For over 2,500 years, in every form of Buddhism, you formally become a Buddhist by stating, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.” Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are therefore known collectively as the Three Refuges, Three Treasures, Three Jewels, or the Triple Gem.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Three Treasures in the Time of the Buddha [1:26]
The Meaning of “Refuge” [3:45]
Refuge Does Not Mean Blind Faith [6:28]
Why We Need Refuge [11:00]
Refuge in the Buddha [13:08]
Refuge in the Dharma [17:57]
Refuge in the Sangha [20:57]
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha at Different Levels of Meaning [26.02]
The Three Treasures in the Time of the Buddha
Throughout the Pali Canon, a source of the oldest extant Buddhist teachings first written down over 2,000 years ago, students of Shakyamuni Buddha proclaim their intention to follow his teachings by saying out loud that they take refuge in the Three Treasures. Here’s one example from the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65):
[This is after Shakyamuni Buddha, who is referred to here as “lord” and as “Blessed One,” gives a teaching to the Kalama clan. They respond:] “Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May the Blessed One remember us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.” “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013
In a way, “taking refuge” for these first Buddhists was simpler than it was for subsequent generations. They were stating that they were intending to follow a particular person – Shakyamuni Buddha, who discovered a path to awakening, liberation, and peace of mind. They were impressed by what he said and how he acted, so they were going to listen to him and ask him questions. They were going to try following his guidance to see if it allowed them to realize and manifest what he had realized and manifested.
By extension, then, they were also going to trust the teachings he gave, which in Pali are known as the “Dhamma” (in Sanskrit and other languages, this is “Dharma”).
The people who were seen as the most learned and practiced in the Dhamma were the Buddha’s monastic disciples, who were (ideally) leading exemplary lives and were qualified to teach the Buddha’s path of practice to others. Buddha’s community of monks and nuns was called the “Sangha.” Thus, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha were pretty specific when Shakyamuni Buddha was alive.
The Meaning of “Refuge”
What did it mean when people said they were going to the three treasures “for refuge?”
Here’s a passage from the Dhammapada, one of the most ancient collections of teachings attributed toShakyamuni Buddha. (These are verses 188-192):
“They go to many a refuge,
to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That’s not the secure refuge,
not the supreme refuge,
that’s not the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.
But when, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Sangha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths —
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.”
“Buddhavagga: Awakened” (Dhp XIV), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013
The idea behind refuge is that the world can be a tough place, particularly if you’re working on spiritual practice. If you want to awaken, face delusion, let go of attachments, get past your obstructions, become more wise and compassionate, etc. There are a lot of temptations, distractions, practical worries, and, generally speaking, not a lot of understanding or peer support for your efforts.
But – this isn’t just about your external circumstances. The main point of the Buddha’s teaching is that your experience of life – whether it is relatively peaceful and unselfish, or whether it is miserable and destructive – depends largely on the state of your own mind and heart.
The real dangers – the things that threaten your happiness no matter what your external circumstances – are greed, hate, and delusion (a.k.a. craving, aversion, hatred) and all the problems that flow from them (pride, envy, anger, hypocrisy, dishonesty, stinginess, complacency, etc.). The Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha can help protect you from these internal dangers, which are seen by Buddhists as being even more significant than external ones, at least most of the time.
Refuge Does Not Mean Blind Faith
When you hear “take refuge” in the three treasures, you may be inclined to think it means a Buddhist places blind faith in Buddhist teachers, or that we hold Buddhist teachings in a dogmatic way, but Shakyamuni Buddha himself actually counseled against that kind of blind faith, and against dogmatism.
An often-cited example of this aspect of Buddha’s teaching comes from the same scripture I cited earlier, the Kalama Sutta (forgive me as a read this passage – it’s little long because it was passed down through oral tradition, but it gives you a good sense of the flavor of the original Buddhist teachings… remember “the Blessed One” refers to Shakyamuni Buddha):
As they sat there, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One, “Lord, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other brahmans & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”
[The Blessed One replied] “…Kalamas: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them…’
“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”
So the Buddha tells the Kalamas to verify things for themselves, and to believe only when they know for themselves the results of a particular teaching or practice. He even tells them not to believe just because their teacher says it! The Kalamas know the difference between harm and suffering on the one hand, and welfare and happiness on the other. The Buddha encourages them to trust their own experience in deciding whether someone is a legitimate spiritual teacher, or whether a particular teaching is beneficial.
