WHAT IS ZEN BUDDHISM?
Zen, or Chan as it is called when referring to its history in China, is one branch of the great tree of Mahayana Buddhism. Chan Buddhism – a confluence of Indian Buddhism as it stems from the Buddha and his twenty-eight Indian ancestors and Chinese Daoism – began its growth in China during the sixth century. It flourished there during the Tang and Song dynasties most particularly through the genius of a multitude of great teachers, including Dajian Huineng (638-713), Mazu Daoyi (709-88), Linji Yixuan (d.866) and Dongshan Liangjie (807-69). Zen took root in Japan in the twelfth century, and developed there through the inspiration provided by great Japanese masters such as Dogen Kigen (1200-1253) and Hakuin Ekaku (1689-1769) – to name but two. In the early twentieth century, Zen Buddhism came to the United States, and from there it has spread to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the world.
Zen Buddhism is a path of liberation that emphasises awakening to our true nature and to the incorporation of that awakening into our daily life, most especially for the benefit of others. This is the Bodhisattva ideal where we enlighten others and ourselves in the midst of the passions and suffering of the world.
Central to Zen Buddhism is the practice of zazen. The various modes of zazen are: breath counting, experiencing the breath, shikantaza (literally “nothing but precisely sitting”), Silent Illumination, and koan study. These meditation practices variously enable us to develop concentration and awareness, and ultimately to awaken and to learn to express, embody, and ultimately to live our awakening. At the same time zazen is not a means, any more than eating, sleeping or hugging your children is a means. As Dogen said, “Zazen is itself enlightenment.” This unity of ends and means, effect and cause, is the practice of enlightenment, the Way of the Buddha.
Zen practice encourages us to engage with whatever presents – including the inevitable difficulties that we encounter in our lives – and to find our true home there with them, as them. Indeed, we find that, mysteriously, the great blue sky, the laughter of children, the pine tree, the crow, and indeed all beings, are right there with us – as us. This is intimacy. Robert Aitken considered the experience of intimacy to be the central matter of Zen.
Although sincere practice is itself the teacher, we are fortunate to have two teachers, who offer dokusan. Ross Bolleter is the ZGWA’s resident teacher and we also have a regularly visiting teacher, Mari Rhydwen who offers dokusan during Intensive Practice Periods and Sesshins. Dokusan supports the student's efforts and is a source of guidance and encouragement for the Way. The Sangha and teacher together help a new student begin a life-long journey of growing insight and understanding. Please discuss your zazen practice with your teacher.
For more information on Zen Buddhism, read our Orientation Notes.
Though we find clear waters ranging to the vast blue sky in autumn, How can it compare to the hazy moon on a spring night?
Some people want to have it pure white,
but sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.
- Keizan Jokin (1268 – 1325)