Revolution, but subsequently had been re-asserting itself on the mainland, and has a significant following in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as among Overseas Chinese.   Although it is difficult to trace when the West first became aware of Zen as a distinct form of Buddhism, the visit of a Japanese Zen monk to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 is often pointed to as an event that enhanced its profile in the Western world. It was during the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the number of Westerners, other than the descendants of Asian immigrants, pursuing a serious interest in Zen began to reach a significant level.

Zen teachings can be likened to “the finger pointing at the moon”. Zen teachings point to the moon, awakening “a realization of the un-impended interpenetration of the dharmahatu”. But the Zen-tradition also warns against taking its teachings, the pointing finger, to be this insight itself.  There are two different ways of understanding and actually practicing Zen. These two different ways are termed in Chinese pen chueh and shih-chueh respectively. The term pen chueh refers to the belief that one’s mind is from the beginning of time fully enlightened, while shih-chueh refers to the belief that at some point in time we pass from imprisonment in ignorance and delusion to a true vision of Zen realization: “Our enlightenment is timeless, yet our realization of it occurs in time.” According to this belief experiencing a moment of awakening in this life is of central importance.

Dogen, the founder of Soto in Japan, emphasized that practice and awakening cannot be separated. By practicing shikantaza, attainment and Buddhahood are already being expressed. For Dogen, zazen, or shikantaza, is the essence of Buddhist practice. Five forms of zen have been discerned: (1) Bompu Zen, aimed bodily and mental health; (2) Gedo Zen, practices like dhyana, Yoga and Christian contemplation which are akin to Zen, but not Buddhist; (3) Shojo Zen, the Hinayana, aimed at one’s own liberation; (4) Daijo Zen, the Mahayana, aimed at attaining kensho and the realization of Zen in daily life; and (5) Saijojo Zen, in which practice is enlightenment.

Central to Zen-practice is dhyana or meditation. The Zen tradition holds that in meditation practice, notions of doctrine and teachings necessitate the creation of various notions and appearances that obscure the transcendent wisdom of each being’s Buddha-nature. This process of rediscovery goes under various terms such as “introspection”, “a backward step”, “turning-about” or “turning the eye inward”.

During sitting meditation, practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or seiza postures, using the dhyana mudra. To regulate the mind, awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath or put in the energy center below the navel. Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used. This practice may simply be called sitting dhyana, which is zuochan in Chinese, and zazan in Japanese.

In the Soto school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.  Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout the “Principles of Zazen” and the “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”. In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.

Intensive group meditation may be practiced occasionally in some temples. While the daily routine may require monks to meditate for several hours each day, during the intensive period they devote themselves almost exclusively to the practice of sitting meditation. The numerous 30–50 minute long meditation periods are interleaved with short rest breaks, meals, and sometimes, short periods of work should be performed with the same mindfulness; nightly sleep is kept to seven hours or less. One distinctive aspect of Zen meditation in groups is the use of a flat wooden slat used to keep meditators focused and awake. In the Japanese language, this practice is called Sesshin.

Koan-inquiry may be practiced during sitting meditation, walking meditation, and throughout all the activities of daily life. Koan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai School, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.

A practice in many Zen monasteries and centers is a daily liturgy service. Practitioners chant major sutras such as the Heart Sutra, the Lotus Sutra (often called the “Avalokiteshvara Sutra”), the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness, the Great Compassionate Heart Dharani and other minor mantras.

The Butsudan is the altar in a monastery where offerings are made to the images of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. The same term is also used in Japanese homes for the altar where one prays to and communicates with deceased family members. As such, reciting liturgy in Zen can be seen as a means to connect with the Bodhisattvas of the past. Liturgy is often used during funerals, memorials, and other special events as means to invoke the aid of supernatural powers.

Chanting usually centers on major Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara and Manjusri.  According to Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are beings who have taken vows to remain in Samsara to help all beings achieve liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Since the Zen practitioner’s aim is to walk the Bodhisattva path, chanting can be used as a means to connect with these beings and realize this ideal within oneself.

Though in western Zen the emphasis is on Zen-meditation, and the application of Zen-teachings in daily life, Japanese Zen also serves a function in public religion. Funerals play an important role as a point of contact between the monks and the laity. Statistics published by the Soto school state that 80 percent of Soto laymen visit their temple only for reasons having to do with funerals and death, while only 17 percent visit for spiritual reasons and a mere 3 percent visit a Zen priest at a time of personal trouble or crisis.

Contrary to popular image, literature does play a role in the Zen-training. Zen is deeply rooted in the teachings and doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism. Unsui, Zen-monks, “are expected to become familiar with the classics of the Zen canon”. What the Zen tradition emphasizes is that enlightenment of the Buddha came not through conceptualization, but rather through direct insight. But direct insight has to be supported by study and understanding of the Buddhist teachings and texts. Intellectual understanding without practice is called yako-zen, wild fox Zen, but “one who has only experience without intellectual understanding is a zen temma, “Zen devil””.

The Zen-tradition developed a rich textual tradition, based on the interpretation of the Buddhist teachings and the recorded sayings of Zen-masters. Religion is not only an individual matter, but “also a collective endeavor”. Though individual experience and the iconoclastic picture of Zen are emphasized in the western world, the Zen-tradition is maintained and transferred by a high degree of institutionalization and hierarchy. In Japan, modernity has led to criticism of the formal system and the commencement of lay-oriented Zen-schools. How to organize the continuity of the Zen-tradition in the west, constraining charismatic authority and the derailment it may bring on the one hand, and maintaining the legitimacy and authority by limiting the number of authorized teachers on the other hand, is a challenge for the developing Zen-communities in the west.

Modern scientific research on the history of Zen discerns three main narratives concerning Zen, its history and its teachings: Traditional Zen Narrative, Buddhist Modernism, Historical and Cultural Criticism. An external narrative is Nondualism, which claims Zen to be a token of a universal nondualist essence of religions.

 Kathy Kiefer


One thought on “ZEN

    wrsurya said:
    August 4, 2014 at 3:22 am

    Reblogged this on wrsurya and commented:
    amazing…! it gives a light but comprehensive rendition to a generally heavy topic – thanks a lot…

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