Hui Neng tearing
up a sutra
What is Zen?
Someone trying to answer this question might end up
talking about the sound of one hand clapping, fingers
pointing at the moon, emptiness, and other
I won't even try. After all, Zen is transmitted
outside of words, direct from the mind of the teacher
to the mind of the student.
Instead, let's ask: What is "Zen"?
The word "Zen" is Japanese for a style of Buddhism,
but didn't Buddhism come from India?
Let's start from the beginning.
Buddhism is a religion based around the teachings of
the Buddha, or the Awakened One, who lived around 500
years before Christ. He taught that in life, suffering
or dissatisfaction is inevitable. Suffering has
causes, those causes can be cut off, and there is a
way of life that will allow someone to do this. These
are called the Four Noble Truths, and the way of life
is the Eightfold Path: Right Views, Right Intention,
Right Speech, Right Attitude, Right Livelihood, Right
Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Following the Eightfold Path, he taught, will lead to
Nirvana, the "putting out of fires," and suffering
In order to live in such a way, many Buddhists
emphasize the value of meditation. In the ancient
Indian language Sanskrit, "deep meditation" is dhyana.
When Buddhism arrived in China, the Chinese had to
find a way to talk about these new ideas for which
there were no Chinese words, so they imported the
words along with the ideas. Just as foreign words like
"karaoke" and "typhoon" entered the English language,
dhyana entered the Chinese language. As Chinese has
different sounds than Sanskrit, they pronounced the
word "chan-na." They used two Chinese characters to
write the word by sound, without regard to the
characters' meanings, something like drawing a car and
a pet dog to write "carpet."
Later, in the 5th century, an Indian monk named
Bodhidharma came to China. Bodhidharma stressed
meditation so much that he supposedly cut off his
eyelids to keep from falling asleep when meditating!
His style of Buddhism came to be known as the
Meditation School, or "Chan" for short.
Many Chinese intellectuals, poets, and artists were
attracted to Chan's simplicity and spontaneity,
perhaps because it reminded them of their own Taoist
tradition. Chan became a great influence in Chinese
Since China was the dominant nation of the day, many
of its neighbors borrowed and learned from it. Many
Japanese went to study in China, and eventually, Chan
Buddhism was brought to Japan by a monk named Eisai in
the 13th century. The Japanese, who had already
imported Chinese characters into their own language,
learned the character for “Chan” and pronounced it
Zen became very influential in Japan, perhaps even
more influential than it had been in China. In fact,
it became so well-known that many people in the West
think of it as a Japanese concept. Just as the
Japanese borrowed the word from the Chinese, who
borrowed it from the Indians, we have borrowed it from
the Japanese, and now Zen is an English word.
That is the meaning of the word “Zen.” As for the
idea itself, well, you’ll have to meditate on it: I
can’t tell you or it wouldn’t be Zen.
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