by Bonny Styles
Zen Buddhism developed as a result of the arrival of Buddhism in China, and its consequent exposure to, and shaping by strong cultural influences, particularly Taoism. According to legend, Zen originated in the year 520 when Bodhidharma, the first patriarch, arrived from India and presented himself at the court of the Emperor Wu of Liang, a devout Buddhist.
Asked by the Emperor what merit he had gained by building temples, copying scriptures and so on, Bodhidharma replied that no merit could be obtained from such deeds which still showed worldly attach¬ment and that the only true merit was to be found in acts of pure wisdom that could not be understood by rational thought.
Questioned about the holy absolute truth, Bodhidharma answered that truth is emptiness, and there is nothing in it to be holy. The Bodhidharma’s doctrine and direct approach found little favor with the Emperor, so he left the court and spent several years in a monastery in the state of Wei, contemplating the wall. Later he communicated his teaching to Hui-k’o, who became the second patriarch.
It was not until the late twelfth century that Zen became established in Japan, although it was probably known there in the ninth century. Having taken root, however, it flourished and has made a great contribution to Japanese culture. Now increasingly popular in the West, Zen has nevertheless acquired a reputation for being highly esoteric and abstruse. In fact, Zen is one of the most direct and practical paths to mystical experience ever to have evolved. Better thought of as a way of liberation than a philosophy or religion, Zen is concerned with freeing our minds of concepts which prevent us from experiencing our true nature.
The word Zen, or Ch’an as it is called in China, comes from the Sanskrit dhyana, meaning simply meditation. In spite of the name, other Buddhistschools emphasize meditation as much as or more than Zen. What gives Zen its own particular character and distinguishes it from other forms of Buddhism are the way it views meditation, its direct methods of pointing to the truth, for example by means of koans, and its lack of reliance on the study of sacred texts. Dealing with practical realities rather than abstract concepts, Zen is ‘learnt’ in the way that a child learns to ride a bicycle – not by analysis or imitation, but by suddenly acquiring the ‘knack’. To try to understand Zen intellectually is, in the words of one Zen master, to ‘stink of Zen’.
The two main schools of Zen are the Soto and Rinzai schools. The practice of Rinzai Zen centers around the use of a koan, which is contemplated during meditation, whereas the form of medita¬tion practised in Soto Zen often involves just sitting and nothing else. The purpose behind both forms of meditation is identical. While the koan heightens awareness by breaking down logical, concept-bound ways of seeing the world, the practice of ‘just sitting’ cultivates a high level of awareness by focusing the mind on the present moment.
In each case, meditation is concerned not with becoming something or acquiring wisdom, but simply with allowing the mind to reflect reality as it is, not as we habitually see it. The Zen experience of ‘awakening’, in which the nature of reality is perceived in its entirety, is known as satori.