Wearing masks didn’t have to become a war over truth, it somehow became a fight between science and belief. Can we change the course?
“All lives matter” somehow became the counterstatement of “Black lives matter,” even though their respective goals are exactly the same. Why do they have to be at odds with each other? Buddhism can shed light by reminding us where we all came from. Those who can admit their shortcomings (as we are all imperfect) are the bravest.
Let’s face reality: we are all born to discriminate. It’s in our DNA. But our strength can overcome it, as long as we remember where we all came from.
Phil Jackson, who coached Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, was know as the “Zen Master” of the NBA. He was introduced to Soto Zen sect in his thirties, which is also what Steve Jobs practiced. It seems that Jackson leveraged the Buddhism concept of middle way and awareness to unleash players’ potential through meditation.
You may know what Christianity is, but not Buddhism. They are like the two sides of the same coin called a pursuit of truth. Even Buddhism sounds elusive, you can get a good grasp of it by comparing it with Christianity. Find out what it is, and what Buddhism is about.
History of Japanese aesthetics (2) reviews civil war-ridden Kamakura era (1185-1333) and the aesthetics of mujo, which produced highly philosophical/poetic inward-looking, hermit culture.
What is Zen ? Part II
Part II : Zazen and Zen arts
In the previous post, we discussed how Zen was born in India/China as one of the many schools of the Mahayana Buddhism, and how it was brought to Japan to become an influential force during the drastic transition period of the Middle Ages. The Rinza-shu, one of the major Zen schools, became the religion of the emerging samurai chiefs, helping them transform from the groups of regional, barbarian warriors to national leaders capable of overwhelming/ousting the aristocrats from power, who took pride in leading social/intellectual/cultural endeavors. We now move on to the tenets and aesthetics of Zen.
Due to the philosophical nature of Buddhism, many important scriptures and textbooks had been written by the time Zen emerged. It involved a lot of work to study them. Questioning such a trend, Zen attempted to emphasize that our body has to be the final gateway to reach religious truth, not the study of textbooks. If you had to internalize Buddha’s teachings thoroughly, they had to be absorbed directly through your body. Zen denied the uncertainty of “studying” something external to yourself. Such a belief is called “不立文字 (furyumonji),” and Zen did not choose a central scripture or text, as other schools did. Instead it prioritized zazen – sitting meditation.
The two major Zen schools that thrived in Japan, the 臨済宗 (Rinzai-shu), which became the religion of military leaders, and the 曹洞宗 (Soto-shu) that found its core audience among peasants, serfs and low-ranking local samurai, both abide by 不立文字 (furyumonji) and prioritize 座禅 (zazen) – sitting meditation as an ultimate vehicle to reach religious enlightenment and eternal peace of mind. But they take slightly different approaches: Soto-shu focuses solely on zazen, while Rinzai-shu also leverages 公案問答 (koan mondo, the Zen Q&A sessions) along with meditation. Sooto-shu’s zazen philosophy is called “只管打坐 (shikan taza).” It means ‘you do zazen in order to do zazen.’” Against our general perception, the purpose of zazen is not to improve or achieve something. You shouldn’t even hope to reach the stage of mindfulness, although it sounds so legitimate. Instead, Zen asks you to leave all of your thoughts and ambitions behind and vacate your body and mind, consistent with the teaching of “空 (kuu).”
Soto-shu believes that zazen is a religious pursuit in itself. You are not supposed to add any meaning or value to it, because such meaning is relative, temporary and could turn out to be wrong tomorrow. As contradictory as it may sound, the objective of zazen is not to achieve anything. You have to overcome the urge to try to get something valuable out of it.
In essence, Zazen is a physical attempt to become zero from head to toe. Probably the most inspiring part of zazen, or Buddhism in general, is the realization that zero is actually the most abundant thing in our world. We generally think that we would be in misery if we didn’t have things. But it is because we almost automatically calculate that thing = value, and nothing = no value. What you find from zazen is that we could flip the coin and recognize that nothing = potential, and something = limitation.
Naturally, such a realization was better expressed using non-verbal forms. When you saw that something was empty, but if you felt the potential actually filling the voids, the message was conveyed without relying on any words that could be interpreted in a wrong, or diluted way. That was the reason why so many Zen priests became extraordinary artists and founders of many traditional aspects of Japanese culture. Many of them created what people today consider Japanese aesthetics – simple, minimal, empty yet powerful. Of course accomplished artists emerged from other Buddhist schools, but the Rinzai priests cut themselves for a couple of important reasons:
- Zen’s approach to elevate Buddha’s teaching to a non-verbal, metaphysical level was a natural fit for abstract, minimal arts.
- Rinzai priests were supported by the military leaders and later by the aristocrats, who financially backed their endeavors in architecture, arts and design.
- Rinzai priests were the main international diplomats who had close ties with China. They brought Chinese arts to Japan and advanced them in a unique way.
- As Zen was an emerging school of Buddhism, Zen priests were rather free from the convention of the existing Buddhism and social norms. They played the role of innovators and trailblazers.
There are several forms of arts that were strongly influenced by Zen, and became the foundation of what we see as Japanese aesthetics today such as wabi-sabi, ma, yohaku or the aesthetics of subtraction.
The 茶道 (sado), or 茶の湯 (cha no yu) is Japanese tea ceremony that can be summarized as the “art of behavior.” Born as a counter movement to luxurious tea parties that were popular among social elites in the 15th century, tea ceremony, heavily influenced by the Zen philosophy, leveraged notions such as simple, minimal, old and rustic in order to discover true beauty in everyday life.
