Zen is passed on person-to-person.
This does not mean that it is useless to learn about Zen from the written word. Just that we should not confuse learning about Zen with Zen itself.
Trusting that the reader to make this distinction, we offer some answers to Zen-related questions.
What is Zen?
Zen 禅 is a Buddhist tradition which developed in China on an Indian basis, and from there spread to neighbouring countries such as Japan, Vietnam and Korea.
Zen teaches that enlightenment is possible in this life, right here, right now. Realising this enlightenment is not a matter of trying, but by replacing intention with action and presence. A good way of doing this is through seated meditation called zazen 坐禅.
Where does the name ‘Zen’ come from?
The word Zen started out as the Sanskrit word dhyana. When Buddhism was introduced into China in the early centuries CE, this Sanskrit word was borrowed, but with the modified pronunciation chan, and a new character 禅 was created for it. The pronunciation changed again on the lips of the Japanese monks who brought Buddhist tradition to Japan in the 6th-13th centuries, becoming zen. This word has since come into English as the name for one of the Buddhist traditions which emphasise seated meditation.
Who founded Zen?
The credit for founding Zen is traditionally given to Bodhidharma (470-543CE). He was an Indian monk, who tradition names as a student of Prajnatara, and 28th in lineage from the Buddha. In an early history, he is described as a teacher of the Lankavatara Sutra. In any case, he travelled (c 526CE) to China where he had a remarkable interview with Emperor.
Emperor: I’ve build many temples and monasteries. How much good karma has this given me?
Bodhidharma: None at all.
Emperor: What does Buddhism teach, then?
Bodhidharma: Great emptiness.
Emperor: Who are you?
Bodhidharma: I don’t know.
After this, Bodhidharma travelled to Shaolin, where he meditated in a cave for 9 years. There he had a number of disciples, including Huike, the second patriarch of Zen, and the first Chinese one.
Bodhidharma is also regarded as the founder of kungfu.
How are Zen and Buddhism related?
Zen is Buddhism.
Let me put that another way. Zen and Buddhism and the phrase here and now point to to the same thing: the reality of which we are part.
Let me put that yet another way. Zen tradition says that a kind of direct awareness of reality was passed down from the Buddha, through an unbroken lineage of teachers to today’s Zen masters. The term Buddhism encompasses all those who reflect the Buddha’s teaching in the present. Zen is thus a form of Buddhism.
What do people do in Zen?
When people get together for Zen, they tend to do some of the following things:
- zazen — seated meditation.
- kinhin — walking meditation.
- dokusan — a formal interview with a teacher.
- informal interactions with other members or a teacher.
- dharma talks.
What is zazen?
Zazen is seated meditation.
There are two widely known forms of zazen: koan meditation and shikantaza.
In koan meditation, the practitioner focusses on an account of a Zen interaction, usually one that took place in medieval China. Koan meditation is most frequently associated with the Rinzai school of Zen, but koans also crop up in Soto Zen. See the koan section in this FAQ for more information.
In shikantaza, the practitioner sits without an object of meditation. Shikantaza is usually associated with Soto Zen. See the shikantaza section in this FAQ for more information.
What are koans?
Koans are records of actual exchanges between teachers and their students. They are not invented paradoxical statements,as is often thought. The best known koan is probably Joshu’s Mu,which goes as follows:
A monk goes up to Joshu.
Monk: Does a dog have buddha nature?
Joshu: Mu (mu variously means no,not or different from)
Monk: Everything has buddha nature. How can a dog not have buddha nature?
Joshu: Karmic nature
This koan is frequently misinterpreted, both in translating mu 無 simply as not (which is how the Monk hears it) and in giving the final line as because it (the dog) has karmic nature. One is then confusedly juggling buddha nature and karmic nature, what they are and how they relate. It is easy to misinterpret these koans, as classical chinese is very terse, and frequently plays on words.
A re-working of the koan would go like this:
A monk goes up to Joshu.
Monk: Does a dog have buddha nature?
Joshu: JThe dog is real. Reality different from your concept of it
Monk (mishearing mu as not): But everything has buddha nature. How can a dog not have buddha nature?
Joshu: It is your nature to think like this
The Monk comes to Joshu in an unbalancedly idealistic state, and Joshu attempts to bring him back into balance.
Another famous koan goes like this:
A monk seeing Yasutan practicing zazen.
Monk: What are you thinking in the still-still state?
Yasutan: I’m thinking (shiryo) not thinking (fushiryo).
Monk: But how can you think not thinking?
