A great Zen master once said “if you cannot explain Zen to a fisherman then you do not know Zen”; so I will try to simply explain what Zen is and how it and China are intertwined and how they have influenced and affected each other over the centuries.
There is a common misconception that Zen is Japanese, but in reality it is as Chinese as kung fu. In fact the Shaolin Temple is where Zen, or Chan (禅 chán) as it is referred to in Mandarin, originated. It was introduced by an Indian sage named Bodhidharma in 520-526 c.e. who taught there until c. 543 c.e. It is said, and often disputed, that Bodhidharma not only taught the Shaolin monks seated meditation, but that he also helped (in varying levels depending on sources) invent the Shaolin style by bringing influences from India. After the initial establishment of this new form of Buddhism there was a period of growth known as the Golden Age of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang dynasty (618-907 c.e). During this time Chan/Zen was growing. In the south of China a master named Hui-neng (638-713), who was the sixth patriarch of Chan/Zen in China and creator of the Platform Sutra, taught the doctrine of Spontaneous Enlightenment, where through meditation objectivity and attachment are eliminated. However, he was also the last patriarch of Chan in China.
During the reign of Emperor Wu-tsung (841-7) Chan/Zen experienced a sharp decline as he ordered that all Buddhist establishments be destroyed. This would come to be known as the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, even though all foreign religions were effectively banned. This halted the growth of Buddhism in China and eliminated most of the temples, reducing the monks and nuns to lay people. Buddhism in China never fully recovered from this, while brief, very devastating persecution.
Chan/Zen is unlike other forms of Buddhism around the world. While there are consistent threads between the different sects of Buddhism, Chan/Zen has been altered by it’s surroundings, as it has in turn altered it’s surroundings. There was a clear cross-pollination between original Buddhism and Taoism that has resulted in modern Taoism and Chan/Zen. The influence of Chan/Zen has influenced Taoism along with martial arts, painting, poetry, music, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony.
Zen is often referenced, but do people really know what it is? The basic definition that you can find online is, “A school of Mahayana Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion”. This may be true, but it does not fully describe what Chan/Zen really is.
Zen is the Japanese word for the Chinese word Chan. Chan is an abbreviation of the word “Channa” (禅那 chánnà), a translation of the Sanskrit word “Dhyana”. Dhyana, according to most sources, translates essentially to meditation, but it has been understood differently by Masters of Chan. Master Kumarajiva translated it into “the cultivation of contemplation”. However, the Venerable Master Xuanzang translated it as “still or quiet contemplation, which is the cultivation of single-mindedly focusing on one object, and properly examining thoughts. ” So even with Chan there are varied definitions as to what even the word means, but that is still just the word for this practice and it leaves much to be desired as an explanation.
Bodhidharma defined Chan as:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.
The great Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things. To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and the ten thousand things.”
There are lots of Zen stories, poems, and works of art, and some are considered very hard to understand with conventional logic and ways of reading. Koans are Chan/Zen riddles used to focus the mind during meditation and to develop intuitive thinking. Often there needs to be a certain level of training with a master before this “Zen speak” can be understood, but thankfully some of the most influential stories like the Tale of the Ox have been deciphered for us lay people.
“Zen cannot be described, only experienced. You can talk about it, read about it, describe it, but you need to live it, as it does not conform to rules. It is a doctrine which has no form but points directly to the soul of a person, allowing you to pierce the veil which hides us from our innermost mind.” (taichido.com)
In the end Zen/Chan is about coming face-to-face with yourself, in a very direct and intimate way. It is not an easy journey. If you really desire to explore Zen/Chan no amount of reading can grant the desired effect; the way to go about truly understanding and being Zen is to find a teacher or a community that can impart the way of Bodhidharma.
“When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.”