Some General Notes on Zen Buddhism


[This follows on from yesterday’s post on mysticism in general. The image is of Zen sixth patriarch Hui-Neng, 638-713 CE, tearing up the sutras or ‘holy’ Buddhist texts.]

Some General Notes on Zen Buddhism

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.
– Zenrin poem

1.Zen is a historical product of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese Taoism and the humanism of Confucianism. Its first form was as Chinese Chan Buddhism in the 6th century CE before migrating to Japan from the 12th century, as well as to Vietnam (‘Thien’) and Korea (‘Seon’). ‘Zen’ is the Japanese version of Chinese ‘Chan’, Sanskrit ‘dhyana’ (meditation, meditative state).

2.As indicated in its name, Zen’s emphasis is on meditation, on spiritual practice and self-realisation (‘enlightenment’) rather than on debates around metaphysical concepts. The core practice is ‘just sitting’ or zazen, either alone or in a group (sesshin). Zen in fact originated as a rebellion against the predominant tendencies towards scholastic metaphysical debates in many Mahayana schools of the time despite the original Gautama Buddha’s frequent refusal to engage in such debates.

3.In line with this rejection of intellectual debate, Zen’s emphasis in teaching was on ‘direct pointing’ rather than on textual analysis and interpretation. ‘Direct pointing’ can occur within short question-and-answer sessions (mondo) between master and student and with or without the use of paradoxical/enigmatic/’nonsensical’ questions (koan: ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’)

4.Zen’s rejection of intellectual conceptualizing as a way of enlightenment extends to an iconoclastic rejection of any fixation on, or fetishization of, the Buddha and Buddhist scriptures themselves: ‘If you meet a Buddha on the path, kill him!’ At the same time, there has been much Zen elucidation of core Mahayana texts (Lankavatara Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Prajnaparamita etc).

5.Zen emphasizes that there are no separate individual entities, nothing such as an ‘ego’ or ‘self’ and thus in Reality no one to ‘attain enlightenment’ or nirvana. Everyday life and suffering (samsara) and enlightenment/the ultimate (nirvana) are, in Reality, one. Realization or enlightenment or yourself as Original or Buddha Nature, is already Reality. Thus striving for and seeking it is like ‘looking for the ox while riding it’, ‘putting legs on a snake’ or ‘beating a drum in search of a fugitive.’ Rather than using even meditation as a utilitarian instrument to ‘attain’ enlightenment, it is more a question of ‘simply’ waking up from the dream of everyday consciousness/self and its attachments.

6. Two main schools of Zen, the Lin-chi (Jap. Rinzai) and the Ts’ao-tung (Jap. Soto), flourished and were transmitted to Japan from the 12th to 14th centuries. The first placed greater emphasis on the use of the koan and effort to attain sudden enlightenment, while the Soto patriarch Dogen (1200-53) emphasized sitting in meditation (zazen) without expectation and with faith in one’s own intrinsic state of enlightenment or Buddha-nature.

7.The rigorous discipline and practicality of institutional Zen helped make it the ideology of the medieval Japanese military class. Most Zen abbots and teachers supported Japanese nationalism and fascism before and during the Second World War. Many US Zen (and other Buddhist) centres have experienced multiple power and/or sex scandals over the years. ‘Zen’ as an institution is no different to any other hierarchical religious or social institution. ‘Zen’ as a very practice-oriented form of mysticism or way of liberation is universal, egalitarian and trans-institutional.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on December 6, 2015.

6 Responses to “Some General Notes on Zen Buddhism”

  1. Great stuff Peter. You continue to improve my education. Thank you.
    It almost makes me want to take a trip to visit Oz despite the massive carbon footy from Alba.

  2. Just re-read Dharma Bums, wondering if you had any thoughts on this layering of Zen onto late-capitalist beat counter-culture?

    • Hi Dave. Never managed to get through Kerouac or Dharma Bums myself. But great fan of Gary Snyder (not as poet but as prose writer) and of Allen Ginsberg. Snyder’s early ‘Buddhism and the Coming Revolution’ had an impact on me back then (and even more his later bioregional writings). I also liked Zen and Situationist fan Ken Knabb’s critique of Snyder and Engaged Buddhism in general, available at his great website Bureau of Public Secrets. Also remember a little pamphlet of Alan Watts I read and liked called ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen’.

      • i’ve had Bureau bookmarked for some time, must have found it through you! Great probing stuff. Not sure I understand Debord but love reading him, just sounds right! Currently all I do is interrogate texts, but someday I’ll get around to interrogating myself. If i live long enough. You know who I miss? James! Talk about Zen.

      • Maybe try Knabb’s ‘The Joy of Revolution’ some time, Dave: bloody good read, autobiography plus lotsa good comprehensible but radical theory I reckon. Koan: How to interrogate the interrogator using enhanced interrogation techniques?

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