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
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.
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
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.
"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.