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The History Of Zen Buddhism

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Zen Buddhism traces its beginnings directly back to Sakyamuni, the leader of the Buddhist religion. The Buddha realized that even if we have everything we desire, we are still unhappy. This is because true happiness does not depend on what we have, but on what we are. The core ideal of Zen Buddhism is the endeavor of comprehending the meaning of life, without being deluded by logical thought or language. Zen helps to look inside each individual to find enlightenment. We do not need to look outside for enlightenment, we must find the solutions to our questions in ourselves. Individuals gain knowledge of the truth by philosophy or rational thought, nor by contemplating sacred texts. The initial step is to control our minds through contemplation and other methods using mind and body.

Zen Buddhism was conveyed to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the sixth century CE, where it was renamed Ch’an. Zen originated in China as a meditation school of Mahayana Buddhism and it is viewed as a blend of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Zen only showed up after a fairly extensive time of development in Chinese Buddhism. Transplanting Buddhism from India into the way of life of China is considered a very significant event in the history of religions. Even before Zen Buddhism was introduced in China, meditation has been prominent in Buddhism. The early Buddhist monks to touch base in China did not only bring sacred pictures and books but also the practice of meditation.

Bodhidharma is said to have come from a Braham family in southern India and might have had royal blood. After a long journey he reached South China, where he had an encounter with Emperor Wu, the founder of the Liang dynasty. In this encounter he pointed to the uselessness of building Buddhist temples and reciting sutras. He then remained seated for nine years in meditation before the wall of a monastery until his legs withered away. He did this because his purpose was fixed upon the teachings, he would quiet his mind in deep concentration. He is known as somebody who spread his knowledge, and he would repeat one stanza that covered his teachings and ideas of Zen Buddhism. (Dumoulin, p. 196)

‘A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not founded upon words and letters;

By pointing directly to [one’s mind]

It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain


This stanza, as I mentioned before, is an important statement and teaching. The lines speak of a spiritual transmission. It is fundamental in Zen Buddhism to reach that insight enlightenment that Buddha talks about. The spiritual transmission between Sakyamuni and his disciple, established the Zen patriarch along with the patriarchate, Bodhidharma brought, what he called “the seal of the Buddha mind”.

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These teachings began to spread throughout China, and new members began to appear. Daman Hongren and Yuquan Shenxiu were instrumental in the spread of Buddhism because they started the first Ch’an institution in Chinese history, named the East Mountain School. As it grew, like every other ideology, different schools started to appear. The most important of these schools that surged through the growth was the Hongzhou school, this school is viewed as the original expression of Ch’an. It emphasized personal insight, and it rejected positive statements. This school was slowly replaced by local ideas and traditions. The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution would lead to the disappearance of most schools. The only one that survived and took the leading role was the Hongzhou school.

Ch’an Buddhism was finally combined into one, koans were established for individual study and meditation. According to Merriam Webster dictionary a Koans is a story, exchange, question, or statement which is utilized in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt”. It became for a while, the largest ideology of Chinese Buddhism and is considered to have many ties to the imperial government. They became highly organized and even made a system for temple rank and administration.

During the 19th and 20th century, Ch’an began to come back again with a more activist ideology. They currently promote social activism to address certain issues we have in our societies like poverty, social injustice and even some political movements. They promote modern science and scholarship, including the utilization of some scientific techniques to be able to study the historical background of Ch’an. This is why it was given the name of Humanistic Buddhism.

Zen Buddhism spread to American and Philip Kapleau is considered one of the founding fathers. His teachings became extremely important, he wanted to bridge the gap between theory and practice. He focused a lot of his attention in what he considered the three pillars of Zen. The three pillars of Zen are teaching, practice and enlightenment. The teaching section of Zen is covered by twelve different lectures, which focus on different ideas. He begins by focusing on the theory of zazen, which is, a meditative discipline. Buddhist sacred writings, Buddhist teaching and Buddhist philosophy are scholarly formulations of zazen, and zazen itself is the practical demonstration.

People must go back to the original perfection, to see through the bogus image of ourselves as incomplete and sinful, and to wake up to our natural virtue and wholeness. The best methods by which to achieve this is though zazen. We attain full awakening through zazen. The moment of realization or enlightenment occurs when we understand and appreciate the importance of self-nature. This leads to a life with inner peace and dignity as well as a life free from perplexity and disquiet. We are in harmony with our environment.