The Buddha also emphasized that after his death, his followers should take refuge in his teachings, and that they no longer needed him. According to the Pali Canon’s “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), when the Buddha was 80 years old and dying, one of his foremost disciples, Ananda, was upset and wondering what the Buddha’s followers were going to do once he was gone. The Buddha replied:
“…Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”
“Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013
The Dhamma is the teachings of the Buddha, which clearly include verifying things through your own direct experience. So taking refuge is not about blind faith or dogmatism, and it’s not about surrendering our will to, or seeking something from, a guru or a revered figure in the past. It’s not about surrendering our intelligence or personal responsibility.
Why We Need Refuge
And yet… we still need refuge, according to Buddhism. I’ll say more about the value of taking refuge in the Sangha later, when I talk specifically about that refuge, but this passage from Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, touches on the importance of refuge: He says,
“Sangha is the fourfold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, as well as the other elements that support our practice… In my country, we say that when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowlands, he will be caught by humans and killed. When a practitioner leaves her Sangha, she may abandon her practice and ‘die’ as a practitioner. Practicing with a Sangha is essential.”
The basic idea behind taking refuge in the Three Treasures is that it can be hard to practice. Let’s say your aspiration is something along the lines of developing greater awareness, wisdom, compassion, selflessness, appreciation for your life, and freedom from afflictive emotions. To work on this aspiration is going to take time, diligence, and effort. You’re going to have to be willing to face your delusions and give things up, and to try new ways of being and perceiving. In the midst of such practice, it’s hard not to get waylaid by doubt, discouragement, distractions, laziness, confusion, and misunderstanding of the teachings. You can also be foiled by your own internal fears and agendas of which you may not even be aware.
Going it on our own may be much better than not practicing and studying at all, but according to Buddhism we’re unlikely to achieve our full spiritual potential without taking refuge in the Three Treasures.
Refuge in the Buddha
Now to unpack the concepts of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha a little, which might make “taking refuge” make more sense. You’ll notice that the Three Treasures have many different levels of meaning, from the concrete to the profound.
Starting with the Buddha: Obviously, once the historical Shakyamuni Buddha is dead – what do we do? Is refuge about faith that he lived? For some people, this may indeed be the case. Many Buddhists find it very inspiring to think that someone, at least one person, was completely and totally enlightened. However, refuge does not necessarily have anything to do with the historical existence of Shakyamuni Buddha, or about believing that he – or anyone else – achieved a rarefied state of perfect Enlightenment that’s beyond the imagining of most of us. After all, the existence and level of insight of Shakyamuni is not something we can verify for ourselves (as the Dharma instructs!).
Refuge is about faith that Buddhahood – or at least some significant level of awakening – is possible. That there have been Buddhas – or people at least approaching the liberated, awakened state of Buddhahood – in the past, or there might be some alive even now.
What does it mean to be “enlightened” or “awakened?” These terms may sound rather grand or esoteric, but the Buddhist concept of enlightenment is very similar to the ideal of the saint or sage in many other spiritual traditions:
- Free from self-centeredness; self-transcendence; awareness of – and living in harmony with – the truth that all beings are interconnected; free from what Buddhism calls obsession with “I, me and mine”
- Moral – taking responsibility for one’s own behavior, recognizing the fact that actions have consequences and seeking to bring about benefit instead of harm
- Generous, compassionate, patient
- Possessed of equanimity – having a larger perspective, insight into the nature of life that allows one to be less at the whim of afflictive emotions like anger, fear, envy, etc.
