What Is Zen Buddhism;5 Facts You Must Know

We are so full of noise. Our head overflows with thoughts. When we observe our minds very closely and precisely, we have to ask ourselves: What is actually going on in my head? Can’t I put my head down?

  1. What is zen
  2. Origins of Zen Mahayana
  3. Buddha and his paradox of existence
  4. Zen of the present
  5. Characteristics of Zen
  6. Meditation – zazen
  7. No me, no you …
  8. Presence – Samu and Kōan
  9. The way of Zen – an invitation
  1. What is the history of Zen like?
  2. What differences in Zen Buddhism resulted from its development?
  3. How can you describe Zen?
  4. What practices does Zen consist of?
  5. What does mediation zazen consist of?
  6. What is the goal of Zen?
  7. What does the concept of enlightenment mean?

What is zen

The word ›Zen‹ is used in abundance in Europe, like many other things, so that we find the connection Zen-x more often than the single term in relation to the Buddhist movement. We have a problem with Zen as well as with the term yoga: the latter has been more and more crippled into a kind of gymnastics in the West, while the former is somehow associated with relaxation, wellness and tranquility.

In both cases, this kind of instrumentalization does not do justice to the two long-established ways of life!

The catchphrase Zen is primarily a branch of Buddhism that became firmly established in Japan in the early 13th century. At the same time, it would be wrong to classify Zen as a Buddhist tradition, because as we shall see shortly, Zen is neither a dogmatic tradition, nor a religion, nor a philosophy.

Zen knows no gods, no mandatory scriptures, no teachings, no prophets, and no binding rules. It’s nihilistic, but not pessimistic. It would be best to describe this mysterious, intangible and very peculiar lineage of Buddhism with the following Zen saying:

We don’t find answers in Zen. We lose our questions.

Origins of Zen Mahayana

Traditional Zen, located in Japan, has gone through a long historical and geographical development, stretching over 5000 kilometers from India to Japan over an eternal period of more than 1000 years.

On this trip, the lifestyle expressed in Zen encountered different cultures and religions, all of which have contributed to the development and spread of Zen. For this reason we can approach Zen comprehensibly through the word, i.e. etymologically.

The term is originally derived from Sanskrit dhyana (or in Pali: jhana) and means something like trance or state of meditation. The word itself has a much older origin than the Zen movement in Japan, especially because the extensive expression jhana was already translated as a meditation level in Hinduism within the Vedas.

It was not until the significant influence of Chinese Taoism around 500 CE that the Sanskrit term dhyana became the Chinese word Cha’an and finally, via Korea, Japanese Zen.

The theoretical origin of Zen can therefore be casually classified where Mahayana Buddhism began to migrate more and more to northeast Asia. How exactly that happened, we don’t care here. What is important, however, is to understand what constitutes Mahayana Buddhism as the source of Zen.

The division of Buddhism – also known as schism – into the two main currents Mahayana Buddhism (large vehicle in Tibet, West China, Korea, Japan) and Theravada Buddhism (school of elders in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka ) can be compared to the Christian Reformation in terms of extent.

In comparison, the Theravadin are the thoroughly conservative current that stubbornly refers to the original sacred texts, which is why the Mahayanists split off through the addition of new sutras and the sometimes completely evolutionary interpretations of the old teachings.

Buddha and his paradox of existence

Buddha himself ensured a strengthening of ideological separation through a misleading statement that affects the whole Buddhist worldview. The paradoxical statement, namely the sentence ›Everything is (exists)‹ and then the often repeated expression ›Everything is null / nothing exists‹ [1] led to the following two completely opposite interpretations of the understanding of the world in Buddhism:

  1. Realistic Metaphysics (Theravada)
  2. Nihilistic Metaphysics (Mahayana)

What the philosophical details look like and what the terms actually mean does not have to stop us. It should only be mentioned briefly that the philosophical discipline of metaphysics tries to explain the nature of reality. In Zen, the above-mentioned schools of thought had a strong impact on the interpretation of reality and on the question of the meaning of existence.

In this context, nihilism means that one cannot establish an objective truth precisely about it, i.e. about the true nature of the world. The solution that this nihilistic conception of Mahayana proposes and that is also found as a core aspect in Zen …

… means that all attempts to interpret the world and to fathom the riddle of being necessarily fall into arbitrary demarcation and that the wise man who does not rely on being or non-being dismisses the whole question as misleading and remains silent without dispute . [2]

The essential main characteristics that we can already read off from this for the Zen movement are consequently:

  • Distrust of absolute truths
  • Distrust of language
  • Lack of words
  • Rejection of systems
  • Rejection of intellectualism
  • No need for knowledge

Zen of the present

From this list it will be easy for us to understand the following aspect: Very early in its history, Zen Buddhism distanced itself from classical Buddhism and, above all, from the sacred texts, which in Zen are viewed as a pure waste of paper, the nothing more than wipe off the dirt of the intellect  [3].

