Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism, introduced to Japan by the monk Eisai (1141-1215 CE).
Dissatisfied with formalistic Buddhism, Esai traveled to China and returned to Japan, bringing home this new form of an older religious practice. Accordingly, the word Zen is derived from the Chinese Ch’an (Ch’an Buddhism), which itself comes from the Sanskrit Dhyāna or Jhāna (advanced contemplative states).¹
Ch’an was apparently introduced to China by the Indian Buddhist missionary Bodhidharma (c. 500 CE).
Zen emphasizes “being here now” in a tranquil state of mind, supposedly untouched by the desires and concerns of worldly life.² The Zen peak experience is called satori, an apparently sudden ego-less flash of illumination. Zen masters use various techniques to try to instill this frame of mind in disciples or, perhaps better put, to dispense with ‘frames of mind.’
The most fundamental method is zazen (Japanese = sitting + absorption). This involves sitting upright in a quiet room, regulating one’s breathing and watching desires and distractions come and go. Another Zen method is the koan. A koan is a seemingly illogical, nonsense verse said to facilitate satori. The koan is said to take a disciple’s awareness beyond the dualistic world of subject and object.
Archery and elaborate tea ceremonies are also used as vehicles leading to the ultimate achievement of ‘no-mind.’
To my mind, the idea of utterly dispensing with ‘frames of mind’ and achieving ‘no-mind’ is a questionable idea. Almost every practicing Buddhist I’ve talked to is so invested in their religious assumptions that to suggest anything otherwise is usually met with a kind of patronizing dismissal. And if pressed, a barrage of ancient Asian concepts and theories usually follows, apparently supporting their particular “truth.”
It seems that folks who believe the fairly common Buddhist claim that individuality and God are both illusory don’t realize that they’ve merely embraced a particular set of all-too-human beliefs. For them, their theories are the simple truth. And some seem to have lost the reflective quality of the mind that arguably contributes to our uniqueness as human beings—not unlike victims of a cult. This, of course, isn’t just an issue with Zen Buddhism. Religious believers of all types may shut out healthy doubt if for some reason it’s too uncomfortable to question further.
Over the years of doing Earthpages.org | Earthpages.ca and volunteering at Allexperts.com, I’ve met a lot of different types of people thru the web. And whenever some authoritarian (not authority) figure says “This is the truth,” be it a Buddhist monk, a Christian Fundamentalist or a New Age Life Coach, all I see is a big question mark.
¹ It should be stressed that these mental states are considered “advanced” within the traditions from which they sprang. Not everyone sees them as advanced. In fact, some see them as hindrances to “genuine” spirituality.
² I say “supposedly” because oft overlooked by enthusiasts is the fact that many Buddhist monks, not unlike their Catholic counterparts, get money from somewhere, and don’t really have to face the challenges that ordinary people do. And I personally think that, in some cases, this can hinder spiritual development.