Zen: A Religious and Philosophical Tradition

Great Buddha of Kamakura, Zen Buddhism

Zen is the concept that enlightenment may be realized through quiet meditation.

Zen is a religious and philosophical tradition established by Myoan Eisai (1141-1215), who studied Chan Buddhism in China and founded Japan’s first Zen temple in 1191.

The Chan School traces its own origins to Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk who brought Mahayana Buddhism to China and founded the Xiaolin temple. Mahayana Buddhism began to incorporate elements of Daoism, which led to the simplified, experience-driven approach of first Chan, and then Zen.

Like Indian Mahayana Buddhism, Zen asserts that suffering in the world comes as a result of our ignorant attachment to false ideals, particularly the concept of a permanent self. The true nature of reality is engi, or interdependent arising, in which everything is part of a dynamic, interrelated web of being. All things are impermanent and nothing exists apart from the natural and social context in which it is embedded.

Through meditative practices, a person can experience the truth of engi and gain satori (enlightenment), which is characterized by mushin, a state of “no-mind” that perceives things as they truly are without abstraction.

Zen training involves the cultivation of two main virtues: chie (wisdom about the true nature of reality) and jihi (compassion for all sentient beings).

The two most dominant schools of Zen are

  1. Soto, which focuses upon seated meditation
  2. Rinzai, which emphasizes the contemplation of koans, or paradoxical riddles.

The cultivation of mushin results in a type of hyperpraxia in which a person’s performance of any task is greatly enhanced, and many artists since the samurai era have studied Zen to augment their abilities.

The Japanese-Buddhist author and lecturer D. T. Suzuki once said, “Zen … turns one’s humdrum life .. . into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.”

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