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
BEING THIS MIND
Zen is also known as the Mind School of Buddhism.
Zen traces directly back to the historical founder the Sakyamuni Buddha. Zen is the continuation of this
core approach to understanding ourselves as key to freedom.
Zen Buddhism puts special emphasis on functioning as a person in the world around you with clarity.
Not just getting good at switching off, which is temporary and a kind of selfishness.
First people begin with Zen meditation called Zazen, literally sitting Zen, the word Zen derives through
Chinese pronunciation of the Indian word to meditate or concentrate.
First of all sitting with the question ‘who is this?’ or ‘what is this?’ Even in advanced practice this
question forms the root, we call this Genjo koan.
Next you might ask to be taught, which means more advanced practice. Otherwise it’s up to you.
You also will do periods of walking, to stretch and remind you that Zen is life, and not just sitting on your
cushion ‘thinking about things’. You will also do chanting of the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist teaching that
emphasizes the connection of all things. There are also etiquettes such as bowing, putting your hands
together to steady your mind. Listening to talks, having tea.
You might think, ‘well I just want to meditate why all that other stuff?’
Let’s be real. It’s a project.
Because everything is connected, wild thoughts drive wild actions, calm actions lead to calm thoughts.
You’re not joining a religion, we’d rather you didn’t think that way, but put this way, it took years and
many things to create the things that are a problem, it takes effort to make that right too. Zazen is not
just like turning on the TV, and puff nice thoughts all your problems gone. Chanting the heart sutra
about interconnectedness, having some ritual, and siting with a group regularly help you straighten
yourself. Saying ‘but can fix myself by myself’ is a problem. We have the expression in Zen, ‘intellect working
Asking to join in more advanced practice means interviews with the Zen teacher, involving Koans which
help you meditate deeper and function deeper in the world. 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.
People often think in Zen we sit, do Za-zen, to empty our minds, but that is not true, Mushin, Not-Mind
is a contradiction, it 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, or more
correctly Awakening, 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 of Zen.
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 philosophy, that’s a mind
trap. Like standing around talking about something, it never gets done. Koans are about breaking
patterns. When someone says ‘I’ve been working on this koan by myself’ this already speaks of pattern.
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.
This word is best explained in the following way... ‘according to tradition, Shakyamuni finding his life to
be unfulfilled and wondering about the nature of existence, found himself attempting various strategies,
yogaism, fasting, etc. Until at last he came to Awakening. No one passes an exam without study, or gains
wisdom without effort. This in Zen can take any form, the difficulty of realising alcoholism to the
difficulty of learning to sit with good posture in zazen.
It’s fashionable for self proclaimed gurus to assert meditation as a way to relax and gain an easier life,
but this is not Shugyo.
Zen Buddhism is a global movement that began in India 25 centuries ago, spread to China, then to
Japan, Vietnam and Korea. At the beginning of the 20 th century it began to be practiced in America and
Europe and now all over the world. The earliest lineages of Zen Buddhism to spread outside Asia were
from Japan and most Zen teachers and practitioners are from Japanese Zen Buddhism today.
Zen Buddhism was founded by Sakyamuni Buddha, he is the Buddha depicted in statues doing Zazen, he lived 25 centuries ago and lived and taught in what is now modern India and Pakistan. 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. 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 his two disciples - 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.
Zen was introduced into China from India by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, or Durama as he’s also known. 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.
Rinzai Zen or Hakuin Zen
Eventually over further generations of Zen teachers we come to the great Sung dynasty master Rinzai Kigen, he
lived in the 10 TH century. 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. Rinzai Zen is the largest school of Zen in Japan having been established there by monk Esai and
12 Chinese masters in the 11 TH century.
Hakuin Ekaku 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, he is considered the founder of modern Rinzai Zen as we practice it tokay.
His important disciples were Torie Enji, who’s book, Mujintoron (Inexhaustible Lamp), along with the Rinzairoku (Record of Rinzai) by Rinzai are among the four important books of Zen.
A special mention should be made of Ikkyu Sojun Abbot of the great Daitokuji temple in Kyoto during the 12th century, he and his disciples would have a huge effect on Japanese culture, and he can be said to be the grandfather of Japanese Tea Way.
The 15th century Zen master Takuan also from Daitokuji was also important in the development of Tea
Way and Japanese Swordsmanship through his connections at the court of the Tokugawa Shoguns.
Some Zen monks and nuns are artists, and Artists gathered around them as well, leading to the creation
of various painting, sculpture, ceramic and performance arts based on Zen influence.
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.
In the West during the 20 TH Century, Zen led to Beat Art and Poetry, Conceptual Art movements. Notable
modern artists are John Cage, Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Frederick Frank.
Culture is people doing things that expand their lives beyond the mundane, a tea cup just is, but in Art a
tea cup becomes a connection between the hand that makes it, the hand that uses it and the Tea itself.
It becomes a connection between the person that grew the tea, that processed it, that drinks it brought
together by the person that made the cup. With that in mind we share the same Mind, even generations
In this way, 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. Tea
becomes, Tea Way.
How long does it take to paint a picture in ink? A minute, and a lifetime of zazen, a lifetime of zazen and
generations, from one person to another.
There were many Samurai who studied Zen with teachers like Ikkyu, Takua, Hakuin, Tesshu and others,
and still today there are many martial artists who sit Zazen and study Zen.
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. That’s not the emphasis of the Zen school. 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 is a pantheon of 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.
‘Community’ its a universal word in Buddhism, its the people you sit with, it’s the zone that is a temple or Zen Centre in which you find like minded people to yourself walking the same road and sitting with similar experiences and life challenges. And people need that in what they are doing, to share, sharing is much underestimated, but it’s healthy, and much needed even in the silence of sitting or the quiet of tea.
RINZAI ZEN ORDINATION
The most basic commitment to practice in Zen Buddhism is called Jukai, taking refuge in the Three
Treasures and receiving the five lay precepts – also called zaike tokudo – which is available to almost
anyone. Jukai is basically formally becoming a Zen Buddhist. And a practice name is given.
There are two types of Rinzai Zen ordination: monastic (shukke tokudo) and lay (nyudo). Zen Buddhism
does not differentiate between sexes.
The Nyudo is for 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. Nyudo is a pathway to taking higher responsibility to act as
an officer in a Zen group. (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.) It’s
important to mention that Zen Teachers have received monastic or lay ordination.
Chaplains who work in schools etc., also must be ordained at least as Nyudo. Chaplains are not Zen
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. Shukke Tokudo is usually
preceded by Nyudo ordination, and Jukai.
The highest form of recognition in Zen Buddhism is transmission as a Zen Teacher or Roshi and this is
usually dependent on years of discipleship and completed training curriculum.