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?
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]
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.