Once we understand the basic idea of zazen, we must go deeper into how to practice to be able to reach enlightenment. To practice zazen, you must find a quiet room, lay out a soft mat or pad and place a small circular cushion. One should preferably not wear pants like jeans nor socks, these could intervene in your practice and position. The best position to practice is the full-lotus posture. To sit in this position, you place the foot of the right leg over the thigh on the left and the foot of the left leg over the thigh of the right. At the point where the body is stationary, thoughts are not blended into activity by physical movements and the mind is more effectively calm. Next rest the right hand in the lap, palm upward, and place the left hand, palm upward, on top of the right palm. Lightly touch the tips of the thumbs to each other so that a flattened circle is formed by the palms and thumbs. (Dumoulin, 235) Once the posture has been established, the next phase is the concentration of the mind. The most effortless technique for concentration is by tallying incoming and outcoming breaths. The best time for zazen is either every morning, before breakfast or at night before going to bed.

When discussing Zen Buddhism, it is essential to mention the five varieties of Zen. The first of these sorts we call bompu, or ‘ordinary’. Bompu Zen, being free from any logical or religious substance, is for anyone and everyone. It is a Zen practice absolutely in the conviction that it can improve health generally. Through the act of bompu Zen it is conceivable to figure out how to focus and accomplish control of your mind. Gedo, is the name of the second variety of Zen. Gedo literally means “an outside way”, this means that it does not use Buddhist teachings but other scriptures and ideals of Zen. Here we have a Zen identified with religion and rationality yet not a Buddhist Zen. Gedo Zen is regularly practiced so as to develop different supranormal forces or aptitudes, or to ace certain arts past the scope of the conventional individual. This is the vehicle that is to take you starting with one perspective then onto the next. This little vehicle is intended to suit just an individual. This variety of Zen is Buddhist but it does not take into account the teaching of enlightenment as a goal of Zen. The fourth classification is called daijo, great vehicle Zen, and this is genuine Buddhist Zen for its focal intention is seeing into your essential nature and realizing the way in your daily life. The practice of daijo Zen should not only lead to enlightenment but to a higher awakening, the knowledge of true-nature and discovering yours. Saijojo Zen, the remainder of the five, is the most noteworthy vehicle, the culmination and crown of Buddhist Zen. This Zen was practiced by every one of the Buddhas of the past and is the statement of Absolute Life, life in its most flawless form.

As for the practice of zazen there is three things that must be discussed; the aims of zazen, the essentials and the aspirations of the people who practice zazen. The practice of zazen has three main aims; (1) improvement of the power of concentration (joriki), (2) satori-awakening (kensho-godo), and (3) actualization of the Supreme Way in our daily lives (mujodo no taigen). (Dumoulin, p.305) Joriki, the first one of this aims is strength that you find when your mind is in place and as sharp as it can be through concentration. This is the capacity to concentrate in the typical sense of the word. Once you are able to concentrate to your fullest and your mind is at peace you will be able to evaluate your life and take more action. The second aim is to find your true meaning in life while being able to take into account those people and things around you. The last of the three goals is mujodo no taigen, this means that through your life and through your daily life you should be able to reach the completion of the Supreme Way. The practice of Buddhist Zen should grasp all three of these goals.

To practice zazen there are three essentials. The first essential is strong faith (daishinkon). The second quality is a feeling of string doubt (daigidan). It is uncertainty with respect to why the world and the humankind is so defective, loaded with misery and anxiety, when deep faith says the opposite. From the sentiment of uncertainty there is a third essential, strong determination. It is an overwhelming determination to disperse this idea of uncertainty. With respect to the general population who practice zazen, each have their individual aspirations. There are five dimension of aspiration. The first level involves neither faith in Zen Buddhism nor comprehension of it. One simply to find out about it and chooses to attempt it, like myself. The second division of aspiration is a level which goes no more profound than the longing to do zazen so as to improve physical and emotional well-being. At the third dimension there are individuals who need to build their physical and psychological well-being and pursue the path of Buddha. Lastly, the fourth level includes those resolved to understand their true-self.

As we can see Zen Buddhism is somewhat complex and yet extremely simple at the same time. It is a practice that has been alive for a long time and that has influenced many people around the world. No matter what you believe in, even those who do not believe in Buddhism can still practice zazen.

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