A Brief History of Zen Buddhism


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

Zen Links

The claim of Zen followers that they are transmitting
the essence of Buddhism is based on their belief that
Zen takes hold of the enlivening spirit of the Buddha,
stripped of all its historical and doctrinal garments.

    --D.T. Suzuki

Zen Buddhism is embedded in virtually every aspect of modern Japanese life, affecting art, poetry, and, of course, religion. While the impact of Zen in these areas is fairly obvious, it has become much more than an engine of creativity or acculturement. Zen has dramatically impacted the course of Japanese culture since its arrival in the twelfth century C.E. While this site is dedicated to exploring the history of Zen and its impact on Japan, it is worth explaining something of what Zen is, both as a religion and philosophy.

Zen is the child of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoist beliefs. In the words of D.T. Suzuki, it is "Discipline in enlightenment." The whole goal of Zen is to achieve Enlightenment; the acquisition of a wholly new perspective, unencumbered by our previous misconceptions, biases, and prejudices. It is an intuitive way of looking into things as opposed to the more analytical methods typically used in the West. While Enlightenment (called annuttara-samyak-sambodhi in India, wu in China, and satori in Japan) is the central theme of all Buddhist schools, Zen is unique in its single-minded focus upon this goal. Without satori there is no Zen. It should also be noted that Zen is of the "Sudden Enlightenment" school of thought as opposed to "Gradual Enlightenment." A full discussion of the two schools and their long running dispute is beyond the scope of this web site, but an excellent comparison can be found here.

As an intuitive way of looking at the world, Zen demands that adherents look concretely at the world and not rest their world view upon preconceived assumptions or assertions. All reality is perceived and therefore subject to human delusion. Words, in particular, are mutable, changing, all too often misleading, contributing to the "dualistic" logic that man is taught to think in from birth. It is this belief in duality that breeds a false perception of the world, that there is a "you" and an "I," and that somehow we are both different and completely distinct from one another. A Zen seeker attempts to transcend an understanding of affirmation or negation, of 'to be' and 'not to be.' Hence the famous refrain of "becoming one with the universe." The goal is not annihilation, however, nor is it to lose all sense of identity. Instead, it is to become aware, to "awaken" to the dualty in our perspective and to understand that you make your own perception, and thus your own reality. "You and I" remain "You and I," yet we are also a part of one another, and therefore "one and the same." The term interdependance has been coined to describe this concept, denoting that each of us is both independant and yet not. This concept was described in the Katha-Upanishad: "As rain water that has fallen on a mountain ridge runs down all sides, thus does he who sees a difference between qualities run after them on both sides. As pure water poured into pure water remains the same, O Gautama, is the self of a thinker who knows."
As can be easily surmised, Zen is an experiential way of living--and one which cannot be simply learned from a book or by study. Enlightenment cannot be "taught," it must be experienced, and thus all the words in the world can never bring one to a proper understanding. The Zen masters are fond of saying, "Examine the living words and not the dead ones." This is not to say that the traditional Buddhist sutras have no value, far from it. Rather, Zen points to self reliance and self understanding. If Enlightenment can only be achieved by the individual (and Zen theology states that this is so), then the seeker must "not rely on others, nor on the reading of the sutras and sastras." You must be your your own lamp. You cannot rely on the light of others.
It is the belief that Enlightenment can only be experienced and thus cannot be "learned" in anything other than an experiential manner that causes Zen masters to focus on "direct seeing." Zen masters are fond of using "illogic" in order to break the train of analytic logic that human beings engage in, and this is the reason for the infamous and seemingly nonsensical questions that pervade Zen stories and teachings. "What is the sound of one hand clapping," "What was your face before you were born," and "After all things are reduced to oneness, where would the one be reduced?" are just a few examples of koans, paradoxical riddles that are designed to break the train of traditional dualistic thought and shock the mind into wakefulness.
A mind that is Enlightened is living in the moment, aware at every instance. A master was once once asked, "Do you ever make any effort to get disciplined in the truth?"
"Yes, I do," he replied.
"How do you exercise yourself?"
"When I am hungry, I eat; when tired, I sleep."
"This is what everybody does! Can they be said to be exercising themselves in the same way you do?"
"No," replied the master.
"Why not"
"Because when they eat they do not eat, but are thinking of other things, thereby allowing themselves to be disturbed; when they sleep they do not sleep, but dream of a thousand and one things. This is why they are not like myself."

As can be seen, an awakened mind is one well focused. The Enlightened One sees the world simply, but not simplistically, finding joy in the most mundane of tasks, in the very essentials of life. Complexity for the sheer sake of being complex is to be avoided. A Zen adherent lives a relatively simple life, unencumbered by possessions. Simplicity is prized, in part because it avoids excess, and in part because it provides the clearest vision of reality. This view of life is pervasive in Japanese culture, as illustrated by the brevity and conciseness of the Haiku poem, the simple elegance of the sumiye painting, or the beautiful emptiness that is a Zen garden.