• If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him, goes an old Zen saying.
• When Bodhidharma visited China in the sixth century, he was invited to the king’s court. The king was proud of his spirituality and the good deeds he had done for his people. He narrated what all he had done to promote religion and then asked Bodhidharma’s opinion about the merit he earned. Bodhidharma’s reply was blunt: “No merit.”
• Once there was a conference of religions to which all faiths sent their representatives. Every representative stated forcefully that his religion was great. When it was the turn of Zen’s representative, he stated truthfully: “There is nothing great in Zen.” A member of the audience with a deep understanding of Zen got up and said: “Your saying that there is nothing great in Zen actually makes Zen sound as something great. So you should not have said there is nothing great in Zen.” Iconoclastic, indifferent to virtues like piety, not clinging to fixed viewpoints, so capable of turning your mind full 360 degrees. That is Zen.
It may be an offshoot of Buddhism, but it is so radically different from other major Buddhist sects and, for that matter, any other religio-mystical tradition, that it is a category by itself.
Zen’s own principles are put in four concise lines:
A special transmission outside the scriptures
No dependence upon words and letters,
Direct pointing at the soul of man
Seeing into one’s nature and attainment of Buddhahood.
These simple sounding statements are in fact revolutionary. With a whoosh, Zen leaps out—free of traditions, lineages, history, authority. Since its objective is Buddhahood, finding it within, not on the road, it has no place for the historical Buddha. It goes about achieving its objective through familiar practices like Zazen meditation and unique minbenders like the koan study.
Then again, making it clear that Zen is a system of teaching, and nothing more, a key statement is made: Zen is a finger pointing to the moon. It is only a finger, not the moon. Only a map, not the territory. This approach if adopted by other religions, can cut at the root of fundamentalism and eliminate acrimony between religions.
Appealing to the modern mind, Zen caught on in the western world after D.T. Suzuki started publishing his books in English. The Beat poets and writers (of the pre-Hippie era in the 1950s) loved it and made it fashionable. Jack Kerouac, famous for On the Road, also wrote The Dharma Bums, in which Zen is a running theme. Gary Snyder, the poet and deep ecology philosopher whose persona is the wise friend in The Dharma Bums (1958), went on to learn Zen in Japan during a long sojourn there. Zen may not have been the ostensible theme (it is subtitled ‘An Inquiry into values’) of Robert M. Pirsig’s megaseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), but it helped bring Zen mainstream. There is lot of Zen and Haikus in Peter Matthiessen’s the snow leopard (1978), about an expedition to spot the elusive animal in Nepal.
Over the decades. Zen’s worldwide influence has taken two forms. One, in the USA and Europe, Zen centers and Zen masters have flourished, teaching, in many cases, a version of Zen suited for the western mind. Two, its influence and applications have figured in psychotherapy, art, etc.
From India with dyan
Unlike other religions rooted in a geographical space, Zen is a transcultural product which developed over a millennium.
Many will trace Zen’s origin to the famous Flower Sermon of the Buddha himself, when instead of giving a discourse, he keeps looking at a lotus flower and then holds it aloft. The audience is perplexed, only Mahakashyap among them understands and laughs. This was literally a “transmission outside the scriptures, no dependence upon words and letters”.
However, formally, the story of Zen’s development begins with Bodhidharma who is credited with taking Gautama Buddha’s teachings from India to China circa 530 AD. He is identified as the 28th successor to the transmission of the dharma descending from the Buddha, and the first patriarch of China. The Indian term dhyan became Ch’an in China, adopted as the name of the system. Bodhudharma became the first of the six Grand Patriarchs of Ch’an, his bowl and robe being passed down to each successor who held the office.
Early Zen masters found a similarity with Taoism and its principle of ‘Wu-wei’, or ‘non-doing’ as a means to penetrate the veil of illusion and therefore much of Ch’an is influenced by Taoism.