In Buddhism, the idea is that these ideals are not just describing special people who by nature were especially wise or saintly. Through spiritual practice any of us can approach – and eventually attain – a way of being that’s much more “enlightened.” (Even if we don’t know if we’ll ever attain perfection, in a way it doesn’t matter, because we know we can improve, at least a little.)
When we take refuge in “Buddha” we’re really taking refuge in – relying on – this potentiality within ourselves. Ideally refuge goes beyond simply cultivating faith in it, although faith helps (and interacting with people we feel embody this ideal better than we do can help inspire faith). Zen and many other forms of Buddhism encourage you to work toward a direct experience of your own buddha-like nature, and your own natural interest in being selfless, responsible, compassionate, and at peace.
Typically, in Buddhism, refuge in Buddha also means taking refuge in teachers – that is, people who seem wiser and more compassionate than you happen to be at the moment. Sometimes such teachers communicate with us through writing… so we may be able to take refuge in a teacher we’ve never even met. Also, someone doesn’t have to be a perfectly realized, enlightened “Buddha” in order to teach us something. If we turn toward wisdom wherever we find it, we may end up learning from a neighbor, or child, or from nature.
Refuge in the Dharma
Moving on to the refuge of Dharma: Note that there are different uses and meanings of the word “dharma” before/outside of/and within Buddhism, including “right way of living” (in Hinduism) and “phenomena” in Buddhism (generally spelled with a small “d”). In Buddhism, Dharma with a capital D, in the most literal sense, refers to Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, and to the teachings of his disciples. Over the centuries, Dharma came to refer to all kinds of Buddhist teachings, judged on whether they relieve suffering and bring welfare and happiness, as the Buddha said to the Kalamas, and to some extent also whether they were consistent with certain foundational Buddhist teachings like impermanence, no-self, and karma (more about these concepts in future episodes).
At a deeper level, though, Dharma is about is about a deeper truth – an underlying Truth or pattern in the universe, kind of like the Tao. This is the kind of truth that’s not dependent on a particular religion or set of teachings. The Dharma is the truth of interdependence; the benefit of compassion and the fact that selfishness leads to suffering even for the one being selfish; that our action have consequences, visible and invisible; that there are forces at play in the universe much larger than our own individual wills and concern; that phenomena tend to fall into certain patterns, and we are far from a random collection of elements spewed out of the Big Bang.
The premise of Buddhism is that we don’t need an external authority to tell us what is True. We instinctively, intuitively know the different between suffering and happiness, just like a seed knows the difference between up and down when it sprouts. In general, actions out of accord with the deeper Truths of existence cause suffering, while actions in accord bring peace and happiness. Of course, this is over the long term. We can fool ourselves in the short term, when we let greed, hate, and delusion control us (this is what practice is for).
Taking refuge in the Dharma, then, is relying on the Buddhist teachings to guide you, but even more importantly it is relying on your own ability to recognize Truth. We have to be willing to look carefully, and question ourselves – so in a way this isn’t about taking refuge in a bunch of teachings outside yourself, it’s a vow search for the truth within your own experience.
Refuge in the Sangha
That brings us to the treasure of Sangha. As the Thich Nhat Hanh quote I read earlier suggests, Buddhists think Sangha is essential.
Originally, in the Pali Canon, the term Sangha was used in two ways, according to Thanisaaro Bhikku (“Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013). The “conventional” use of the term referred to Shakyamuni Buddha’s ordained disciples (monks and nuns). The “ideal” use of the term referred to any of the Buddha’s students, lay or ordained, who had attained a certain level of awakening. This meant the two definitions overlapped but were different; there might be ordained disciples who weren’t yet awakened, and non-ordained disciples who were.
In the Pali Canon the Buddha also referred, however, to the “four-fold assembly,” of ordained men, ordained women, lay men, and lay women. Over time, particularly in Mahayana traditions, the term “Sangha” came to be applied to the four-fold assembly.
At the most literal level for us, in Zen – especially for modern practitioners – the term “Sangha” refers to the community of people, lay and ordained, who study and practice Buddhism together. The Sangha is the people with whom we share spiritual aspirations, and with whom we work to understand and manifest the teachings and practices of Buddhism.
