Part I : History of Buddhism and Zen
“Zen” is elusive. It is just one of the many schools of Buddhism, but many people associate it with something more inspirational – an exotic, alternative way to pursue mindfulness through meditation. It is also linked to minimalist arts such as calligraphy (you might have seen “enso”), ink paintings, Zen garden or tea ceremony. We can even find Zen-inspired design in modern economy including Apple products designed by Steve Jobs, who was a Zen practitioner.
Except for Zen, none of other Buddhism schools managed to occupy such a special place in our culture, inspiring people including those who may have no clue what Buddhism is all about. In that regard, Zen is unique. So what is it exactly? How has it become such captivating media that allowed people to access otherwise complicated Buddhism philosophy and its way of pursuing mindfulness?
Zen, or Buddhism in general, has long history. Buddhism was founded by Buddha in India in the 5th ~ 6th century BCE. Zen emerged as one of the schools of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism sometime during 5th ~ 6th century. It cemented its foundation in China toward 11th century, and was introduced to Japan during 11th ~ 13th century. The reason why Zen is pronounced “Zen,” as Japanese do even though its origin is India/China, is because it became widely recognized in Western countries thanks to the influential books written by Japanese lecturer Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (D.T. Suzuki) (1870 -1966) in the early 20th century.
Who is Buddha?
Buddha was born as Siddhārtha Gautama, a son of a regional king in Northern India. As a future king, young Gautama grew up getting everything he needed, but financial/material affluence did not make him happy at all. Deeply troubled by the harsh reality in which most people had to live in misery suffering from poverty, diseases and/or conflicts, he left his prestige behind to pursue religious goals when he was 29 years old. After years of strict training, he had attained Enlightenment at the age of 35 and became Buddha. He spent the rest of his life practicing Buddhism, sharing his profound thoughts with his disciples and the followers.
Buddha’s ultimate “Middle Way”
He was an unparalleled religious leader and the master of “zero.” His core belief was the “Middle Way,” and his teaching was based on dialogues – a unique kind of dialogue in which you were never allowed to argue with or try to persuade others. Buddha excelled in talking through the gist of Buddhism to anyone without opposing, criticizing, coaxing, denying nor disputing. It was made possible because of his “Middle Way” approach. According to him, nothing in this world was absolute or final – every existence, including us, was relative, temporary and subject to change. There was therefore no right or wrong, good or bad, nor left or right on any subject. You were supposed to find the perfect middle ground without leaning toward any specific directions. When you reach the stage where you no longer have to rely on anything, accomplish pure neutrality and dissolve into the vast universe, you are finally free from your desire to achieve eternal peace. (Read more about his philosophy of “kuu,” because it is too profound to summarize.)
His belief centered on zero, or called 空 (kuu) in Japanese, which meant recognizing everything as nothing-ness that was full of potential. It was so profound and capable of embracing anyone with any background that many people followed Buddha.
But the difficulties came after his death. Buddha did not record any of his words, and ordered not to pick any leader to succeed him to pass down his teachings. So his disciples created a committee and started writing down their conversations with Buddha, hoping to find the way to practice Buddhism consistent with what Buddha had told them. But they were soon mired into philosophical conundrum: when Buddha said nothing was definitive (and that was exactly why he did not record any of his words), how could they describe his teachings? Despite Buddha’s core guidance not to argue, the disciples couldn’t agree on how to carry on, and ended up breaking into different groups. The dark days continued for several centuries until Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) emerged to re-establish Buddha’s philosophy.
The Mahayana Branch and the emergence of Zen
Before Nāgārjuna’s time, the Buddhists were largely separated into two groups: people who practiced Buddhism while engaging in business-as-usual, and small number of die-hard practitioners who pursued strict training by cutting off any social ties. The first group was called the Mahāyāna, or the Great Vehicle, because they believed that Buddha will always be there to help everyone, and all were allowed to ride on Buddha’s “Great Vehicle.” On the other hand, the latter group believed that the only way to achieve religious enlightenment was through his own stoic efforts to let all desires go.
Nāgārjuna cemented the foundation of the first group – the Mahayana. Although little is known about his life, he is considered to be the most critical philosopher who “saved” Buddhism as people’s religion, as opposed to the religion only for those who were willing to sacrifice everything for religious goals. As he re-organized Buddha’s belief of the “Middle Way,” he left many writings, most notably “Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way),” that became the decisive textbook for the Buddhists who followed him.