The Sixth patriarch Hui-neng, one of the most revered of Zen masters, next to the Buddha and Bodhidharma, was an illiterate peasant. Enlightened upon hearing the Diamond Sutra being recited, he approached his master, Hund-jen who recognized his enlightened state. When Hung-jen announced that the robe and bowl of office would go to the monk who could compose a poem on the essence of Zen, the head-priest Shen-hsui, likely contender for the office, wrote:
Our body is the Bodhi-tree
And our mind a mirror bright
Carefully we clean them hour-by-hour
And let no dust alight
Hui-neng, not even aware of the test, heard this and scribbled alongside:
There is no Bodhi-tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is Void
Where can the dust alight?
When Hung-jen read it, he gave him the robe and bowl of office and asked him to flee before the other monks found out. It was 15 years later that Hui-neng resurfaced and revealed himself as the Sixth Patriarch and started the Southern school of Ch’an. The Northern school under Shen-hsui soon died out.
The T’ang dynasty (AD 620-906) was the Golden Age of Ch’an in China, producing great masters like Joshu and Nansen. One of the most important teachers of the age in the Southern school, Lin-Chi founded the school that came to be known in Japanese as Rinzai.
Before reaching Japan and becoming known as Zen, Ch’an split into two schools, the Lin-chi (named after a master famous for his no-nonsense approach) and the Ts’ao-tung. In Japan these are known as Rinzai and Soto schools respectively.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Rinzai was adopted by the Samurai whose courageous will lent itself to Zen practice gradually evolving into ‘Warrior Zen’. Soto Zen developed without any political influence. Dogen, a Master of the Soto school, is one of Japan’s greatest religious teachers. After completing his training in the Rinzai tradition and receiving the ‘Inka’, seal of the master, he went to China where he became enlightened, returning to Japan in 1227. Though he brought with him certain important Soto Zen scriptures, he said that he had returned ‘empty-handed’. A demanding teacher, and outspoken critic of other Zen schools, in 1236, he started his own temple and gathered many students. He taught that life’s routine activity gave you enough opportunity to express you Buddha nature.
So we have the Zen saying, “When hungry, eat / When tired, sleep / Above all don’t wobble.”
Zen in the West and in India
Today in the West, as in India, Zen is associated with Zazen meditation, martial arts, calligraphy, Haiku poetry, teaching stories, Zen garden, and the Tea Ceremony.
Zen was introduced to the West by the writings of authors such as D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts and Christmas Humphries. Japansese-born Suzuki (1870-1966) who started life as an English teacher with an abiding interest in Zen, went on to teach at universities in the USA. Besides his 32 volumes in Japanese, his 30-odd titles in English include An introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934) and Zen and Japanese Culture(1959). Interestingly, he became not only Zen’s ambassador in the modern world, his work led to a reawakening of interest in Buddhism in Japan at a time when the study of Shinto had dominated Japanese religious scholarship. People influenced by him include psychologists Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and composer John Cage. Suzuki and Fromm collaborated on a book titled Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy.
The pioneers of Zen teaching have been roshis such as Shunryu Suzuki, Hakuin Yasutani and Soen Nakagawa. Others such as Jiyu Kennet and Philip Kapleau even trained in the East and returned to the West to teach.
Western Zen is obviously different from its forms in the East and teachers show willingness to experiment with the traditional teaching methods. As Zen deals more with practical living rather than specific creeds or practices, it has the potential to develop along identifiably Western overtones.
In India, many people credit Osho with popularizing Zen. Deep Mehta, a Mumbai travel agent currently dabbling in the stock market, who has started teaching Zen, says, “Osho first introduced Zen to India in 1974, though a series of talks on the subject, which was brought out in the form of a book called Roots and Wings.” Ma Prem Usha in her ubiquitous tarot columns, always starts with a quote from Osho, introducing him as a Zen master. Indeed disposition, in his nonsense approach, Osho was closer to the spirit of Zen.