When I first encountered Zen Buddhism, Buddha and Dharma made sense, but I wondered why Sangha was necessary. Did I really need other people in order to meditate and study the Dharma? In time I came to appreciate Sangha deeply, although no group of people is ever perfect! With Sangha you don’t have to explain why you spend your vacations in silent meditation retreats staring at walls. You don’t have to convince fellow Sangha members that lying and cheating is a bad idea. You generally don’t have to ask them to value silence. At least you don’t have to ask twice. For the most part you can count on Sangha members to take responsibility for their own actions and reactions.
Such community creates an environment in which we can relax – in which we see practice modeled, get inspired and challenged to greater aspirations, feel safe enough to explore vulnerability as we engage the practice deeply. Ideally anyway. When Sangha doesn’t work this way, then we get to learn from our efforts to heal and take care of Sangha, because a harmonious Sangha doesn’t stay that way without some care and attention.
I like to think the treasure of Sangha is an acknowledgement of the fact that we are social animals. In part, we come to know who we are through our relationships with others. People serve as support, teachers, friends, and mirrors (helping us see our own behaviors and tendencies). Buddhists also fully admit people are also training opportunities – which means, essentially, that people tend to bug one another. A famous Zen analogy compares a bunch of people training together in a Sangha as sharp rocks bring thrown against one another in a rock tumbler: Eventually, all the rocks get polished by smashing into one another!
Even if we feel we don’t need other people in order to awaken, we definitely need other people to test our realization. In Buddhism it is said, “It’s easy to be enlightened in a remote cave.” You can realize all kinds of profound things about the nature of self and the universe in your meditation and study, but how does that realization hold up when you’re back in traffic? How does it hold up when you’re with your family of origin, or with your siblings, or at work? If your “spiritual awakening” doesn’t manifest as greater compassion, generosity, patience, etc. in real life, it isn’t much good. We test ourselves within our relationships – and some of the easiest relationships to start practicing with are our Sangha relationships, where at least in theory we share common aspirations and a language to describe our practice.
At an even deeper level, however, all living beings are part of our Sangha. Taking refuge in Sangha in this way is about waking up to and taking refuge in your interdependence with all life.
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha at Different Levels of Meaning
To return to the Three Treasures taken together: There’s a beautiful description of how the Three Treasures have many different levels of meaning in the version of the Soto Zen scripture the “Kyojukaimon” that is transmitted in my Zen lineage. (The Kyojukaimon includes the Zen moral precepts, which someone promises to follow when they formally become a Buddhist). Anyway, here it is:
“We take refuge in the buddha as our true teacher; we take refuge in the dharma as the medicine for all suffering; we take refuge in the sangha as its members are wise and compassionate.
In the three treasures there are three merits. The first is the true source of the three treasures; the second is their presence in the past, the foundation of our tradition; the third is their presence at the present time.
At the source: the highest truth is called the buddha treasure; immaculacy is called the dharma treasure; harmony is called the sangha treasure.
In the past: those who realized the truth completely are called the buddha treasure; the truth realized is called the dharma treasure; those who have transmitted this dharma are called the sangha treasure.
In the present: those who teach devas and humans in the sky and in the world are called the buddha treasure; that which appears in the world and in the scriptures, becoming good for others, is called the dharma treasure; they who release their suffering and embrace all beings are called the sangha treasure.”
To wrap things up, I’ll summarize the reasons modern Buddhists take refuge in the three treasures, interpreting each treasure at two different levels:
You need teachers – real human beings who are further along the path of practice than you are, who share their wisdom with you through their writings and teachings, or in person;
You need, ultimately, to take refuge in your own internal teacher – your own intuitive wisdom – and have faith in your ability to change, and to become more selfless and compassionate;
You need teachings – most of us wouldn’t have been able to forge an effective spiritual path all by ourselves; the teachings of Buddhism and other great spiritual traditions are from the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations, thousands of people;
You need to learn how to recognize Truth, trust yourself, and take refuge in Truth – that is, be willing to face the Truth and then act in accordance with it as best you can;
You need other people – social support, the context of community, insight into your blind spots, challenge;
You need to transcend self and realize your interdependence with all beings – or even, all Being.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
It All Begins with the “Awakening” of Siddhartha Gautama [2:40]
What the Buddha Awakened To [5:40]
Buddhists Since the Buddha [8:58]
Emergence of the Zen (Chan) School of Buddhism [11:40]
Zen Versus Other Kinds of Buddhism [13:45]
Five Things That Make Zen Zen [17:25]
Zen is a type of Buddhism, which is a 2,500-year-old tradition. When and how did Zen Buddhism arise, and what is unique about it?