The Zen master Huineng (around 700 CE) tears up sacred sutras

However, this behavior was not always as pronounced. This attitude against the intellect and against all doctrines and systems was reinforced by the influence of Taoism, which itself only contains loose views, but which particularly emphasize quietism and repeatedly underline the limits of language.

The truly religious man has nothing to do except to continue his life as he finds it under the various circumstances of this worldly existence. He gets up quietly in the morning, dresses and goes to work. If he wishes to go, he goes; if he wishes to sit, he sits down – no desire for Buddhatum at all, not the remotest thought about it [5, p.40].

Characteristics of Zen

What really makes Zen so special cannot be precisely expressed. That shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that Zen Buddhists think little of words and don’t just do that without any reason. The reason for this rejection of language is the fact that in Zen a dimension comes to the fore that simply cannot be expressed through linguistic descriptions – there is no point in trying to explain it.

This dimension outside of all analytical representations includes in Zen:

  1. Nothing and emptiness
  2. Being nobody
  3. Silence and meditation
  4. Presence and Death

Meditation – zazen

Probably the most important insight into the practice of Zen is the form of meditation already mentioned in the name, called zazen ( sitting meditation). If you practice zazen, you practice the art of freeing yourself from rigid obsessional thinking. Any form of mental unrest is brought to a standstill because the common man’s mind is in the midst of a multitude of distractions.

One directs one’s undivided mindfulness to the present moment and finds enlightenment in it (Japanese satori ). Introspection connects the meditator with mind, body and moment, making him pour out his fogged head so that he can experience emptiness and silence.

For this reason, in Buddhism in general, the mind is always compared with a monkey, which is why the untrained mind is humorously described as a ›monkey mind‹. The analogy is nevertheless very apt: like a monkey, the mind plays and jumps from one branch to the next. As soon as he stirs up something to cling to, all of the attention is immediately drawn to it.

We usually experience this when we are forced to be quiet, which creates a hell of a storm of thoughts, a real chaos in our heads – also known as mental chatter. Inner silence and undivided attention are a real torture for the work and stress-soaked man of modern times.

When the thoughts disappear, awareness comes to life. Stop occasionally – any place, any time. Just watch and listen and be a witness – watch the world and yourself. Think nothing. Just be a witness and see what happens. When this being a witness is there, your ego ceases to exist – and so you will see, you will realize who you really are. [4]

No me, no you …

In meditation, the dualism of subject and object dissolves, which basically means nothing more than cultivating non-differentiating thinking – there is no longer an I and also no you, as well as an outside world. You see things and stop interpreting, evaluating and demanding.

Zazen is not in itself an activity to which one can assign a goal or a meaning. You never meditate for or on something, you meditate (period!). The Zen master Sawaki Kodos put this in the following way: How long do you have to practice zazen before you get any benefit? Zazen doesn’t do you any good.

I think that is what makes Zen so difficult. We are incredibly used to achieving things with a goal in mind, but in Zen you cannot achieve anything, it is precisely the non-desire, the non-achievement that is the inconceivable core of meditation.

To truly understand the self is to forget oneself; To forget oneself means: Satori
– Dogen Zenji

Presence – Samu and Kōan

The illusion that things are different and that the ego has an existence of its own, separated from the rest, should dissolve in the practice with the kōan. The best way to illustrate the nature of a koan is to simply give a few examples:

  1. What kind of sound is produced when a hand is clapped together?
  2. A long time ago a man kept a goose in a bottle. It grew and grew, and in the end it never came out of the bottle. The man didn’t want to smash the bottle or injure the goose. How can he get the goose out?
  3. A monk asked Tozan, “What is Buddha?” Tozan replied, “Three pounds of hemp”. What do you say?

The Kōans are a form of riddle based on the Rinzai school of Zen, but they cannot be solved by a very ingenious intellectual work – on the contrary. The Zen master gives the student such a paradox to check his progress in Zen. In this way he can determine whether he is clinging to his reason, logic and discriminating thinking.

In every koan there is usually a choice between an either and an or, but one of which is simply as impossible as the other. Therefore every koan reflects the immense koan of life; because for the core of Zen the problem of life lies in getting beyond the either / or, that is, beyond the opposition of yes and no, which now both obscure the truth [5].

If you master the kōans, you gradually approach the path to kenshō, which corresponds to the sudden experience of your own nature (hence a little satori, so to speak). You can read more about the background of the koan in this article .

The Samu describes a sub-area of ​​monastic life, namely meditative work, which can basically take place in every possible everyday activity, such as peeling potatoes, dusting, gardening and so on.

The mindful and in-depth activity focuses on the present moment and forgets all captivating thoughts. The feature of Zen disclosed here relates to the spontaneous element which, in contrast to activities of reason – e.g. reading scriptures – is a direct affirmation of the present.

When I read, I only collect words and hope to be wise and enlightened one day. When I think about it, I use reason to reason and hope to land on a great insight. All these actions are oriented towards the future and suppress the immediate perception of life.


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