Since Zen masters are hard to find, Deep Mehta owes his teaching to Zen books. In particular he points to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunyuru Suzuki, and Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau.
In Delhi, P.S. Wasu too has had no formal training in Zen, but he says his corporate excellence workshop, titled Fine Print of Life, is all Zen without using the word Zen. His clients include Vertex India and Shree Cements. For him Zen is meditation in action. Instead of doing any specific practices he tries to live naturally, effortlessly, spontaneously. “Then,” he says, “karma becomes a-karma (non-doing), the ultimate art of living.” After a new learning, he points out, most people say they want to practise it , to (seriously) implement it. Instead he tells them to ‘play it’ ‘live it’.
Perhaps the only real Zen master then in India is AMA Samy, who has studied in Japan under a master
The three essential elements of Zen practice are:
• Great doubt: Starting with the doubt about the purpose of life that set the Buddha to look for answers, Zen accepts doubt as a natural human state.
• Great faith: The reason we cling to the human mind is the lack of faith to let go. One needs to have faith in one’s inherent Buddha nature.
• Great determination: The practice must be done sincerely with determination.Zen practice leads to satori, which is the alpha and omega of Zen Buddhism. In common parlance, satori has come to mean an insight, or a thoughtless state akin to samadhi of yoga. But in Zen, satori is another name for enlightenment. Zen masters are fond of trying to avail themselves of every apparently trivial incident of life to make their disciples’ mind flow into a channel hitherto unperceived, leading to satori.
A moment comes, when as if an otherwise closed screen is lifted, an entirely new vista opens up and the tone of one’s whole life thereafter changes. This mental clicking or opening is called satori. Most Zen stories are actually the recounting of satori experiences of monks and masters of the past, aimed to do the same for the reader of the story. Take this story:
Hyakujo (724-814) one day went out attending his master Baso. A flock of wild geese was seen flying and Baso asked,
“What are they?”
“They are wild geese, sir.”
“Whither are they flying?”
“They have flown away, sir?”
Baso abruptly taking hold of Hyakujo’s nose gave it a twist. Overcome with pain, Hyakujo cried aloud, “Oh! Oh!”
“You said they have flown away,” Baso said, but all the same they have been here from the very beginning.”
This made Hyakujo’s back wet with perspiration. He had satori.
Baso’s approach will be called the direct method of awakening in Zen, but here are the more formal practices:
Zazen (Sitting meditation): The basic practices for both Rinzai and Soto schools are similar, differing only in emphasis on specific techniques or in subtler details. A key practice in both is the sitting meditation called Zazen.
The aim of Zazen is to be completely in the moment. This is accomplished by sitting in meditation focusing attention on one’s breathing. The idea is to give this activity of counting breaths your complete undivided attention.
This state is not something we are used to and so while doing Zazen one experiences many thoughts arising. The practice is aimed at observing these thoughts without getting attached to them. One is not expected to suppress thoughts which is impossible, but simply observe them passing, at the same time trying not to have intentional thoughts about work, family, the practice one is into, etc.
Zazen has been described as a ‘direct entry to the Buddha stage in one jump’. Master Dogen in his treatise, Shobogenzo, explains Zazen as the ‘whole experience of the fundamental truth’. Another Zen teacher explains how there is no distinguishing between beginners and accomplished practitioners when they sit in Zazen, as they are immediately in the same condition as the Buddha.
Yamada Roshi has compared Zazen with stilling of mud in a murky pond. This is because our usual state of mind is like a turbulent muddy pool. It is when we sit in Zazen that we realize that the more we become involved in this confused mental activity, we add to it. It is only by being an observer to the arising and passing of thoughts that the mind is stilled.
According to the Soto School, Zazen is Jijiyuzamai (self-fulfilling), and Mushotoku (having to goal). Thus the master Taisen Dehimaru says, “Having even one goal, even the tiniest preference of the most infinitesimal thought, or pursuing some objective, however feeble, automatically and inevitably drives us away from he truth of Zazen.”