It All Begins with the “Awakening” of Siddhartha Gautama
Over 2500 years ago in India, somewhere around 500 BCE, a man named Siddhartha Gautama was born. We don’t have much hard evidence about who he was or the kind of life he lived, but he later became very famous so we have all kinds of stories – myths, if you will – about him and the things he did. According to the traditional stories, he belonged to the warrior caste and his father was a wealthy ruler.
Despite growing up in luxury, Siddhartha was dissatisfied with life. Even though he was young, healthy, and fortunate, he noticed the suffering of others – in particular those suffering from old age, illness, and death – and realized that everyone, even he, would eventually experience those kinds of things. Basically, he got a strong case of existential angst: What does it all mean? What is it all for? Are we just doomed to enjoy things for a little while, but then eventually lose everything? Isn’t there something we can do besides just wait for the ax to fall?
Obsessed with these kinds of questions, Siddhartha took the radical step of running away from home. OK, he was a grown man by the time he did it, but his father wanted him to stick around and take over as the local ruler. Instead, Siddhartha followed a marginalized and yet somewhat traditional path for that time in India: that of a homeless, ascetic spiritual seeker who lived in the forests, survived on alms, and devoted himself full-time to practices meant to bring about spiritual perfection, insight, or liberation. Siddhartha lived this kind of life for six years, and according to the stories he was one of the most devoted and ascetic of them all, mastering several different kinds of practices and starving himself until he looked like a skeleton. Still, he didn’t find the answers he was looking for.
Eventually he remembered a simple kind of meditation he had spontaneously entered as a child, and decided to give up the ascetic practices in favor of something he called “the middle way” between asceticism and indulgence. He then experienced a great awakening, which gave him insight into human suffering and how to end it. Because of this experience, Siddhartha came to be known as the “Buddha” – Buddha meaning “awakened one.” Specifically, he was called Shakyamuni Buddha – Shakyamuni meaning “sage of the Sakya clan.” (Click here for a full story of the Buddha’s life.)
What the Buddha Awakened To
Now, there are many different ways to describe what the Buddha realized – and many of the episodes in this podcast will be devoted to unpacking that realization and what the Buddha subsequently taught to others – but I like to phrase the essence it like this: your experience of life depends largely on the state of your mind. This was contrary to the teachings of most of the spiritual traditions of his time, which said that your experience – whether it was pleasant or miserable or somewhere in between – depended on the circumstances of your birth (such as which caste you were born into), your performance of rites and rituals in a prescribed manner in order to appease the gods and spirits, your fate, or the devotion with which you dedicated yourself to processes of purification. Instead, the Buddha’s insight essentially parsed out into three essential points:
- The effects of your actions – on yourself and on others – depended largely on your intention when you did them. For example, the effects of causing the death of another living being were very different if you did so by accident, because of perceived necessity, or in order to advance your own self-interest.
- You will inevitably feel the effects of your actions, but the nature of that experience will be very different depending on your state of mind at the time you experience them. For example, if you are full of hatred and ill-will, the experience of losing your job will be much more excruciating than if you feel deep gratitude for what you still have.
- Because your state of mind is so important both to the effects of your actions and to how you experience things, the best way to liberate yourself from the inevitable suffering life brings is to work on your own mind.
Basically, the rest of Buddhism is about how you work on your own mind. Admittedly, I’ve radically simplified basic Buddhist teachings here; to further study this first teaching of the Buddha in more detail, click in these links: Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path. (I’ll also be doing whole episodes devoted to each of these topics in the future.)
