Zen Buddhism

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“Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “Chan”. Chan Buddhism was supposedly founded by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma who traveled to China in the early 5th century CE. Some scholars think that Bodhidharma is a myth, and that the sect arose in China from a combination of Buddhism with Taoist influences.

Zen gives limited importance to religious rituals and sacred texts. Instead it emphasizes the importance of individual spiritual training, particularly the practice of sitting meditation and the study of koan, enigmatic stories or riddles that cannot be solved logically.

The Last Will and Testament

Ikkyu, a famous Zen teacher of the Ashikaga era, was the son of the emperor. When he was very young, his mother left the palace and went to study Zen in a temple. In this way Prince Ikkyu also became a student. When this mother passed on, she left him a letter. It read:

To Ikkyu:

I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am in hell and whether I am always with you or not.

If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for forty-nine years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don’t and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.

Your Mother,

Not born, not dead.

September 1.

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament.

Zen was introduced into Japan in the 12th century and soon gained a large following among the ruling samurai class. As hereditary warriors many samurai studied Zen hoping to overcome the fear of death or to learn how to kill without anger and hatred, thus minimizing the bad karma.

Of all Buddhist sects, Zen is probably the most well-known in the West. Many Westerners use the word “Zen” more or less as a synonym for “Buddhism.” Western intellectuals are attracted to the Zen teachers’ dry humor and disdain for metaphysics.

Ordinary Westerners may think of Zen more in terms of its association with martial arts. The Shaolin Monastery, a major center of Chan Buddhism in China, is famous in the West because of its association with kung fu. The story of a young warrior trained by an elderly Zen master who spouts enigmatic aphorisms has become deeply embedded in popular culture.

It is important to understand that Zen is not the most important form of Buddhism in Japan today. It’s influenced peaked during the centuries of samurai rule. Today it is a relatively minor sect.

However the influence of Zen on Japanese culture has been profound. Zen teachers have long promoted many traditional arts as a form of spiritual discipline, notably including the tea ceremony, flower arranging, gardening and haiku, a form of poetry that seeks to capture a single moment and eternity in 17 syllables. Most Japanese arts show the influence of a minimalist “Zen esthetic” which focuses on paying full attention to the current moment. Even the popularity of slice-of-life stories may be partly due to a Zen influence. These stories often seem to be a deliberate exercise in mindfulness.

Fire-Poker Zen

Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.