Zen and the art of.. Zen

Having gone through the basics of Buddhism — the Four Noble Truths that outline the core beliefs, the Eightfold Path that outlines the core practice, and a bit about the Buddha himself — I’d like to get a little more specific now and talk about Zen.

The reason that I’ve been explaining the basics of Buddhism is that one of the things on my list of 101 things is to restart my own practice. That meant that I knew I’d be writing a lot about it here, and that in turn meant that I’d lose you all pretty quickly if I didn’t fill you in on the basics! And while there are many interesting branches of Buddhism, Zen is my practice and I know very little about Theravada, Pure Land, and the other branches.

Way back on my initial post, someone asked about the differences between Buddhism and Zen. Zen is Buddhism, the same way that Lutheranism is Christianity, Reformism is Judaism, and so on. Zen is different from the other branches of Buddhism, but naturally can’t be different than Buddhism itself.

The problem is that what Zen is is not easy to explain. Or perhaps it’s too easy to explain. Here is what Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen in China, had to say:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

Clear? No? Okay. Let me explain.

First of all, Zen is still Buddhism (or maybe “distilled Buddhism”). Remember how Gautama Buddha taught that suffering can be ended by following the Eightfold Path? Where many of the other branches of Buddhism concentrate on the study of Buddhist scriptures and philosophy, the fundamental teaching of Zen is this: The ultimate truth can only be perceived directly. You can’t acheive Enlightenment, the cessation of suffering, by reading about it and talking about it with scholars or monks. The understanding one must gain is an intuitive one. You can only acheive it by doing it.

While all of the elements of the eightfold path are important in a Zen practice, none is more so than meditation. The word “Zen” itself comes from the Chinese Ch’an, which comes from the Indian dhyana, or “meditation”. The fundamental practice of Zen is zazen, “sitting meditation”, but one’s practice should also involve the rest of the day as well, approaching all of one’s activities with attention and mindfulness.

The particular kind of zazen differs by sect. The Rinzai sect prefers more intense, active zazen, beginning with counting the breath, then concentrating on the breath without counting, and so on, and eventually adopting koan practice. Koans are the unanswerable, mystical-sounding questions of the stereotypical Zen master: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What is your original face before you were born?” “Does a dog have the Buddha-nature?”. Koans are not riddles or trick questions, not to be approached rationally. Koan practice is intuitiveness practice, helping you carefully escape the discursive nature of our typical perception, preparing your ability to directly perceive all things.

The Soto sect, on the other hand, practices shikantaza, “only sitting”. Shikantaza is meditation without a particular object of concentration. Instead of training your mind on the breath and then solving koans to teach yourself how to directly perceive the nature of things, shikantaza has you concentrate on nothing and everything; awareness of all phenomena and thoughts without interrupting perception, concentration on the present.

You can see what I mean about it being difficult to explain.

Without confusing you with more specifics and detail, it will probably suffice to know that the core of Zen is its directness — that you can’t study Buddhism, only experience it — and that the specific practices of Zen are zazen, and adoption of the principles of zazen into everyday life. The point of Zen is that it isn’t explainable, and the practice of Zen is directed at finding out what that point is.

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

That won’t stop me from writing about it, though.