Shiryo means thinking. The prefix fu- is the negation;not thinking.The prefix hi- again has a wide meaning, but in this exchange hishiryo is frequently translated as beyond thinking, so one then might acquire the peculiar notion that in zazen you should reach some special state where there is no thought, where thinking is transcended. This is a source of difficulty for practitioners, who, frustrated by the persistence of their thoughts, believe they can’t do zazen, and so give up. The tone of the koan then is often lofty and mysterious, but in fact a more accurate rendering of hishiryo is simply different from. In other words, although in zazen thoughts do not cease altogether, we aren’t pre-occupied with them. We aren’t intentionally thinking, and the state in zazen isn’t voiding the mind in the normal sense, but making real its vastness.
A good collection of koans with modern interpretations, like this one, is Gudo Nishijima’s Master Dogen’s Shinji Shobogenzo.
What is shikantaza?
It is usually rendered as just sitting, in the sense that we just sit without any intention of gain, just sitting wholeheartedly. However, a fuller meaning is something like in the moment of wholehearted sitting, there is just this sitting throughout the Universe. When we throw away our normal calculus of gain and loss, and practice fully, both the world and ourself cease to be in the old dualistic way. We become whole with the world, not at the level of thought, but at a deep, felt, intuitive level.
Why should I practice zazen?
Zazen is returning to the balanced state. Often, we take “balanced” in quite an abstract way, but it can be taken in a whole variety of ways.
For example, the neurologist James Austin says that there are two distinct areas of the brain concerned with mapping. The first is in an older area of the brain, and seems to be simple recognition:white wall, square room, bird singing.
The second, located within the cerebral cortex always positions relative to the I: I am sitting in a square room, I am facing a white wall, I hear a bird singing outside.
And we can sometimes see how this can act as a tripwire to our joy, to the free expression of the life that lives through us. And also, how when we return to the balanced state, whilst the I is not obliterated, whilst self consciousness is not extinguished, something happens. Self consciousness remains, but the too tight skin has become loose clothing.
And then sometimes: white wall, square room, bird singing.
And then, the bird can sing right into your heart.
What is mushotoku?
Kodo Sawaki said Zazen is good for nothing. Unless you fully understand that, it really is good for nothing.
This idea of mushotoku, of sitting without expectation of personal gain, is extremely problematic for us, given our general bean counting perspective. Sometimes we might think of it as disabling the petrifying gaze of the mind, freezing the swirling mass of what isn’t yet fully present, preventing something being born. In that sense enlightenment, like love, is something which can only capture us by surprise.
And also, mushotoku is an overthrowing of our usual way of seeing and being, a way that causes so much of our suffering. If we can sit like this, we can live like this, and then the present is no longer the prisoner of the future.
What is transmission?
Transmission is the accreditation by the teacher of the student. In particular it certifies that the student is authorised to teach.
Why is lineage so important in Zen?
Otherwise everything gets messy. Lineage is like a series of open doors, stretched back along the vast corridor of time.
Less obviously, it allows each generation to both remain within a tradition but to be completely themselves. For example,the Maezumi lineage (the White Plum Sangha) has a number of very strong and apparently quite different teachers. Bernie Glassman is a complete one-off (see his book Bearing Witness),John Daido Loori runs the rigorously traditional Zen Mountain Monastery, Dennis Genpo Merzel has pioneered a kind of zen group psychotherapy, Charlotte Joko Beck has dispensed with much of the traditional baggage, and so on.
Can non-Buddhists (eg. Christians) do Zen?
The short answer is yes.
Zen is about direct pointing at reality. It is not about subscribing to any particular belief system. For this reason, what your religious beliefs are, are not intrinsically important to it.
Many Christians and members of other faiths have practiced Zen. Some have sat with the GZG as regular members.
If you would like to read more, Wisdom Books has a section on Buddhism and Christianity which includes a number of books about Zen and Christianity.
What kinds of Zen are there?
Forms of Zen can be classified in a number of different ways: by school, by region of China, by country, by period, by speed.
Schools in Zen are largely matters of lineage: dharma heirs of particular masters are said to belong to a school named after the master. Soto is the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese blend Caodong of the names of two founding teachers: Caoshan Benji and Dongshan Liangjie. Rinzai is Japanese for Linji, a teacher of the 9th century.
Regions of China: Zen of the lineage stemming from 7th century teacher Datong Shenxiu is called the Northern school and that stemming from Dajian Huineng the Southern school. The Northern school went into decline after 755CE.
Countries: Zen began in China, but soon spread to Vietnam, Korea, possibly Tibet, and later Japan. In these countries Zen developed anew, and so we often distinguish Chinese Zen (or Chan) from Japanese, Vietnamese or Korean Zen.
Periods: Zen has changed over time, just like the people who have lived it, and the societies of which if forms a part. Periods of Zen in China are often labelled by the imperial dynasty, so we talk about Tang or Song Zen. In the Japanese context, periods are often named after non-imperial rulers, such as Shogun dynasties. Thus we talk about Kamakura Zen: Zen from 1192 to 1333.
