Zen is said to be a method for overcoming the five hindrances: Sensation desire, hatred, sloth, anxiety, and doubt. These are described as the mental factors that hinder our progress, not only in the spiritual path but in daily life as well. That’s really what we’re training to do when we engage in zen practice.
Sensation desire refers to the type of wanting that tries to get our desires fulfilled through the five senses. Hatred refers to all kinds of feeling related to rejection and hostility. Sloth refers to heaviness of body and mind that can tend to drag us down into laziness. Anxiety refers to restlessness in the body and mind that can cause us to be distracted and unable to focus. Doubt refers to a lack of conviction or trust in the path and our ability to pursue it.
When we practice, we are cultivating five positive qualities that can counteract the five hindrances. These are: Directed Thought, Evaluation, Rapture, Pleasure, and Oneness of Preoccupation.
Directed Thought is used to counteract Sloth. Evaluation is used to counteract Doubt. Rapture is used to counteract Hatred, Pleasure is used to counteract Anxiety, Oneness is used to counteract Sensation desire.
This is the essence of the Zen method. Through the insight granted from meditation, the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are overcome and the reality of the all-embracing Empty Mind Ground is realized and planted in the mind of the practitioner. This is how we unleash our Buddha nature. All of the different skilful means, such as hua tou and koan practice, have the goal of realizing emptiness and perceiving our true nature. This is what the Buddha meant when he talked about Enlightenment. It is awakening to our true nature. To perceive our true nature is to become one with it intuitively.Zen was heavily influenced by Taoist schools of thought that were common in China at the time. The line from the Diamond Sutra that is said to have caused the Enlightenment of the sixth Patriarch Huineng, “Let your mind function freely without abiding anywhere or in anything.” sounds very similar to the Taoist notion of “flowing like a river.”
It’s also a big similarity that Zen and Taoism both suggest to use that the truth remains ‘outside the scriptures’. Not something we can get from others, but something we have to perceive ourselves. It’s for this reason that studying with a teacher who actually knows you is thought of as a more successful path than studying sutras. Sutras can only take you so far. But then, your teacher can only take you so far too, ultimately the message is that we must walk the path ourselves.
It could be this Taoist influence that separates Zen from other branches of Buddhism, making it unique. It has been argued by some Zen teachers that Zen represents a combination between the original Vipassana meditation as taught by the Buddha and Taoism. I think that is a pretty accurate description. It would be difficult to try to remove the Chinese influence from Zen Buddhism.
Our methods include several forms of meditation, some study of words of the ancient masters, and interacting with a teacher.