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What is ZEN Buddhism?

1. What is Zen? (The historical question)
2. What is Zen? (The spiritual question)
3. Why do Zen writings seem like nonsense?
4. What is meditation? (Zazen)
5. How should a beginner begin their study of Zen Buddhism?
6. Introductory reading list

1. What is Zen? (The historical question)

Historically, Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha
Gautama. Around 500 B.C. he was a prince in what is now Nepal India.
At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he
renounced his privileged life and went out among the acetics to seek
understanding. After 6 years of struggling as an ascetic he finally
achieved the enlightenment of the 4 Noble Truths. After this he was known
as the Buddha (meaning "one who is awaking"). In a nutshell, he realized
that suffering exists (dukkha), suffering is caused by craving, suffering
can be extinguished, and the way to the end of suffering (nirvana) is the
eightfold path. The four noble truths and the path of the Middle way, are
considered to summarize the whole of buddhist teaching about training on
the path to enlightenment.

Zen begins with a Central Asian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma
arriving in Southern China (470-475 C.E.) who belonged to the Lanka School
which later became known as Zen. Based on the Lankavatara Sutra the
doctrine of the Lanka School mainly concerned itself with the study of
Mind, both its absolute nature and its evolved nature. It is believed by
scholars that Bodhidharma lived and taught in Northern China for about
fifty years.

Around 1200 A.D. Ch'an Buddhism spread from China to Japan where it is
called (at least in translation) Zen Buddhism.

2. What is Zen? (The spiritual question)

This question basically asks "What is the fundamental nature of Mind?"
It appears in various guises throughout Zen literature, from "What is the
meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" to "The One hand clapping
sound." The question penetrates into the heart of the matter and can only
be answered in a flash of intimate intuition in which the truth of Mind is
seen to be the substratum of existence. As to the role of practice, or
what the Chinese Zennists call "cultivation", Zen is paradoxically the
cultivation of non-cultivation, recognizing that we need only remove the
illusion of non-enlightenment to become enlightened.

3. Why do Zen writings seem like nonsense?

One of the central points of Zen is intuitive comprehension. When we
come to realize the fundamental nature of Mind, Zen becomes super-logical.
On the other hand, when we attempt to examine the nature of Mind through
emotions, ego-pain, mental pictures, and discursive ideas based on sense
perception, Zen seems like nonsense. Because everything arises from Mind,
Mind cannot be measured through its creations because the latter are not
as perfect as Mind itself. On the other hand, directly coalescing with
Mind everything makes perfect sense just as they are, as they arise from
Mind. All things thus reveal the pure function of Buddha Mind. Just so,
we see the natural world as a manifestation of the cosmic Buddha. When
the Zen master Joshu wipes crumbs off his robe he is demonstrating the
primordial power of Mind to move his body perfectly--although he is no
longer attached to his body, now being Mind.

4. What is meditation? (Zazen)


Meditation refers to contemplation, generally, the contemplation of
both the body within and the living principle of Buddhism. The Buddhist
Sanskrit term for meditation is BHAVANA which literally means the action
of promoting, or the same, attending. Because we are potentially pure
Mind, mentally attending to the body calms it down and makes it peaceful
and less violent. In this meditation, we neither cling to thought forms
and emotions, nor reject them. This is called Shamatha (C. chih)
meditation. In Vipashyana (C. kuan), or insight meditation, Mind is
directed to recollecting itself because it suffers from spiritual amnesia,
having in the past followed its generations, forgetting its native
whereabouts. Through Vipashyana meditation we come to uncover the nature
of Mind itself. As a result, we observe that all phenomena are changing,
momentary, and finite; that in fact they arise from the pure source of
Mind itself and return to it moment to moment. Thus we begin to see that
all things are like a dream, a sudden flash of lightning, or bubbles in a
body of water. In seeing this way, we reside in the fixed immovable
source of things, this being Mind. Both forms of meditation are vital in
Zen Buddhism. But Shamatha meditation alone cannot restore the nature of
Mind which we are unable to remember. The Zen adept also needs to
meditate on just what the nature of Mind exactly is. Insight meditation
as well, becomes impossible if the body is not relaxed and calmed. If we
are attached to violent thoughts and emotions, unable to control our
desires, Vipashyana meditation becomes difficult to maintain.