Nansen reveals the way as “beyond both knowing and not knowing. It is not practicing from delusion towards enlightenment but simply what is in front of our eyes.”
This is where the difficulty lies because there is a thin line between effort in practice and attachment to a goal. Explains Suzuki Roshi, “It is impossible to attain absolute calmness without any effort. We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make.
The goal of Zazen according to Yasutani Roshi is Joriki (concentration), Kensho-godo (awakening to satori) and Mujodod no taigen (walking the Buddha’s way in daily life).
Mindfulness meditation: It has been brought out of Buddhist monasteries by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master settled in France, also known for formulating engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness is one of the eight principles in the path charted by the Buddha himself. It calls for the student to be aware of every breath he takes, which in turn enables him to be aware of being alive which is the greatest miracle of all.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains that breath-watching takes care of the present moment, and in turn, you take care of life. The first function of conscious breathing is to let you stop thinking. The second is to allow you to be in touch with life. The third, to give you a chance to rest and resolve yourself. The principle is that when you breathe consciously, you become your breathing. If your breathing becomes peaceful, you become peaceful. It is that simple.
Mindfulness being aware moment can be practiced while walking, working, cooking or eating.
Kinhin (walking meditation): It involves rhythmic walking coordinated with one’s foot, each step is coordinated with one breath (inhalation and exhalation). Besides increasing awareness, it is a good break between intensive Zazen.
Koan study: Koan study is aimed at cutting the veils of delusion. A koan is a parable of the actual experience of enlightenment and helps one to go beyond dualistic consciousness to experience the truth expressed in the koan.
Koan is a product of the Rinzai school and typically narrates interactions between teachers and students. Handed down though generations of teachers, koan study became a formal aspect of Zen training with systematised koan collections like the Mumonkan and the Hekiganroku.
Often posing paradoxical problems (like in the popular kona, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’), koans test a student’s understanding of Zen. Going beyond the limitations of intellectual understanding, a koan compels the student to open up to an experiential understanding of the problem under scrutiny.
Hakuin (1686-1769) said, “If you take up one koan and investigate without ceasing, your thoughts will die and your ego-demands will be destroyed. It is an though a vast abyss opened up in front of you, with no place to put your hands and feet. You face death, and your heart feels as though it were on fire. Then suddenly you are one with the koan, and body and mind let go… This is known as seeing into one’s own nature. You must push forward relentlessly, and with the help of this great concentration you will penetrate without fail to the infinite source of your own nature.”
Zen culture and aesthetics
Before westernisation set in, Japanese culture was all Zen. First, there are the fine arts, creations of beauty but also devices whereby Zen masters transmit otherwise inexpressible insights. They did not invent new art forms but rather co-opted existing Japanese (and sometimes Chinese) forms to suit Zen purposes. The Chinese-style gardens so favoured by the Japanese aristocracy were adopted for use around Zen temples, and then turned into monochrome stone gardens. Chinese ink painting was made the official art of Zen. Rustic dramatic skits popular among the Japanese peasants were converted by Zen aesthetics into solemn theatre experience called the No, whose plays and narrative poetry and narrative poetry are so austere, symbolic and profound as to seem a kind of Zen Mass.
In the later years, poets revised the standard Japanese poetic form (akin to the sonnet), into the 17-syllable Haiku. The famous Japanese Tea Ceremony evolved as a solemn episode for the celebration of ideal beauty and inner calm.
In the military sphere, Zen influence began as a special approach to swordsmanship and archery and ended as a disciplined contempt for death of the Samurai.
Zen both followed and moulded Japanese tendencies like the love of nature, the acceptance of hardship as uplifting, the refusal to distinguish between the religious and the secular, and the capacity for the most unpleasant sort of self-discipline. Some of these qualities helped Japan rise out of the ashes of the World War II to emerge this time as an economic superpower.
Zen aesthetics is strikingly different from what is held valua