Speed: from its earliest days, there has been a tension in Zen between those who claimed an instantaneous enlightenment vs those who referred to enlightenment as slower. So we sometimes hear of Sudden Enlightenment Zen vs Gradual Enlightenment. The Northern/Southern school split (see above) has on occasion in these terms. Today, some see this difference in Rinzai’s koan and kensho approach, as opposed to the less dramatic serene reflection Zen of Soto.
What kinds of Zen are found in the West?
Of the five schools of Zen, only two have any significant presence in the West; Soto and the Rinzai.
In Rinzai there is more emphasis on acheiving enlightenment. Koans are sometimes used as part of meditation practice,and the relationship between teacher and student is more intense, often comprising one to one interviews (dokusan) where the student may well be questioned on his understanding of the koan he has been given. Pure Rinzai isn’t so common in the West, but if you wanted to find it, a good place to start would probably be Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California, who could point you in the right direction. Master Maezumi had lineages in both Soto and Rinzai,and his successors teach both. You can find them at the White Plum Sangha. D.T.Suzuki was in the Rinzai tradition.
Soto is the more widespread school, both in Japan and in the West, and it is the tradition that we practice within.In Soto, rather than a conscious striving for something,the emphasis is on shikantaza, which is often translated as ‘just sitting’. Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is an excellent introduction to Soto.
What kind of Zen does the GZG practice?
We practice within the Soto tradition, emphasising shikantaza (just sitting) and mushotoku (no gaining mind).
It is a very simple practice but a very difficult one, because it strips away all our normal calculations of gain and loss. We can come to see that it is this calculating persective which is the cause of much of our suffering. Wanting to be enlightened is another form of grasping, putting more treasure in the burning house.
If practice has absolute value, life has absolute value.
Nihilism falls away.
Why do we emphasise posture so much?
We take up the posture of Buddha and we are Buddha. If this sounds absurd, it is only because we identify ourselves with our thoughts.
Body and Mind are not separate. They are two aspects of an ungraspable wholeness.
We need to sit in a stable balanced posture, preferably cross legged, our weight dropping down through our sit bones, our head balanced but not held, our spine uncompressing.
If we are physically balanced in this way, we can gradually find a state which is alert but peaceful, awake but not effortful. Habitually in our lives we alternate between exertion and collapse. Zazen enables us to find a state other than this; in our practice, in our lives.
Why do we chant in Japanese?
The chanting is mainly in Japanese because the origins of the group lie with a Japanese Master, and we simply continue his practice. It’s not a big deal. Zen is Universal, there’s nothing particularly Japanese about it. Some groups — Throssel Hole for example — chant entirely in English, and others chant in either language. There are points both ways. Chanting in English is immediately comprehensible. But, the physical sensation of chanting in English is different, and also, there are problems with translation. For instance, our main chant, the Heart Sutra (which is in Chinese kanji characters pronounced with Japanese onyomi sounds) has the line shiki soku ze ku,ku soku ze shiki, which is usually translated as form is emptiness, emptiness is form, except the word emptiness is apt to mislead (see the entry on emptiness), but there isn’t really a better word in English. So, we think the meaning is better preserved by chanting in the source language, but providing extensive explanatory material in English.
What ritual does the GZG use?
People coming to sit with us for the first time may feel there’s quite a lot of ritual. Some of us will wear the okesa or rakusu. We sit in a line facing the wall. In the middle of the room there is a buddha,some flowers and a burning stick of incense. We ring bells and hit clappers. There is quite a bit of bowing.
Why do we do this, and why is it important?
When you engage seriously with a spiritual tradition, you are always in a position of creative tension towards it. You are choosing to engage in that tradition-to sustain it and be sustained by it -, but you are also, in a sense, antagonistic towards it. And this is essential, because our aim is not replication, but authenticity. You are the vehicle for buddhism to be carried from the past to the generations yet unborn. Buddhism is not learning to play a part, but unlearning all parts: being true and being real.
But also, a tradition is not something you can just make up, putting the bits together that you like, discarding the bits you don’t. That is egotistical and shallow, and is a kind of New Age spiritual materialism. If we don’t engage with something because it isn’t pleasing to us, we can never get started.
How do I study Zen?
Zen is primarily a matter of practice, not study, so you should try and find a group with whom you can sit regularly. The Buddhist Society in London maintains a list. Once you encounter a group, trust your instincts. If it feels right for you, stick with it, otherwise try somewhere else. No one owns Zen and be suspicious of those who purport to. If there is no group nearby, try and attend sesshins (periods of intense practice, usually for at least a weekend), make contact with a teacher and sit regularly at home.
Isn’t Zen anti-intellectual?
No. Practice and study are both necessary, but practice is primary. We can’t break the mirror of the self with the head.
What books should I read to get started in Zen?
We like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, Issho Fujita’s Polishing a Tile and anything by Charlotte Joko Beck. Wisdom Books have a fantastic on-line catalogue where you can order to your heart’s content.