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Zen Buddhism 101

Zen Buddhism 101 is an online and at the temple series to help you understand Zen Buddhism and introduce you to practice. Looking at Why & Who or History and tradition, and How or what exactly do you do in Zen

History and Tradition


Zen is also known as the Mind School of Buddhism. Sakyamuni Buddha taught he was 'just a man, not a god', an ordinary person and he had found a way to overcome the difficulties of this life, through deep spiritual introspection and meditation as a way of daily life.

Zen is the continuation of this core approach to understanding ourselves as key to freedom.



Zen traces directly back to the historical founder the  Sakyamuni Buddha. He taught that the way to freedom was through meditation and self realization. 

After he died his teachings were carried on by his disciples we call Arhats, principally Mahakashyapa and Ananda and they passed down everything that became all present day Zen, all Zen masters trace back a historical lineage to Mahakashyapa and Sakyamuni Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism 

The Mahayana movement is the direct and living extension of the historical Buddha's teachings. He taught that all things are change and all things are inclusive. Mahayana means 'Great Wheel', meaning all things all people even the stones and grass are Buddhas. 


Zen Buddhism 

Was introduced into China from India by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, he was the 36th generational descendent from Sakyamuni, we also call him the first Chinese Ancestor. 

He was eventually followed by the 6th Chinese Ancestor Huineng. Huineng wrote a book called the Teaching of No-Mind. From him we can say a revolution in Chinese Zen began, which took over Indian 'blank sitting'. 

Eventually over further generations of Zen teachers we come to the great Sung dynasty master Rinzai. The Rinzai school takes its name from him. During his time 5 schools of Zen existed led by various genius teachers, today only the Rinzai and Soto schools continue, they incorporate teaching styles from each other and the other schools. Some of their disciples founded lineages in other countries, Vietnam, Korea and eventually Japan. 


Most important Zen centres in Western Countries derive from the lineage that continued in Japan. The earliest Westerners to train in Zen did so there, such as R.H.Blyth, Alan Watts, and others. Japan is a modern country and adopted Rationalism early so Japanese Zen has had the most impact in how Western people think about Zen. 


Special mention of Hakuin Ekaku should be made, he was a Rinzai Zen master in the 17-18th centuries, modern rationalist Zen derives from him and so we often also call Rinzai Zen 'Hakuin Zen'.

Zen Buddhists are not religious. 

Zen Buddhism emphasizes Za-Zen meditation and the close coaching relationship between teacher and disciple. A Zen trainee visits the temple and sits with others and visits their teacher, from whom they receive direction about their meditation and progress within themselves. 

A Zen master also gives talks called Teisho which are not exactly like sermons, they are not typically from scripture, that's called Howa, Teisho are more like practice lectures.

So in Zen Buddhism we sit Zazen, meet with the teacher, go to intensives called Sesshin which last for days of intensive sitting and inquiry. 

There are other forms of Buddhism that have meditation, but unique to Zen Buddhism is the exchange between teacher and student. Zen Buddhism has developed a very unique way for guiding ourselves with the help of a teacher. This is where Zen Koans come in.


Contrary to some imagination, Koans cannot be understood by yourself, that would be quite silly, would you do surgery on your own foot without becoming a doctor first? Zen is not a philososphy, thats a mind trap, like tastanding around talking about something, it never gets done. Koans are about breaking patterns.  


An example of this is 'Who is this?' the philosopher tries to argue there is no who, nothing substantial, but if that is true, then who is reading this? Koans are not questions with answers. You must sit with the Koan, be in your kitchen, office, car with it.


People often think in Zen we sit, do Za-zen, to empty our minds, but that is not true, Mushin means to become creative and flexible so nothing is a problem and everything is an opportunity. That is the Zen way. 


Since  everyone  is  living  an  everyday  life —why  isn’t  everybody  enlightened?  How  is  it  that  this  everyday  life  can lead  to  enlightenment?  The  Third  Ancestor  of  Zen  said  something important  regarding  this  question:  “The  way  of  enlightenment  is  not difficult, all you have to do is get rid of the discriminating mind that decides one  thing  is  good  and  another  is  bad.”  Just  get  beyond  this  way  of  thinking and  everyday  mind  is  actually  the  way  of  enlightenment.  This  is  the  Zen teaching of the transcendence of dualism.



In popular culture people think a Zen monk or nun or lay person tries to get Enlightenment, and then when they do, that's it, all is clear to them and it's like you joined with heaven somehow in your mind. After that you are in constant Samadhi. 

In actual fact Enlightenment is just the beginning, and if you are not careful it goes away, so you must mature yourself, that's when Zen really begins. 


What happens when you die

Let us all know when you get there, because we don't know. In Zen we are concerned with this life right now. Maybe your ancestors are watching you, maybe not, right now is your concern how are you living? That's the Zen mind, right now. In some schools of Buddhism and other religions they say this or that will happen to you, so you better learn to be a good person for then. Well we don't know about after, but for now it's good to try to be a good person. When you reduce your bias and attachment in this world the next will take care of its self. The same can be said for moment to moment.


Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and the rest

In the greater Buddhist tradition to which Zen belongs there are various Bodhisattvas, guiding figures that represent traits we should hope to embody, Manjushri the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Kanzeon the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Bodhisattva of Knowledge, Jizo the Bodhisattva of Children, Fudo Myoo the Guardian of Mind, and various others. 

They belong to Zen as well, but where as in other schools of Buddhism they are prayed to for protection or help, in Zen we look at them as manifestations of parts of ourselves and the world around us. 

The Heart Sutra for example says that all the universe is the Bodhisattva Kanzeon, and all parts of the world but we must experience this awakening for ourselves. 

So our attitude in Zen Buddhism is not what can we get, but how can we see and then say thank you to the universe we have such an opportunity. 


Sesshin refers to an intensive meditation retreat that is among the most important of Zen practices. During sesshin many hours of meditation - and frequent meetings with the Zen master - provide an unmatched opportunity to profoundly deepen your spiritual practice, and to emerge with a transformed understanding of your life.

If you are new to Zen practice, we recommend that you first receive basic instruction at one of our groups, or during an Intro to Zen day at the temple, before applying to attend sesshin. We also offer shorter Zen Life weekend retreats that are ideal for beginners, and will give you a taste of sesshin.




Arts and Culture have been connected to Zen for thousands of years as Moving Zen.


Be inspired by the rich tradition of Zen Buddhism, to create ideas and become more engaged fully within and outside.

At the Zendo we are encouraging a rich community of artists and we also have traditional arts 

Tea and Zen have been connected for centuries, Tea is simple in taste and symbolizes the Human spirit. And so Tea and Zen have become inseparable, 'Cha Zen Ichimi' - Tea Zen as One.





There are two types of Rinzai Zen ordination: monastic (shukke tokudo) and lay (nyudo).


The Shukke Tokudo is traditional Rinzai Zen ordination for monks. It generally requires a minimum period of residential practice at the monastery and prior to that a minimum period of sitting with us as a lay person, and includes training in teaching, ministerial and ceremonial duties.​

The Nyudo is for senior lay practitioners in our community wishing to express a fuller commitment to the Zen path while still fulfilling existing family and career obligations; nyudo ordination does not require monastic residence or the wearing of robes. (Note: neither of these is jukai, taking refuge in the Three Treasures and receiving the five lay precepts - also called zaike tokudo - which is available to almost anyone.)

Practices, How or What exactly do you do?

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