Eisai, founder of the Rinzai School of Zen, 12...
Eisai, founder of the Rinzai School of Zen, 12th century. 13:02, 29 January 2005 PHG 281×398 (90634 bytes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Français : Zazen au dojo
Français : Zazen au dojo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Bible science
Bible science (Photo credit: joeflintham)

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.

Related Posts » Eightfold Path, Heart Sutra, Mantra, Satori



  1. I did not read about Esai before. What I read was that Zen was introduced to Japan by Rinzai, chin. Lin Chi.

    In my understanding Zen is a means to lead a more conscious life. This assumes that a life of awareness is a better life, a more peaceful life.

    I came first across Zen by a Dutch author: Jan Willem van de Wetering, who wrote a book “The empty mirror”. For me it has never become a practice in terms of doing a lot od Zazen or retreats or using a koan in the classical way. I feel there is truth in the Zen approach and many things can be like a koan. Also having awareness as a general approach to life had an impact on me.


  2. Yes, the history is a bit complicated. The article on Zen at wikipedia helps to clarify, I think.

    Although I don’t consider myself a Buddhist I feel that spiritual awareness can be ongoing and not necessarily dependent on ritualized practice.

    I recall my undergraduate philosophy professor, Dr. Robert E. Carter, calling this the “double aperture” approach. In essence, this means keeping an eye on the eternal godhead while minding the temporal.

    In Hinduism this is analogous to the notion of “karma-yoga”–i.e. the yoga (or union) of action.

    Here’s a video that you might find interesting:


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