What is Zen?


In the sixth century, an immigrating monk from India or Persia by the name of Bodhidharma introduced Mahayana-Buddhism to China. His doctrine was then fertilized with Chinese Taoism resulting in the Buddhist system of Ch’an. During the 12th century, the teachings of Ch’an had reached Japan, whose followers then called it Zen.

Zen consists of intensive meditation training, finding one’s true nature leading to full awakening.

In contrast to Tibetan Buddhism, with its many magical elements, this doctrine stresses the futility of religious ritual exercises. The Zen teachings focus merely on the experience of enlightenment, the awakening. Even the most extensive sacred literature of Buddhism is rejected in many Zen schools as it is considered a distraction.

The steep path that seeks the spontaneous insight strives after a sudden experience of the reality behind all phenomena. Even meditation and reflection can become a distraction from the essence of truth. The basic idea of Zen is the exemption from any attachment to the outer and inner reality, to find and experience the unity of being. The direct route is used primarily in the practice of sitting in quiet reflection, known as Zazen.

Zen is detached from all religious traditions, even those of Buddhism.

It teaches the attainment of the primordial perfection of all beings. Since conceptual thinking is caught up in dualism inhibiting the experience of primal perfection, the insights of Buddha in Zen are taught by direct interpretation of the human heart and spirit. Sticking to the actions of dualistic experiences of the world or the wording of sacred rules frustrates the apprehension of true reality. Sacred scriptures can be the finger that points to the moon, but never the moon itself.

The famous series of paintings of the ten oxen describe the process of spiritual maturation beyond thought and beyond the concepts presented. The ox is the symbol of one’s deep self, the true nature of man.

The search for the ox

The search for the self-being is the awakening onto the spiritual path, for the Zen student already the first obstacle. It seems as if the self-being is separated from a larger being, symbolized by the ox. Truth is that it was never cut off, never two beings; only by pure ignorance is it not present. At this level, the spiritual-seeking individual encounters his first hurdle. He has the feeling to be awake, the urge to search for his true nature as if there was something else that would separate him.

The discovery of traces

Everywhere, in books, with masters and in the depth of his own soul, the Zen student searches for his true nature. Everywhere he finds himself in thousands of fragments, which he doesn’t know how to put together. The nose of the ox reaches to the sky, and there is no place where he could hide. The self-being doesn’t hide; it is the student who has his eyes shut complaining that he can’t see anything.

The Perception of the Ox

The man finally caught the backside of the ox. It dawns on him that his little ego world and the all-embracing spirit don’t differ in the depth of their being. It is not something new that was found, but an ancient memory that returned.

The Capture of the Ox

The self-being must now exercise spiritual discipline or the ox will run away and mingle with the flock.

Taming the Ox

Finally, the self-being has found what it sought after. It remains a task though to stay off bad habits and to categorize everything into concepts. The maturation process at this stage is a battle until the new consciousness unites with the self-being. But even now the consciousness retains its distinctive awareness.

The return on the ox

Man believes to possess a greater spirit. As Zen-Buddhism teaches, the dualistic separation between the self-being and the all-embracing spirit is the root of all evil. As long as it exists, real awakening is not possible.

The ox disappears, the man is by himself

The first stage of that simple mind that Zen seeks is achieved. The distinction between ego and self is gone; there is only one primordial nature. Zen doesn’t end at this stage of development.

The Ox and the Man, both disappearing

An empty circle, a boundless circle, the absolute Nothingness is the foundation of all manifestations. Nothing is left except the Buddha-nature of all being. Man forgets himself and becomes one with the truth. But before you can forget yourself you have to know yourself first. Unconsciousness cannot forget itself. Only when the individual being has been forgotten, it is able to develop true nature in the world. The illusions, in which it had caught its senses and thoughts, disappear.

Return to the source

The Zen student and all things have become one. His consciousness includes and exceeds both the never-ending change and the emptiness. There is no difference between the inner and the outer self, between the unborn spirit and the world of appearances. A state of complete naturalness, freedom of dualistic thinking is achieved. Zen calls this awareness Mushin. It can only be described as a consciousness that is no awareness, a consciousness that exists as a non-existing awareness, the remoteness of spirit.

Entering the city with bliss-giving hands

The door to his hut is closed, and not even the wisest men know him. His hut is not only locked but it is gone, and so is he. And yet, he is everywhere, on the market square, on the farms. He is seen with children, men, women, and animals. The enlightened exerting his effectiveness in the world has become very unimportant as a person himself. Yet, his unselfish actions that originate deep from within his one and only self are what count.

Leave a Comment

Related Posts

The Three Universal Characteristics in Buddhism

If and when practicing Buddhism, you will come across various principles grouped together. Examples are the: Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Three Poisons (if you are studying Tibetan Buddhism), Ten ... Read More

What is the Tibetan Wheel of Life

The Bhavacakra, or Tibetan Wheel of Life, is a graphic depiction of Tibetan Buddhism’s philosophy of existence. Although there are several versions of the Wheel of Life, the symbols maintain ... Read More

The Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism

Ashtamangala, Sanskrit for Eight Auspicious, are symbols that point to qualities of mind. They are also referred to as bkra-shis-rtags brgyad. The symbols are supposed to bring good fortune when ... Read More

How to do Zen Meditation

These are the basics of Zen meditation; you will have to adjust and customize them to fit your life, your home, your schedule, and so on. Zen is a combination ... Read More

The Religious Development of the Buddha

The Buddha was born in roughly 560 BC in Northern India. The Buddha travelled the eastern world teaching about nirvana (the cessation of all suffering) and enlightenment the state he ... Read More