Early Zen History
The Trip to China
Zen Spreads to Japan
Tokugawa and the Dawn of the Modern Era
Zen During the War Years
Zen in the Modern World
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make
Siddhartha Gautama is said to have awakened in the sixth century BCE. The paucity of primary sources and
the legendary nature of the tales surrounding the Buddha's life prevent a reliable picture from being
formed, but all the stories agree that Guatama was from a wealthy family. Legend tells that Siddhartha was
intentionally sheltered from any awareness of the harshness of life, but he escaped from the walls of
his father's palace and looked out into the world. There he discovered that death and pain were a
common occurrence--the lot of every man's life. Deeply disturbed, Siddhartha determined to find a way to
release his fellow man from the burden of suffering, eventually joining the forest ascetics. After
practicing their harsh asceticism to the point of near death, he realized he would die from self-deprivation
before ever learning the secrets he desired, and therefore took food and drink again. His five followers
became disgusted with his weakness and castigated him for abandoning the ascetic ways. After his followers
left him, Siddhartha returned to pure meditation, sitting under a bodhi tree until he experienced a profound
enlightenment. The Buddha was only thirty-five years old.
While the Buddha was tempted to remain in peaceful solitude, his deep compassion for humanity caused him to
return to the larger world. He found his five followers and convinced them of the value in practicing the
"Middle Path,"--avoiding the two extremes of luxury and self-deprivation. By his death, he had gained renown
as the Enlightened One (Shakyamuni Buddha) and had many followers. It was during his famous sermon at
Benares that Shakyamuni developed the cornerstones of early Buddhism, the
Four Noble Truths and the
Noble EightFold Path. While the sources generally agree
on the more basic elements, legend has infused Buddha's story with divine intervention, mystical powers,
and supernatural abilities.
Buddhism waxed and waned in India, eventually coalescing into the mystical Mahanaya school of thought.
The primary distinction between Mahayana and its earlier relatives (such as the Hinayana school) is to be
found in the development of the Great Vehicle, in which the Bodhisattva is considered the most perfect
method of ensuring Enlightenment for all sentient beings. Mahayana is generally considered to be the
precursor to Zen, descending from the famous story of the disciple Mahakasyapa. According to Zen tradition,
the Buddha was lecturing to his disciples, who were attentively listening to every word he spoke. As the
lecture ended, Buddha held up a single flower without speaking. Among all the listeners, only Mahakasyapa
understood the direct transmission and smiled. In that moment, Mahakasyapa became the first dharma heir in
the line of succession.
After the Buddha's death, Mahakasyapa is said to have come upon two monks who were rejoicing in their
new-found freedom from the Buddha's constance advice and criticism. Upon hearing the monks speak,
Mahakasyapa gathered together all the disciples and compiled the teachings of the Buddha from the memories
of his students, particularly the near perfect memory of his disciple Ananda. For this reason, all the older
sutras begin with, "Thus have I heard."
The Bodhisattva Ideal
A Bodhisattva is an awakened being totally dedicated to the Buddhist ways. Upon awakening, some Buddhas
do not choose to move on from the cycle of death and rebirth, instead advancing through all the stages of
Enlightenment until they have achieved perfection. His enormous compassion now compels him to descend back
to earth where he provides instruction to all in the way of Enlightenment. The Bodhisattva ideal has proven
influential in the development of Buddhism as a whole, but in Zen it has had a particularly powerful
impact. Each Zen disciple begins his or her day with the vows of a Bodhisattva, constantly repeating the
However innumerable the sentient beings, I vow to save them all.
However inexhaustible the passions, I vow to extinguish them all.
However immeasurable the dharmas, I vow to master them all.
However incomparable the truth of Buddha, I vow to attain it.
Nagarjuna and the Middle Way
Zen is considered the heir of the body of deeply mystical sutras that were incomprehendable by Buddha's
contemporaries. Tradition holds that these sutras were stored in the Serpent Palace until they were
revealed by Nagarjuna, one of the first of the Bodhisattvas. It was Nagarjuna who further developed
Madhyamika, the Middle Way philosophy, in roughly the second century C.E. In both Chinese and Japanese
Zen tradition, Nagarjuna is considered the founder of Mahayana Buddhism.
It was Nagarjuna who began the use of logical paradoxes, asserting that the Middle Way was the true path,
for things are neither one nor the other, both, yet not both. This mindset would later emerge in the Zen