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By Frank Simons

The Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren traditions examined in the last lecture prepare us to think in new ways about the historical and religious significance of Zen in Japan. Like these other movements, Zen was a product of the distinctive religious climate of the Kamakura Period. The Zen tradition traces its roots to the Ch’an tradition in China and, through Ch’an, to the meditative traditions of India. To begin thinking about Zen, or to begin experiencing it, you can start with the most basic form of mental concentration. Sit still on a cushion or in a chair. Fold your hands gently in your lap, and concentrate on your breath. As you breathe, allow thoughts to dissipate and let the mind become calm. The goal of this practice is to achieve awakening in the Mahayana sense, that is, to achieve an awareness of Emptiness. The Zen tradition stresses that awareness cannot be achieved conceptually and it cannot be expressed in words, it has to be achieved with a person’s whole being. It must be transmitted from teacher to student through a process of direct experience.

Video Presentation
Buddhism, Part 23, Zen
Thu, May 19, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

Zen took shape as a separate school under the influence of Eisai (1141-1215) who began his training in the Tendai School in Kyoto. Becoming disenchanted with Tendai practice, he travelled to China to study Ch’an and returned a full-fledged master in the Rinzai School. He preached Zen to military warlords. His stress on sturdy self-reliance and fearlessness in the face of death won him many disciples, and made Zen an important component of the martial arts. The Rinzai School developed the discipline of koan practice to achieve an experience of sudden awakening, or satori, kensho. A koan is a puzzle meant to stop the mind in its tracks. Typical Rinzai koans are: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Does a dog have Buddha nature?

Even more influential in the formation of Zen in Japan was Dogen (1200-1253). He also began his training in Kyoto and followed Eisai’s footsteps to China. He returned from China to form the Soto School of Zen. Dogen thought koan practice put too much stress on achieving awakening as if it were different from ordinary experience. He emphasized the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation, as an end in itself. Dogen criticized the idea of a “degenerate age,” arguing that all moments are equally reflective of Emptiness.

“Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of this present moment.”

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the Self. To forget the Self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, the body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

The source of Zen influence on the arts in Japan is the concept that all of reality is reflected in a single moment of experience. The Zen spirit is often expressed in a process of graceful subtraction, where a few simple elements are allowed to stand for the totality of experience. Examples of this are: rock and sand gardens in Zen temples; and haiku poems such as “Old pond, frog jumps in, sound of water” by Bassho.

After the radical changes brought about by Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren, Zen seems almost to be a return to the primitive spirit of ancient Buddhism.


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