What Is Zen? Really?

What Is Zen? Really? May 12, 2019






(I’m working on some articles that we post at our Empty Moon Zen Network website. Some are new. And, some, like this, heavily reworked from materials already posted. Like the article I posted yesterday, it occurred to me that this might be of use to people not looking to learn about a particular sangha. So, for you, the inquirer as to what Zen actually is, here you go…)


What is Zen?


James Myoun Ford

The word “Zen” has come to mean many things. Sometimes it is used to suggest something is cool, “chill.” Other times it means a non sequitur, something happens that is incongruous with everything else that’s happening. Nothing wrong with these usages.

But Zen is actually a spiritual tradition that birthed in Tang Dynasty China, that fruitful era between the seventh and tenth centuries. It has grown and traveled to Korea, and Vietnam, and Japan. And now it has begun to take root in the West. And, that Zen, the spiritual tradition can be defined this way:

Zen is a tradition of understanding and practice, held together over time by lineage.

A bit of a mouthful. Let’s unravel a little what that understanding, that practice and what that lineage are that together create what is called Zen.​

First, understanding. This is an insight into how we are in the world. What you see is what you are in all our glorious individuality and distinctions, and temporariness. And at the very same time that who we are as we are, is one. Now, Zen offers a further push on this last view, pointing us to seeing that “one” is in fact “empty.” This insight comes as natural as our breath, and people spontaneously awake to it within many religions and without any religion.

If everyone who taught this nondual reality were killed today, tomorrow people would be spontaneously experiencing it, and new schools would emerge to share and refine the insights found within our human hearts and minds. And this nondual understanding, perspective, insight as it is expressed within Zen draws upon a variety of specific historical sources.

At root it is found within the insights and teachings of Gautama Buddha. And Zen is ultimately a school of Buddhism. Zen’s understanding, its vocabulary and its specific approach to the universal insights of the nondual took its mature development in China where the wisdom of Buddhism encountered the perspectives of that ancient culture, including Confucianism and particularly Taoism.

Often people think that Zen is just this perspective of awakening here and now. But in fact this is a narrow use for the term Zen introduced to the west by D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki was a seminal figure in the introduction of Zen to the West. Over many years he wrote and published extensively in the English language about Zen’s wonderful and liberating insight, eloquently presenting Zen’s nondual stance in this world sometimes summarized as not one, not two.

He was so eloquent that this use for the word Zen caught the imaginations of many people, including philosophers and artists and poets and writers and musicians. It is probably not possible to overstate Suzuki’s influence on our western take on Zen. However, he de-emphasized and sometimes ignored much of what Zen is and how it manifests, emphasizing an a-historical stance.

Suzuki’s description of our Zen way is very lovely, if a tad on the abstract side. Then Suzuki’s admirer Alan Watts published books and gave lectures on Zen that were rooted in this somewhat attenuated understanding of Zen. It’s actually through Watts a generation of Americans first heard the word. And, with that, a definition that grew ever farther from the source.

In fact, there is more to Zen. A lot more. It is a living tradition offering a unique spiritual technology and as well as guidelines to the creation of spiritual community. The tradition has matured and transformed over the ages and as the way has moved from culture to culture.

Zen’s continuing emphasizes the identity of form and emptiness and its Chinese and later Japanese synthesis as the teaching of original awakening, were ultimately refined by master Eihei Dogen as the oneness of practice and awakening. And so the second of the three major facets of what is Zen is meditation. Here we get to the heart of the word Zen, which is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit term dhyana – meditation.

In short Zen specifically is a school of Buddhism focused on the disciplines of meditation. Or, rather Zen is focused mostly on two disciplines, each of them evolving out of that meeting between Indian Buddhism and the rich spiritual culture of China.

The first of these, the baseline practice of Zen is Mozhao chan, sometimes called the Zen of silent illumination. In Japanese it is called shikantaza, just sitting. The practice has three basic elements. Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. This is the universal solvent of the spiritual dilemma. It is the manifestation of practice/awakening as presented by Dogen and a host of others. For more, go here.

The other practice is koan introspection, Kanhua chan, the Zen of words. In Japanese this is called koan introspection practice, where fragments of stories, anecdotes, bits of poetry are all used to help the individual stand in the place of emptiness, of form, of the various permutations of these twin realities. For more, go here.

It is not possible to think of an authentic Zen without one or both of these disciplines.

There are also a host of additional practices and disciplines, most notably a monastic encounter developed in China and modified in other East Asian Buddhist countries. All part of what Zen is.

And, lastly, that over time, and that lineage part. Lineage is meditation Buddhism’s response to the Chinese question, “who are your parents?” That is, to whom do you belong? It was attached by and to the founders of the Zen school as it emerged in early Medieval China.

Lineage is based in a mythic connection to the Indian school and back to Gautama Siddhartha himself. It becomes historical around the time of the fifth ancestor, Daman Hongren in the seventh century. It isn’t magic.

Okay, in some ways it is magical. It is an attempt to capture that wondrous insight into who we really are, to acknowledge people who’ve seen into that matter, and who seem able to help others along the way. And the acknowledgement is at heart an intimate thing, passed on from one human being to another. Almost always after years and decades of coming to know one another.

And then there are realities. Dharma transmission is given for many reasons, and they are not always healthful, not always meant to acknowledge that insight and that potential. So, bottom line, Dharma transmission creates a line of people trained and acknowledged as teachers. Some are amazing and wonderful. Others are not.

Also, there’s a sort of feedback loop. Real human beings continuing the line and a set of practices they transmit in support of that astonishing insight into who and what we are. And, yes, sometimes the teachers aren’t worth the powder it would take to blow them away. But the practices themselves can carry the tradition. Not just meditation, but liturgy, and the canon of teachings, especially those gathered in the great koan collections. And, again, there is a miraculous quality to this, so at other times people of amazing insight and character come to the tradition however moribund it might be, and breath new life into the presentation of these ongoing practices. So, over time there is mutation and change, growth and decline and renewal.

So far, right into this time and place. On the great Zen way there are those who have caught the insight, who have investigated the matter through the practices and guidance of the teachers within the lineage, and who from that continue to bring this healing way into the world.

This is what we are about here within the Empty Moon Zen Network.

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