The cross legged positions provide greatest stability. To sit in
full lotus position, place the right foot on the left thigh and then the
left foot on the right thigh. To sit in half lotus place your left foot
on your right thigh. Try to cross the legs firmly so that a stable
tripod of support is provided by the knees and the base of the spine.
The order of the crossing of the legs may be reversed. It is also
possible to simply sit on the floor with one foreleg in front of the
other or kneeling using a bench or a cushion. To sit in a chair, place
the feet flat on the floor and place your buttocks on the edge of the
chair so the upper thighs are not touching the chair. Follow the rest of
the instructions.

Rest the knees firmly on the matt, for cross legged positions,
straighten the lower back, push the buttocks outward and the hips
forward, and straighten your spine. Pull in your chin and extend the
neck as though to support the ceiling. The ears and shoulders should be
in the same plane with the nose directly above the navel. Straighten the
back and relax shoulders, back, and abdomen without changing posture.
Keep the mouth closed placing the tongue with the tip just behind the
front teeth and the rest of the ton gue as close to the roof of the mouth
as comfortable. Keep the eyes at least slightly open cast downward at a
45 degree angle without focusing on anything. If closed you may slip into
drowsiness or daydreaming. Rest the hands palm up on the knees and take 2
or 3 deep abdominal breaths. Exhale smoothly and slowly with the mouth
slightly open by pulling in on the abdominal wall until all air has been
expelled and inhale by closing the mouth and breathing naturally. Hands
still on the knees sway the upper half of the body left to right a few
times without moving the hips. Sway forward and back. These swayings are
at first larger and then smaller enabling you to find the point of balance
of your posture. Next, place your hands next to your abdomen, palms up
with the left hand resting in the right hand with the thumbs slightly

While sitting, observe your breathing, but do not try to manipulate
the rhythm or depth of the breath. Breathe gently and silently through
the nose without attempting to control or manipulate the breathing. Let
the breath come and go naturally so that you forget all about it. Simply
let long breaths be long and short ones short. On inhalation the
abdomen expands naturally like a balloon inflating, while on exhalation
simply let it deflate. It is recommended that one feel a sense of
strength in the abdomen in breathing, that the exhalation be done in a
very slow smooth and gradual way or a very slight contraction of the anus
on exhalation (this should be so slight it may be more felt as an
intention than as a physical contraction) be performed.


Do not concentrate on any particular object or attempt to control
thoughts, emotions, or any modification of consciousness. By simply
maintaining proper posture and breathing the mind settles by itself
without fabrication. When thoughts, feelings, etc. arise, do not get
caught up by them or fight them. Simply permit any object of mind to
come and go freely. The essential point is to always strive to wake up
from distraction (thoughts, emotions, images, etc.) or dullness and
drowsiness. Letting go of any thought is itself thinking non-thinking.


The art of right awareness may seem difficult and the description given
above is idealized. If you are finding difficulties discouraging, talk
about it with others. In zazen our fears and doubts are brought up, we
may panic, get angry, cry or even laugh. Yet, we do return to Zazen
again and again to face these terrors that haunt us in our every day
life. As we do face our horrors of our self, we do see them for the
Dharma that they are. Through the practice of Zazen, we are able to in an
inapt way experience Emptiness and Enlightenment. As we sit, we let go of
thoughts and ideas, we see how we have attached ourselves to the past and
to the present. We may feel the tension of this attachment like an ship
trying to pull away from the pier with may ropes holding it in place.
Some ropes snap very violently others just ravel away.
Zen elders state to just allow it to just happen.

5. How should a beginner begin their study of Zen Buddhism?

First, it is always necessary to become familiar with the language of
Buddhism. If you are not familiar with the language of Buddhism how can
your friends help you and teach you about the mysterious nature of Mind?
If you, for example, don't know what gold looks like, how can you begin
your search? You need, for instance, to learn the Four Noble Truths, 
understanding what they mean. You need to know that the Four Noble Truths
pertain to the nature of Mind, that when Mind blindly clings to its
manifestations it comes to experience suffering, or the same, disharmony
Beginners should be familiar with the canonical works of Buddhism
called the Tripitakas. In addition they should read Mahayana scriptures
of the Mahaprajnaparamita class, most important the _Heart Sutra_ and the
_Diamond Cutter of Doubts_. In addition, students should read the
foundational Sutra of Zen Buddhism which is the Lankavatara Sutra. Other
Sutras such as the Shurangama, the Vimalakirit Nirdesha, and the
Shrimaladevi Sutra, are also extremely important to read.
As for Zen texts in particular, it is important to read orthodox
material such as the _The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma_; _The Platform
Scripture_ by Hui Neng the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism; _The Zen
Teaching of Huang Po_ and _The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai_. Beginners should
avoid modern books on Zen if they do not teach Mind doctrine. Beginners
should first ground themselves in orthodox Zen classics and traditional
Buddhist literature avoiding non-Mind doctrine publications. In so doing
they will be able to reach the fruit of the path sooner and come to know
the joy of breaking the bonds of rebirth. In reading proper and accepted
books on Zen Buddhism there will be no karmic error created either, and
thus no future cause for regret. Historically, in China, Zen literature
was by far the most widely published and read. Traditional Zen masters
studied all the major Sutras and were very skilled in commenting on the
arcane principles contained in the various Sutras. Beginners should
understand that Zen Buddhism is the highest teaching in Buddhism, and to
become members they must be great students. Just like the Marine Corps,
for example, Zen only looking for a few good people. They need to be
intelligent, free from religious pride, non-hating, and compassionate, and
above all they need to love the sublime doctrine of the Buddhas, willing
to study day and night so that their efforts might save all beings from
further suffering.