After Nāgārjuna, Buddhism regained momentum and started to spread across Asian countries, evolving into different directions adopting to the local social environment. For example, Dalai Lama, the most famous Buddhist master today, is the leader of the Tibetan Buddhism, which inherited the “hidden treasures” of the Mahayana teachings and evolved into a unique direction. Even though the fundamental tenets are the same, the Buddhism practiced in Tibet is different from what’s practiced in China or Japan.
As you can see in the figure above, Nāgārjuna’s Mahayana Buddhism (yellow), which expanded Buddha’s teaching on “空 (kuu),” resonated in Eastern Asia and spread in the regions including China, Korea and Japan. Interestingly enough, exactly because Buddha did not leave anything in writing to preserve the integrity of Buddhism, people who followed him, including Nāgārjuna, left plethora of textbooks in every region. They were transcribed, translated and transferred from India to China, then to Korea and finally to Japan, for example. If you wanted to be a priest, you had to study a lot of textbooks overcoming language barriers. As much as it was a religious pursuit, it was also intellectual endeavors.
Zen was born during 5th ~ 6th century and advanced in subsequent centuries as an alternative to the increasingly scholarly Buddhist doctrines. Bodhidharma, who is believed to have established the foundation of Zen, is said to have meditated facing walls for nine years. His approach was to keep meditating until he became part of the walls so that he could see everything from a completely neutral perspective. Zen believed in “physicality” of zazen (meditation) as a medium to reach religious truth.
D.T. Suzuki observed that Zen was the product of the cross pollination of India’s highly philosophical belief system and China’s experience-based pragmatism. Zen cemented its foundation in China by focusing on uniting physical and religious enlightenment through meditation. Zen masters denied the relativity of philosophical theories that were written down to become prone to multiple interpretations.
Zen evolved further in China, branching into multiple sub-schools in the next several centuries. Japanese started studying Zen after the 11th century. Some priests went to China, and some Chinese Zen masters came to Japan to teach. It soon became a major social force reflecting the transformation that Japanese society was going through.
When Zen was introduced to Japan during 11th ~ 13th century, the country was in the middle of social/religious revolution. Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century and was enthusiastically supported by the aristocrats who were in power. But by the time Zen arrived, Japanese society started to become larger out of the hands of the aristocrats. The conflicts between them and the regional military leaders intensified. People had to suffer from consistent warfare and famine, and were desperately in need of something they could lean on to overcome their despair. Responding to their desperate cry, six schools of Buddhism emerged, opening up their doors to helpless people without power. Three school were founded by Japanese priests, advocating “他力本願 (tarirki hongwan, meaning your salvation is always guaranteed by the mercy of Buddha).” It resonated with many people who were oppressed and suffering. Of the three, Jodo-shu (“shu” means “school”) and Jodo Shin-shu are the two largest schools practiced today in Japan. After that, two schools were the Zen that were brought from China: Soto-shu and Rinzai-shu. The remaining one was Nichiren-shu.
Although each of six had unique approach to share Buddha’s teaching to save people, five out the six embraced new types of audience including ordinary people, peasants, women, local samurai, rank-and-file aristocrats and disadvantaged people. The only exception was Rinzai school of Zen. Rinzai-shu garnered support from military leaders and became influential as the ally of the aristocrats – existing Buddhism schools started to lose power to the coalition of the military leaders – Rinzai-shu.
Rinzai-shu and Soto-shu
The rise of Japanese Zen was in line with the rise of military power, the Kamakura dynasty (1192 – 1333) – the first military regime in Japan – and the Muromachi dynasty (1336 – 1573).
The “traditional Zen” that we picture as Zen temples or Zen gardens are Rinzai-shu, that was supported by the major military leaders including the sho-gun. The other major school, Soto-shu, distanced itself from politics and found its core followers among ordinary people and local samurai.
Apart from social stance, those two schools took different approaches in practicing Zen. Soto-shu prioritized strict zazen (sitting meditation), while Rinzai-shu also focused on “公案問答 (koan mondo),” not just meditation. Koan mondo is question-answer sessions which are the series of very fundamental, philosophical, metaphysical, short questions. You are supposed to answer, also in a brief statement, by capturing the essence of Buddha’s teachings. In a very simplified way, Soto-shu emphasizes silence, but Rinzai-shu relies on dialogue to get most out of meditation.
But either way, Zen was very different from other schools because it denied textbooks. For Zen practitioners, meditation was virtually the only way for them to find eternal truth, which also meant completely resolving into nature/universe and become part of it. And it was this emphasis on physicality – use your body as a medium to access truth – that elevated Zen priests as unparalleled artists.