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The Japanese form of Buddhism

In the fifth century AD, the Buddhist school of Chan, which is a translation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana and means meditation, developed in China. Chan developed on the basis of Mahayana Buddhism. When this school came to Japan in the twelfth century it was called Zen.

Bodhidharma, the Zen master

The Indian monk Bodhidharma is the archetype of the Zen master who leads a simple life far from the cities. He is considered to be the first Zen patriarch. He is said to have come to China between 516 and 526 AD. There are many myths about him. He is said to have meditated motionless with his face against a wall for nine years. He did not respond to requests from his fellow monks to give instructions. Only when Huike, Bodhidharma's successor, cut off his arm according to a legend, the master is said to have given in.

Sitting meditation is an important practice

In Zen Buddhidm, the sudden awakening (satori) is emphasized. In contrast to Indian Buddhism, where the path to enlightenment is a gradual path accompanied by scripture study and the avoidance of bad actions, Zen believes that the Buddha-nature (the potential to become a Buddha) inherent in every human being is through the encounter between teacher and student is revealed.

Reuters / Yuriko Nakao

Meditation is an important practice in Zen Buddhism.

Zen places particular emphasis on sitting meditation (Japanese: zazen). It is practiced for hours and motionless. The breath becomes more and more calm. Everything that arises in the mind is neither held nor suppressed. The relaxed alertness that arises should be integrated into everyday life. So all of life becomes meditation. The conceptual separation between sacred and profane is abolished - more about meditation practices in Buddhism in the entry Meditation and Mindfulness.

Tradition beyond word and writing

Zen refers to the direct tradition outside the literature. The focus is on the transmission of the spirit of enlightenment from master to student. No more importance is attached to philosophical speculation than to the translation of Buddhist texts. The Zen tradition sees itself as a critique of the intellectual scholarly Buddhism of its time.

Zen Buddhism was and is inspired by the following legend: During a speech, Buddha is said to have held up a flower and remained silent. The assembled monastic community wondered what that might mean. A single monk named Mahakasyapa smiled, expressing his wordless understanding of the gesture.

The Buddha then announced that he was imparting knowledge of reality beyond language to this advanced student. This legend is an expression of the transmission of the essential Dharma (Buddha teaching) beyond word and writing. Nevertheless, Zen has also produced a written tradition in which the legends of the Zen masters and the collections of koans (Zen puzzles) were handed down.

Famous koans

  • "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?"
  • "What does the sound of a clapping hand sound like?"

Koan: Seemingly pointless questions

There are two famous anthologies of koans (Japanese: Hekigan-roku and Mumonkan). These are collections of short stories and dialogues between master and student, which serve to let the mind, which is committed to classical logic, run into the void. By deeply concentrating on a seemingly pointless question or occurrence, adepts should be able to "tear down the barriers to enlightenment that the rational habits of the mind have established" (Keown, D .: Lexikon des Buddhismus, Pathmos Verlag, p. 128) and through appropriate action to demonstrate to the master that they have penetrated the quintessence of the "public-private riddle".

Two schools of Zen

The peculiarity of Zen developed under the successors of Bodhidharma (Huike). Particularly outstanding is Rinzai (Chinese: Lin-chi, died 866), who yelled at his students and even hit them in order to use satori to awaken spontaneous awakening in them. The records of the idiosyncratic behavior of the Zen masters became the binding scriptures of Zen. These stories are prime examples of Zen and its methods. Enlightenment is achieved not through study, but through direct experience. In order to experience things directly "as it is" (Shunryu Suzuki), ordinary thinking is transcended.

Two schools of Zen developed in Japan from the twelfth century: Soto and Rinzai. The Soto School was founded by Dogen Kigen (1200-1253). Myoan Eisai (1141-1215) founded the Rinzai School. While the former emphasize just sitting (Japanese: zazen), Rinzai disciples study and contemplate koans in order to attain Buddhahood.

Book reference

Shunryu Suzuki: Zen mind, beginner mind. Herder, 9.20 euros.

Zen in the modern age

On the one hand, there were many points of contact through Asian immigrants in western industrialized countries. On the other hand, more and more western travelers, scientists, artists and writers became interested in East Asian cultures, languages ​​and religions. In the 1930s and 40s, Japan was an ally of Germany during the Nazi era. The clashes between the Allies and Japan contributed to Japanese culture becoming better known in our part of the world.

At the time of the reconstruction after the Second World War, the beat poets and other artists, musicians and writers such as Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were grappling with Zen. In the USA in the 1970s and 80s, this direction of Buddhism became extremely popular and found its way into everyday culture. In Zen Buddhism in particular, it is emphasized again and again how important it is to view everyday activities such as cooking, eating, washing dishes and parking as meditation practice.

Review article on Buddhism

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