Zen Buddhism is a philosophy that is popular in both the Eastern and the Western worlds. The main themes of Zen include mastering your mind and releasing a distorted sense of reality.
Zen is a unique branch of Buddhism that developed in China, was later popularized in Japan, and then also spread to the West. It has many principles in common with Taoism.
Buddhism spread from India to China slowly beginning around the 00s AD, and around the year 500 AD, an Indian sage named Bodhidharma is said to have brought the foundation of a new branch of Buddhism to China that became known as Chan Buddhism. (Bodhidharma is considered the 28th Patriarch of a line of people passing down teachings starting with the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. Bodhidharma is also considered the first of a line of six early Chan Buddhism Patriarchs.)
Chan teachings had a minor presence in Japan as early as the 600s, where it was known as Zen. In the 1200s, Zen became popularized in Japan, and while flourishing there, it particularly appealed to the Samurai warrior class due to its self-discipline and creative spontaneity. Zen also influenced Japanese culture, and particularly Japanese arts, which many Zen practitioners feel are ways of spontaneously expressing “Buddha-nature.”
Zen later spread to other parts of the world, and currently has a large following in the United States, among other places. It has also influenced many martial arts practices.
According to Zen Buddhist teachings, conventional thought and reason attempt to grasp reality, and gives people a distorted sense of reality. The person who achieves “Zen mind,” however, observes, accepts, and acknowledges reality.
Zen practitioners use various methods to relinquish and release a distorted view of reality, and reach a state of enlightenment known as satori, which can be loosely defined as a state of
· recovering your original mind
· freeing yourself from your mind and your thoughts
· avoiding self-conscious oriented thinking
Keep in mind that Zen enlightenment is not about attaining enlightenment. Instead, it is about allowing it to happen, and about realizing that you already have it, or realizing what is in the way of it.
According to Zen philosophy, everyone already has the enlightened nature, but needs to realize it, acknowledge it, or let themselves experience / be it.
According to Zen teachings, the deep essence of Zen does not specifically lie in or depend on words or conventional ideas. But since people use words and ideas in their lives, it becomes necessary that Zen teachings use words and ideas to subvert the ordinary use of words and ideas, and to relinquish the inaccuracy caused by them. Or to put it another way, although words and ideas might hinder enlightenment, they can also lead to enlightenment as well.
But the essence of Zen lies more in experience. The essence of Zen circumvents words and goes directly into one’s true nature.
Zen teachings emphasize focusing on the present moment, and having everything in life experienced with the mind oriented in the present.
In Zen philosophy, the Zen experience is based on but not limited to specific Zen practices. Zen extends to everything one does. In Zen philosophy, eating, working / playing, and resting are all considered Zen experience / activities / practice.
When Zen was popularized in Japan, two sects of Zen emerged (which were based on two of the sects of Chan Buddhism in China): Soto and Rinzai.
The Soto believe that enlightenment can be achieved gradually through long-term experience, particularly of zazen, which is Zen meditation.
In zazen, the practitioner sits and practices “non-thinking,” “emptying,” or a achieving a mind devoid of purpose.
Here is a selection about zazen from the Shobogenzo, which written by Dogen (lived from 1200 to 1253), the founder of Japanese Soto Zen:
After you have selected a posture, you should regulate your breathing. Whenever a thought comes up, acknowledge it, and as soon as you do, it will go away. If you become forgetful of objects for a long time, you will naturally become unified. This is the essence of zazen…
After you have regulated your mind and body, take a breath and fully exhale. Sitting fixedly, think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Nothinking. This is the art of zazen.
The other group of Zen Buddhists is the Rinzai. They believe that enlightenment can be triggered instantly and experienced at any time. The Rinzai usually use a master and disciple setting, where the master guides the disciple in attaining enlightenment. However, a Master is not a teacher, because Zen cannot be taught. Masters are experienced guides who put students in situations that will be conducive for them to experience Zen mind on their own.