new age spirituality

What is Zen?

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism notable for its emphasis on practice and experiential wisdom — particularly as realized in the form of meditation known as zazen — in the attainment of awakening. As such, it de-emphasizes both theoretical knowledge and the study of religious texts in favor of direct individual experience of one's own true nature.

Origins of Zen

The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century CE. It is thought to have developed as an amalgam of various currents in Mahayana Buddhist thought — among them the Yogacara and Madhyamaka philosophies and the Prajñaparamita literature — and of local traditions in China, particularly Daoism and Huáyán Buddhism. From China, Zen subsequently spread southwards to Vietnam and eastwards to Korea and Japan. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zen also began to establish a notable presence in North America and Europe.

Zen Philosophy

In Zen, philosophical teachings and textual study are given less emphasis than in other forms of Buddhism. Nonetheless, Zen is deeply rooted in both the teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama and Mahayana Buddhist thought.

The fundamental Zen practice of zazen, or seated meditation, recalls both the posture in which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, and the elements of mindfulness and concentration which are part of the Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. All of the Buddha's fundamental teachings—among them the Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, the idea of dependent origination, the five precepts, the five aggregates, and the three marks of existence—also make up important elements of Zen.

Zen training emphasizes daily life practice, along with intensive periods of meditation. Practicing with others is an integral part of Zen practice.


Zen sitting meditation, the core of zen practice, is called zazen in Japanese. During zazen, practitioners usually assume a sitting position such as the lotus, half-lotus, Burmese, or seiza postures. Awareness is directed towards one's posture and breathing. Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some cases, a chair may be used. In Rinzai Zen practitioners typically sit facing the center of the room; while Soto practitioners traditionally sit facing a wall.

In Soto Zen, shikantaza meditation ("just-sitting") that is, a meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.

The amount of time spent daily in zazen by practitioners varies. Dogen recommends that five minutes or more daily is beneficial for householders. The key is daily regularity, as Zen teaches that the ego will naturally resist, and the discipline of regularity is essential. Practicing Zen monks may perform four to six periods of zazen during a normal day, with each period lasting 30 to 40 minutes. Normally, a monastery will hold a monthly retreat period (sesshin), lasting between one and seven days. During this time, zazen is practiced more intensively: monks may spend four to eight hours in meditation each day, sometimes supplemented by further rounds of zazen late at night.

Meditation as a practice can be applied to any posture. Walking meditation is called kinhin. Successive periods of zazen are usually interwoven with brief periods of walking meditation to relieve the legs.

The teacher

Because the Zen tradition emphasizes direct communication over scriptural study, the Zen teacher has traditionally played a central role. Generally speaking, a Zen teacher is a person ordained in any tradition of Zen to teach the dharma, guide students of meditation, and perform rituals. An important concept for all Zen sects is the notion of Dharma transmission the claim of a line of authority that goes back to Sakyamuni Buddha via the teachings of each successive master to each successive student.

Koan practice

Zen Buddhists of the Rinzai school practice meditation on koans during zazen. A koan (literally "public case") is a story or dialogue, generally related to Zen or other Buddhist history; the most typical form is an anecdote involving early Chinese Zen masters. Koan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai school, but it also occurs in other forms of Zen.

These anecdotes involving famous Zen teachers are a practical demonstration of their wisdom, and can be used to test a student's progress in Zen practice. Koans often appear paradoxical or linguistically meaningless dialogues or questions. Answering a koan requires a student to let go of conceptual thinking and of the logical way we order the world.

The Zen student's mastery of a given koan is presented to the teacher in a private interview, referred to as dokusan, daisan, or sanzen. Zen teachers advise that the problem posed by a koan is to be taken quite seriously, and to be approached as literally a matter of life and death. While there is no unique answer to a koan, practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the koan and of Zen through their responses. The teacher may approve or disapprove of the answer and guide the student in the right direction. There are also various commentaries on koans, written by experienced teachers, that can serve as a guide. These commentaries are also of great value to modern scholarship on the subject.


A practice in many Zen monasteries and centers is a daily liturgy service at which practitioners chant major and minor sutras.

The Butsudan is the altar in a monastery where offerings are made to the images of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. The same term is also used in Japanese homes for the altar where one prays to and communicates with deceased family members. As such, reciting liturgy in Zen can be seen as a means to connect with the Bodhisattvas of the past. Liturgy is often used during funerals, memorials, and other special events as means to invoke the aid of supernatural powers.

Chanting usually centers on major Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara and Manjusri. These celestial beings have taken extraordinary vows to refrain from entering full enlightenment until all beings become liberated from Samsara. Since the Zen practitioner’s aim is to walk the Bodhisattva path, chanting can be used as a means to connect with these beings and realize this ideal within oneself. By repeatedly chanting the Avalokiteshvara sutra, for example, one instills the Bodhisattva's ideals into ones mind.

Through the realization of the Emptiness of oneself, and the Mahayanist ideal of Buddha-nature in all things, one understands that there is no difference between the cosmic bodhisattva and oneself. The wisdom and compassion of the Boddhisattva one is chanting to is seen to equal the inner wisdom and compassion of the practitioner. Thus, the duality between subject and object, practitioner and Bodhisattva, chanter and sutra is ended.

Other Zen techniques

There are other techniques common in the Zen tradition which seem unconventional and whose purpose is said to be to shock a student in order to help him or her let go of habitual activities of the mind. Some of these are common today, while others are found mostly in anecdotes. These include the loud belly shout known as katsu. It is common in many Zen traditions today for Zen teachers to have a stick with them during formal ceremonies which is a symbol of authority and which can be also used to strike on the table during a talk.

Find out more about Zen

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki
The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh

The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment; Philip Kapleau Roshi
The Way of Zen, Alan W. Watts
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
Zen And the Art of Happiness, Chris Prentiss

Not strictly about Zen, but undoubtedly a modern classic
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert M. Pirsig

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia articles "Zen".

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