6. Introductory reading list

The following short list of books is meant to help the beginner
gain, not only a philosophical understanding of Zen, but also, at least,
an intellectual understanding of Law of Buddha.
There are many other books available, so many that space on this FAQ
does not permit anything close to a comprehensive list. Instead we give
this short list which covers most fundamental aspects of Zen and the Mind
doctrine. There are also many other wonderful writers and books on this
subject, this list is INTRODUCTORY ONLY. You are encouraged to use your
intuition when selecting material to read.

May these books be the Point of departure of your path to Awakening;

*A Buddhist Bible* Edited by Dwight Goddard:(Boston : Beacon Press,1970,
This book has translations of the Diamond Sutra, Dao De King (more
popularly known as Tao Te Ching), the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Zen
Patriarch (See NOTE) the Awakening of Faith Shastra, solid fundamental
discussions of the historical Buddha and his teachings.
NOTE: This particular translation of the Sixth Patriarch's
Platform Sutra is worded in a way which might be easier understood by
reading other translations.

*Questions to a Zen Master* By Taisen Deshimaru:
Except for the excellent chapter on Zazen (Soto style) this book
shows many basic religious and philosophical implications of Zen. With
a heavy taste of the "just sitting" Soto Zen style, Master Deshimaru
covers frontiers of the mind in an easy reading style that maintains
the integrity of Truth.

*Zen letters : teachings of Yuanwu*, trans. & ed. J.C. Cleary and Thomas
Cleary. (Boston : Shambhala,1994)

*The Zen teachings of Master Lin-chi*, trans. Burton Watson
(Boston : Shambhala Publications, 1993)

*Meditating with koans*, trans. J. C. Cleary (Berkeley, Calif: Asian
Humanities Press, 1992)

*The transmission of the lamp : early masters* trans. Sohaku Ogata
(Wolfeboro, N.H. : Longwood Academic, 1990)

*The Zen teaching of Bodhidharma*, trans. Red Pine (San Francisco : North
Point Press, 1987)

*The record of Tung-shan*, trans. William F. Powell (Honolulu : University
of Hawaii Press, 1986)

*A Zen forest, sayings of the masters*, trans. Soiku Shigematsu (New York
: Weatherhill, 1981)

*Zen : poems, prayers, sermons, anecdotes, interviews*, trans. Lucien
Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto (Athens, Ohio : Swallow Press, Ohio University
Press, 1981)

*The recorded sayings of Ch'an master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen
prefecture*, trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki (Kyoto : Institute for Zen Studies,

*The Zen teaching of Hui Hai on sudden illumination*, trans. John Blofeld
(London : Rider,1969, c1962)

*The Zen teaching of Huang Po on the transmission of mind*,
trans. John Blofeld (Chu Ch'an) (London : The Buddhist Society,1968, c1958)

Hui-neng, *The Platform Scripture*, trans. Chan, Wing-tsit (New York : St.
John's University Press, 1963)

*The iron flute; 100 Zen koan*, trans. Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Strout
McCandless (Tokyo, Rutland Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co., 1961)

*Ch'an and Zen teaching*, ed. & trans. Lu K`uan Yu (Charles Luk). (London
: Rider,1960)

Paul Reps, *Zen flesh, Zen bones* (Tokyo, Rutland, Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co.,

D.T. Suzuki, *Manual of Zen Buddhism*, (London, New York : Published for
the Buddhist Society, by Rider,1956).

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