Jap., an abbreviation of the word zenna (also zenno), the Japanese way of reading Chinese ch’an-na (short form, ch’an). This in turn is the Chinese version of the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which refers to collectedness of mind or meditative absorption in which all dualistic distinctions like I/you, subject/object, and true/ false are eliminated. Zen can be defined both exoterically and esoterically.
Exoterically regarded, Zen, or Ch’an as it is called when referring to its history in China, is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed in China in the 6th and 7th centuries from the meeting of Dhyāna Buddhism, which was brought to China by Bodhidharma, and Taoism. In this sense Zen is a religion, the teachings and practices of which are directed toward self-realization and lead finally to complete awakening as experienced by Shākyamuni Buddha after intensive meditative self-discipline under the Bodhi-tree. More than any other school, Zen stresses the prime importance of the enlightenment experience and the uselessness of ritual religious practices and intellectual analysis of doctrine for the attainment of liberation. Zen teaches the practice of zazen, sitting in meditative absorption as the shortest, but also the steepest, way to awakening. The essential nature of Zen can be summarized in four short statements: (1) “[a] special transmission outside the [orthodox] teaching”; (2) nondependence on [sacred] writings”; and (3) “direct pointing [to the] human heart”; leading to (4) realization of [one’s own] nature [and] becoming a buddha.” This pregnant characterization of Zen is attributed by tradition to Bodhidharma, its first patriarch; however, many modern scholars suspect that it originated rather with the later Ch’an master Nan-ch’uan P’u-yuan (Jap., Nansen Fugan).
According to legend the “special transmission outside the orthodox teaching” began with the famous discourse of Buddha Shākyamuni on Vulture Peak Mountain (Gridhrakūta). At that time, surrounded by a great host of disciples who had assembled to hear him expound the teaching, he is said only to have held up a flower without speaking. Only his student Kashyapa understood and smiled—as a result of his master’s gesture he suddenly experienced a breakthrough to enlightened vision and grasped the essence of the Buddha’s teaching on the spot. With this, the first transmission from heart-mind to heart-mind took place. The Buddha confirmed Mahākāshyapa, as his enlightened student was called henceforth, as the first Indian patriarch in the lineage of transmission. In Zen, which is often also called the “School of Buddha-Mind,” sudden enlightenment has played a central role.
It is said that the buddhadharma was passed down in an unbroken chain of transmission to the twenty-eighth Indian patriarch, Bodhidharma. The Indian period and its lineage of transmission, which was first mentioned in later Chinese texts, is regarded as legendary by historians, since there are no historical documents concerning it. For Zen itself, the historicity of the early patriarchs is irrelevant, since the authenticity of the enlightenment experience, which can be easily tested by an enlightened master (if he has not grown slack), is the matter of primary concern. What is important here is living truth rather than the dry, thinglike reality of documents and dates to which scientific researchers would like to reduce a richer, more global reality that they do not understand.
When Bodhidharma brought Dhyāna Buddhism from India to China at the beginning of the 6th century, he became the first patriarch of the lineage of Ch’an (Zen). In the course of further transmission of the teaching, down to the 6th patriarch Hui-neng (638–713), there developed out of the combination of the spiritual essence of Dhyāna Buddhism and the teaching and approach to life of Taoism, which was congenial to Buddhism in many ways, what today we call Zen. This is primarily the teaching of the Southern school stemming from Hui-neng, which stressed the doctrine of sudden enlightenment . Another school of Ch’an, the Northern school, which was originated by Shen-hsiu, a “rival” of Hui-neng, and taught gradual enlightenment, survived for only a short time.
With Hui-neng and his immediate dharma successors began the great period of Ch’an, which especially during the T’ang period but also in the beginning of the Sung period produced a large number of great masters. Among these were extraordinary masters such as Matsu Tao-i, (Jap., Baso Dōitsu), Pai-chang Huai-hai (Jap., Hyakujō Ekai), Te-shan Hsuan-chien (Jap., Tokusan Senkan), Tung-shan Liang-chieh (Jap., Tōzan Ryōkai), Chao-shou T’ung-shen (Jap., Jōshū Jūshin), and Lin-chi I-hsuan (Jap., Rinzai Gigen). These masters largely shaped the training methods that became typical of Ch’an. The lineage of the Southern school of Ch’an split into “five houses, seven schools”; these were currents within the Ch’an tradition that differed in details of training style but not in essential content. They are the Sōtō school, the Urn-mon school, the Hōgen school, the Igyō school, and the Rinzai school; subschools of Rinzai are the Yogi school and the Ōryō school.
Of these traditions, two, those of the Rinzai school and the Sōtō school, reached Japan, in the 12th century and at the beginning of the 13th century, respectively. Both schools are still active there today. While Ch’an in China declined after the Sung period and then, through admixture with the Pure Land school of Buddhism during the Ming period, ceased to exist altogether as an authentic lineage of transmission of the buddhadharma “from heart-mind to heart-mind,” in Japan, as Zen, it began to flourish anew. Dōgen Zenji, who brought the Sōtō tradition to Japan, and Eisai Zenji, Shinchi Kakushin, Shōmyō, and others in the Rinzai tradition, together with a few Chinese Ch’an masters who were invited to Japan, founded the Zen tradition. A school founded in Japan in the middle of the 17th century by the Chinese master Yin-yuan Lung-ch’i (Jap., Ingen Ryūki), the Ōbaku school, is today practically with;out importance, having only one active monastery, the Mampuku-ji in Uji near Kyōto. One of the most outstanding figures in Zen was Hakuin Zenji, who reformed Japanese Rinzai Zen in the 18th century after a period of deterioration and helped it to revive and flourish once again.
Since for some decades Westerners have also been seeking guidance on the Zen way in Japan, nowadays Japanese masters teach the dharma also in Europe and the United States, and there are already a number of Western dharma successors.
Esoterically regarded, Zen is not a religion but rather an indefinable, incommunicable root, free from all names, descriptions, and concepts, that can only be experienced by each individual for him- or herself. From expressed forms of this, all religions have sprung. In this sense Zen is not bound to any religion, including Buddhism. It is the primordial perfection of everything existing, designated by the most various names, experienced by all great sages, saints, and founders of religions of all cultures and times. Buddhism has referred to it as the “identity of samsāra and nirvāna.” From this point of view zazen is not a “method” that brings people living in ignorance (avidyā) to the “goal” of liberation; rather it is the immediate expression and actualization of the perfection present in every person at every moment.