Buddhists Since the Buddha
Ever since the Buddha’s death, Buddhists have been figuring out – and arguing about – the best ways to transform your mind so you’re less likely to commit harmful actions, and you’re more likely to be compassionate and generally at peace with life. The Buddha himself recommended meditation and mindfulness – basically, two ways to see life more clearly, so you’d recognize your mind states, learn how they arise, and therefore learn how to change them. You’d also eventually see through your delusions about the way life is – the delusions that make you selfish, greedy, and fearful – and thereby be freed from them.
Over the centuries, though, people explored all kinds of practices meant to lead to the kind of liberating awakening the Buddha himself experienced: study of philosophy or scripture, devoted prayers, chanting and bowing, visualizations, elaborate rituals, and strict moral behavior. Most forms of Buddhism included some kind of meditation, but they varied widely in how that meditation was done and what the perceived goal if it was. All along, there were usually bands of practitioners outside the mainstream who devoted themselves primarily to meditation, but they didn’t organize themselves into a separate school or sect.
Fast forward to China in the 500’s and 600’s. There were many schools of Buddhism in China by then, and in the interest of royal patronage and popular support, schools needed to define what was unique about themselves. They produced scriptures, philosophical treatises, and polemical literature – that is, literature that pointed out the shortcomings of other schools and argued why a particular school or approach was the best. Some schools focused on philosophies transmitted from India; others focused on particular scriptures that they revered above all others; another taught secret rituals thought to be especially effective in transforming the mind. There was also a movement of Buddhists who advocated devotion to the Buddha Amitabha, who presided over a Pure Land where followers could go after death, and where everyone was assured of enlightenment.
Emergence of the Zen (Chan) School of Buddhism
Gradually, the Zen school emerged as a loose collection of fervent meditators strove to differentiate their path of practice from those of others. Actually, the eventual name of this school was Chan, not Zen – Chan being the Chinese word for dhyana, the Sanskrit word for meditation that was used in India. (Note that Zen is the Japanese word for Chan, so it only came into use when this school spread to Japan.)
Some Chan teachers focused on the practice of meditation to the exclusion of all other practices, while many included other Buddhist practices in their teaching but always emphasized the primacy of meditation. The Chan school came to be known as, “the transmission outside of the scriptures” – pointing out how practitioners of Chan could awaken to the same realizations as Shakyamuni Buddha without having to study and master lengthy and complicated texts or obscure philosophy. This approach appealed to many Chinese as much more egalitarian than the scholastic or scripture-based schools of Buddhism, which generally required someone to be a monk, study for many years, and be part of an exclusive system.
Eventually Chan spread to Japan, Korea (where it became known as Seon [sun/son]) and Vietnam (where it was known as Thiền [tien]). Chan was gradually spread further by Asian immigrants, and in the 20th century teachers brought Chan, Zen, Seon, and Thiền to the West, where converts from other cultural and religious backgrounds began practicing and studying them.
Zen Versus Other Kinds of Buddhism
That’s enough history for now. If you’re interested in Buddhist history and its development and spread, refer to episodes in my Buddhist History and Seminal Texts series.
How does Zen differ from other kinds of Buddhism in practice? As a Zen teacher, I get this question a lot, when people come to my Zen center because they’re generally interested in meditation, or maybe in Buddhism, but they’re new to this ancient and complex tradition.
I usually start out by telling such visitors that all forms of Buddhism are more less aiming at the same thing: the relief of suffering. I should take a moment here to clarify that in a Buddhist context “suffering” is not just physical, mental, or emotional anguish. The original Pali term, “dukkha” can be translated in many other ways, including disatisfactoriness, or unease. It’s the sense so many of us human beings have that something isn’t quite right. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Or, if things are great, we worry about how their inevitably going to change. So – all kinds of Buddhism seek to address dukkha, and help us find a way to get free from it the way Shakyamuni Buddha did.
