Does the very word “Zen” make you think it is some random religion in Japan? Is the Zen State in One-Plus phone the closest you have ever been to the concept of Zen? Worry not, let me take you through the entirety of Zen Philosophy throughout the article.

Zen is completely different from a religion and is considered to be a “way of life” that illuminates the light of wisdom in people. It falls under the Buddhism category and is strikingly similar to various other schools like Shinto, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, etc. The word Zen (Japanese) is derived from the Chinese word Chan (pronounced chyaan) which is again derived from the Sanskrit word for meditation, Dhyaana. The meaning of this term makes it evident that Zen concepts are mostly centred on meditation. It preaches Za-Zen mainly which literally translates to sitting meditation. Just like the roots of its name, it originates from our own country.

History and Evolution:

The historic compilation Chingde Chongdeng Lu (Record of Transmission of the Lamp) by the Chinese Monk Daoyun in 1004 gives us an insight into the origin of Zen Buddhism. The spiritual awakening of Buddhism was transferred across 28 generations from Siddhartha Gautama being the first one and Bodhi dharma being the last one. Bodhi dharma, travelled all the way from South India to China in the 5th century and introduced the concept of Buddhism there. This Buddhism preached by Bodhi dharma is considered as the true Buddhism and it neglects the concept of practicing Buddhism with the help of scriptures. He believed that this spiritual awakening doesn’t depend on words and letters but it directly points to the human mind and that’s how a person transforms into a true Buddha.

The Chinese version of Zen Buddhism developed during the reign of empress Wuhou who went on to rule under the tag of Zhou Dynasty (690-705) for a brief period. She patronized them and included them in her court. However when the Tang dynasty came back to power defeating the Zhou dynasty, a strong rival developed among various forms of Buddhism in China. Song Dynasty (960-1279) overtook the Tang dynasty and the prominence to Zen philosophy was brought back with the onset of many Buddhist monks framing strict principles to monitor the behaviour of all the monks in the monasteries. These were termed Qinggui (Rules of Purity) by them which is now known as Shingi popularly in Japanese form of Zen. This was the period when most of the principles of Zen Buddhism were codified. The Song dynasty compiled the Zen principles in a structured manner thus bringing end to the myths revolving around this philosophy.

Consequently, Chan Buddhism (Chinese Zen) was spread to the neighbouring regions of Vietnam (Vietnamese Thien) and Korea (Zeon Buddhism) and from there it finally reached Japan. They started flourishing in Japan during its medieval period (12th-15th century) where it was patronized by the imperial family of Japan and the famous Five Mountain Temple was sponsored by them to the Zen Monks. These monks played an integral role in the trade development of both China and Japan as they were selected to be ambassadors between both the countries and these monks administered government estates and led trade missions. They are also believed to have preached neo-Confucianism in both the counties. This also led to the development of various Chinese arts like gardening, ceramic pottery, printing, painting, Calligraphy etc. in the Japanese capital of Kyoto (now Tokyo).

While Zen in the urban areas of Japan aided more to the development of the country,  in rural areas it focused mainly on the main principle Za-Zen (sitting meditation). These rural monks popularized various Buddhist rituals like mass prayer, funerals, exorcisms etc. The Zen Buddhism was disturbed and collapsed due to the political instabilities and disaster in Japan during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Tokugawa Rulers restored peace in Japan and the Zen Monks helped restore morality among the population and they made use of the Buddhist Teachings to justify the social hierarchy followed by the then Japanese Government. This is the period when Zen was practiced widely and spread to the entire Japanese masses.

Zen was popularized in the west through the works of D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese Buddhist, and with that of Chinese historian, Hu Shih, where Suzuki argued that Zen is beyond logic but Hu Shih was of view that it is comprehendible.

Preaching of Zen:

Zen is centered on satori, which refers to spiritual enlightenment. This is pretty similar to the Indian Concept of Nirvana. The main aim of Satori is to achieve wisdom with compassion and finding equality in all the happenings of the world. It embraces simplicity in reality.

There are two prominent methods which are being preached popularly, the two methods being Koan Method and Za-Zen Method (Just-Sitting).

Koan Method– This method is widely preached by the Rinzai School of Buddhism. The Koan method is comparatively tougher to practice than the Za-Zen method. It is designed in the form of a puzzle. These puzzles are actually in the form of cases. The Koans were designed by a Zen Guru Hakuin and there are almost 1700 such Koans. The Koans are grouped into five major categories to reach the following in the practitioner’s life.

  • Body of truth (hosshin)
  • Linguistic articulation of meditation (gensen)
  • To pass (nantō);
  • To make an insight of kōan experiences pertinent to daily life (kikan)
  • Going beyond the state of Buddhahood by erasing all traces of enlightenment in order to achieve a traceless enlightenment (kōjō)

(Definition as given by a research by Stanford)

It tries to give the practitioner both intellectual enlightenment and a way to get rid of their ego-consciousness.  Zen insists to do away with ego-consciousness as it is strictly against the concept of dualism.

Za-Zen Method– The Just Sitting method is preached by the Soto School of Zen Buddhism. It also strictly does away with the concept of dualism. It insists on the concept of “not one” and “not two”. This is also known as “munen musō” which means “no thought and no image”. This method focuses on the gradual enlightenment of an individual and believes that every individual is a Buddha in himself and takes time to understand the same. This method is perceived to be the “original enlightenment” whereas Rinzo’s method is seen as “sudden enlightenment”

Though these two methods might be differing, they adopt a three-step process of adjusting the body, breathing and mind to attain wisdom with compassion in life.

Now that the concept is explained, I believe I have satisfied my ikigai of explaining such concepts to you regularly.

(Ikigai is a Zen Concept which refers to the purpose of one’s life)



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