Early Zen History















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Early Zen History

The Trip to China

Zen Spreads to Japan

Tokugawa and the Dawn of the Modern Era

Zen During the War Years

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We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
    --Siddhartha Gautama

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 refrain:

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 Koan.