The many different kinds of Buddhism simply differ in how they recommend relieving dukkha and finding lasting peace of mind. I mentioned earlier how different Buddhist practices and approaches evolved in China – and now imagine the same proliferation of teachings and techniques happening as Buddhism spread throughout SE Asia, Indonesia, and Tibet. Each type of Buddhism has ended up with a distinct character and flavor. To make crude generalizations, Theravadin Buddhism in SE Asia tends to be fairly rational, down to earth, and focused on the practice and attainments of monks. Tibetan Buddhism tends to be colorful, populated by many iconographic images of different buddhas (that’s right, there’s more than just Shakyamuni) and other important religious figures, and focused on using the messy aspects of human existence as fodder for spiritual transformation.
To make a crude generalization about Zen, I’d say it tends to be intuitive, poetic, filled with apparent paradox, and focused on getting each person to concentrate on their own direct experience. Oh, and of course it also involves lots of silent meditation.
Apart from the various polemical battles between sects of Buddhism throughout history as they strove to gain influence and primacy in one setting or another, for the most part different schools of Buddhism tolerate and even respect one another. As practitioners, we acknowledge the old adage “different strokes for different folks” and marvel at how a particular Buddhist teaching or practice can work like magic for one person, while the next person is completely turned off or confused by it.
Still, it’s nice when we secretly think our way is the best. Heck – that means we’ve found the right path for us, right? So I’ll finish up with five things I love about Zen – specifically, things that are fairly unique to Zen, or that I think Zen conveys especially well.
Five Things That Makes Zen Buddhism Zen
First, Zen emphasizes the original Buddhist message that your experience of life depends largely on the state of your mind to what you might call an extreme. Zen doesn’t say life can ever be free of pain – that is, physical, mental, and emotional pain when we encounter things like loss, trauma, injustice, old age, illness, and death – but we differentiate between pain and dukkha – that extra misery we add to our experience because of how we think about it. It’s actually possible to live an ordinary life, without hiding out from the tough stuff that’s bound to happen eventually, but still feel fundamentally okay with everything (because you know how to let go of the thinking that leads to dukkha). Some other Buddhist schools get a little more down on this world of inevitable change, loss, and pain – called the world of samsara – and are sometimes more escapist in flavor.
Second, and this follows from the first: samsara and nirvana – that is, the state of peace and bliss attained by a Buddha – are one and the same thing. What? How can that be? Surely when you experience misfortune or pain, that’s not peaceful and blissful! Well, according to the Zen teaching, the problem lies in how you see yourself, your life, and the rest of the world – not how these things actually are. This a profoundly optimistic approach, even if it’s difficult to get your mind around. Some Buddhist schools more or less agree with Zen, but many would adamantly deny that the world of suffering and the state attained by Buddhas are the same thing; awakened beings transcend the ordinary human state, and even then are only completely liberated when they physically die and pass entirely out of this troubled world.
Third, Zen emphasizes that what gets in the way of your seeing everything the way a Buddha does is just extra crap you’ve created in your own mind. Your natural state is that of a buddha – clear-seeing, calm, compassionate, selfless, generous, even joyful. This is good news. If you created the stuff in your mind that gets in the way, you can get rid of or change it. Essentially, the obstacles between you and a fully awakened life are an illusion. A very convincing illusion, it’s true – so Zen practice is by no means easy – but what you’re searching for is actually right in front of you and nothing substantial obstructs you from experiencing that – even your limitations, or past harmful deeds. Some other Buddhist schools present awakening as a much more gradual process: slowly but surely you need to purify your own mind and heart, develop powers of concentration, gain insights, and let go of your attachments. (Zen recommends these things as well, but not as a means to an end.)
Fourth, Zen acknowledges that there are all kinds of delusions (that is, illusory stuff you’ve created in your own mind that gets in the way of your real happiness), and that Buddhist practice can help you see through them, but it insists that there is one delusion that “rules them all.” Call it the “master delusion” which exacerbates all other delusions: The master delusion is your conviction that you have an inherently existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Basically, as human beings we have consciousness of time and are aware of the continuous nature of our lives; we realize our bodies and minds change somewhat over time, but we assume that there is some essence within us that travels through time and defines who we are. Consequently, we compose a dramatic narrative about our lives in which we play the leading role.
It would take more time than I have in one podcast episode to explain fully why this belief in an inherent self-nature is such a problem. Later I will devote at least a whole episode to it, and it’s a major recurring theme in Zen. For now, let’s just say that the life-narrative we compose based on an idea of inherent self-nature tends to make us extremely self-absorbed and worried about how “numero uno” is going to fare in the drama. Everything is impermanent and therefore impossible to hold on to, so life can often be very anxiety-producing or depressing.
Zen’s point is that we don’t exist the way we usually think we do, and if we can wake up to our true self-nature we will be liberated from a great deal of trouble. In reality we exist as a flow of causes and conditions. Only this very moment is real, although we are the result of previous causes and conditions and the choices we make will affect future causes and conditions. The narrative we compose about our life can be very useful as we navigate our daily lives – and make sure we pay our own rent and not our neighbor’s – but it is not inherently real. The narrative is a provisional gloss, open to interpretation, not the ultimate truth.
Other forms of Buddhism, in contrast, may teach that our delusion about self-nature is an important thing to see through and let go of but, as far as I know, no other school places such a priority on doing so. Other schools emphasize that there are many insights to gain, abilities to perfect, characteristics to cultivate, and attachments to let go of. Again, Zen agrees with them but teaches that if you manage to see through the delusion of inherent, independent, enduring self-nature – that is, see the “emptiness” of self – you will be forever changed, and your subsequent work will be much easier.
Fifth, the central practice of Zen Buddhism, zazen, appears to be meditation, but it’s not. In fact, one of the most important historical Zen masters, Dogen, specifically wrote, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” Wow! How do you like that? The dharma gate of joyful ease sounds pretty great, but what does Dogen really mean? It’s awfully hard to describe – it’s something you have to experience directly, and even then it’s not as easy as it sounds – but this basically means that when we sit in zazen, we are allowing ourselves to settle into our natural state. We don’t do anything special with the mind. We don’t discipline ourselves to concentrate, or change the content of our mind, or contemplate great spiritual matters. We let go of all agendas and just allow ourselves to be.
Of course, when we try to do this, we realize that we’ve forgotten how to be natural. We’ve forgotten who we really are – decades of dramatic narrative get in the way. But what’s cool is that, at a certain level, we do know how to just be in a natural way – we knew how to do it as children! At some point in your life you were able to just sit in the grass in the sunshine and hang out – without wondering about who you really were, or thinking about all the stuff you need to do in order to achieve real happiness. You were just completely content, without any notion of time. Remember how Shakyamuni Buddha tried all kinds of spiritual practices, but then finally returned to the simple kind of meditation he had spontaneously experienced as a child? That’s it! (See Episode 3: Zazen – The Central Practice of Zen for more.)
Most schools of Buddhism that include the practice of meditation teach a form a meditation – particularly to beginners – that is similar to zazen. The meditator is instructed to sit still and calm the mind by keeping their awareness focused on something very simple, such as the breath. However, in other Buddhist schools this kind of meditation is usually seen as a way to settle the mind in order to do other kinds of meditation. (One exception to this is the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which ends up sounding uncannily like Zen – as if the two independent traditions simply happened upon the same thing.) Anyway, in Zen, just sitting in zazen is seen as the practice for beginners, masters, and Buddhas alike.
I could go on about what makes Zen uniquely Zen (it’s definitely not limited to the 5 things I just described), but I should wrap up by relating Zen back to Buddhism. While Zen has its own emphases and practices, it does not deny anything that came before it. You can follow a line of teachers and teachings from the arising of Chan in 7th century China back to Indian Buddhism, and then back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself – and Zen includes all of it. A particular Zen teacher may or may not make much reference to older teachings, but the truth and relevance of those older teachings is a background assumption – in a way, they form a foundation on which Zen builds.[/DAP]