村田珠光 (Juko Murata) is considered to be the father of “wabi-cha,” which was later cemented by 千利休 (Sen no Rikyu, 1522-1598). His life is not well known, but it is widely believed that he became a Rinzai priest after he studied Zen under Ikkyu Sojun (see below) at the Daitoku-ji temple (also see below). Strongly influenced by Zen, Juko attempted to shift the focus of the tea ceremony from showing off extravagant imported Chinese artworks to appreciating simple, decent, subtle and rustic aspects of everyday life. He frequently used domestically produced simple and plain tools, and developed the 四畳半 (4 1/2 tatami mattress, about 7.5 square meters) tea room style that later become the standard. His aesthetics were passed on to Takeno Joo, and then on to Sen no Rikyu. As described by “茶禅一味 (chazen ichimi – tea ceremony and Zen share the same essence),” tea ceremony became refined as an art of behavior that denied anything extra or excessive.
In order to institutionalize the Rinzai-shu as part of the social/political hierarchy, the Muromachi dynasty introduced 五山十刹 (Gozan Jissetsu) system, copying the Chinese one. It determined the five most important temples and the ten others that followed, assigning each temple an explicit ranking. They still operate as religious centers and historic sites. Many of them possess national treasure in terms of artifacts and buildings. You may want to check them if you are traveling to Kyoto. Below are the five mountains.
Below are some prestigious Zen temples in Kyoto including the Five Mountains that retain remarkable buildings, artifacts and gardens.
Priests in general played a unique role in the Middle Age Japan, sometimes as intellectuals, sometime as outsiders who could break social barriers, sometimes as individuals with special status who could freely access people from various social status from high to low, and sometimes as someone who existed in between this world and another world.
As Zen (Rinzai) priests made significant contributions to advance traditional arts and culture for a variety of reasons, 時宗 (Ji-shu) priests (a sub-school of Jodo-shu) also played a unique role in the emergence of new aesthetics during the 14th ~ 16th centuries. As described in the previous article, Ji-shu embraced singing, dancing and traveling as part of its nembutsu chanting practice to open its doors to poor, disadvantaged people who couldn’t read scriptures. As a result, many “entertainers” – traveling singers, dancers, theater companies joined Ji-shu. They often belonged to the groups discriminated against in society.
Ji-shu priests often accompanied samurai warriors to battlefields to take care of those who lost their lives in the fight. As they established a close relationship with the military, they naturally started offering them entertainment services, because some Ji-shu members were the entertainers. Eventually, some of them became acclaimed artists despite their low social status, performing before very high ranking military leaders/aristocrats.
As they typically used a name that had “阿弥 (ami)” at its end, those artists/entertainers were called 阿弥衆 (ami-shu) or 同朋衆 (doho-shu). Japanese graphic designer Kenya Hara calls ami-shu Japan’s first professional group of designers and entertainers.
What is Zen?
Part I : The 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, the Zen garden or the tea ceremony. We can even find Zen-inspired design in the modern economy including Apple products designed by Steve Jobs, who was a Zen practitioner.
Except for Zen, none of the other Buddhist schools has 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 a captivating practice that has allowed people to access otherwise complicated Buddhist philosophy and its way of pursuing mindfulness?
Zen, and Buddhism in general, has a 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 around the 11th century, and was introduced to Japan during 11th ~ 13th centuries. The reason why Zen is pronounced “Zen,” as the 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, the son of a regional king in Northern India. As a future king, young Gautama grew up in comfort and wanting for nothing, but financial/material affluence did not make him happy. Deeply troubled by the harsh reality in which most people had to live in misery, suffering from poverty, diseases and/or conflicts, he left behind his prestigious position in society when he was 29 in order to pursue religious goals. After years of strict training, he attained enlightenment at the age of 35 and became Buddha. He spent the rest of his life practicing Buddhism, and 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 discussing the essence of Buddhism to anyone without opposing, criticizing, coaxing, denying or disputing. This was made possible because of his “Middle Way” approach. According to him, nothing in this world was absolute or final – every existence, including our own, was relative, temporary and subject to change. Therefore, there was no right or wrong, good or bad or left or right on any subject. You were supposed to find the perfect middle ground without leaning in any specific directions. When you reach the stage where you no longer need to rely on anything, accomplish pure neutrality and dissolve into the vast universe, you are finally free from your desire and will achieve eternal peace. (Read more here 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. This was so profound and capable of embracing anyone from any background that many people followed Buddha.
But the difficulties came after his death. Buddha did not record any of his words, and left orders that no leader should be picked to succeed him and pass down his teachings. So his disciples created a committee and started writing down their conversations with Buddha, hoping to find a way to practice Buddhism consistent with Buddha’s teachings. But they were soon mired in a 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. This dark period 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 a small number of die-hard practitioners who pursued strict training by cutting off all social ties. The first group was called the Mahāyāna, or the Great Vehicle, because they believed that Buddha would always be there to help everyone, and all were allowed to ride on Buddha’s “Great Vehicle.” On the other hand, the second group believed that the only way to achieve religious enlightenment was through stoic efforts to let go of all desires.
Nāgārjuna cemented the foundation of the first group – the Mahayana. Although little is known about his life, he is considered to be the critical philosopher who “saved” Buddhism as the 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 in different directions, adopting to the local social environment. For example, the Dalai Lama, the most famous Buddhist master today, is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, which inherited the “hidden treasures” of the Mahayana teachings and evolved in a unique direction. Even though the fundamental tenets are the same, the Buddhism practiced in Tibet is different from the way it is 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 region, including to China, Korea and Japan. Interestingly enough, in contrast with Buddha who did not leave any writings, in his mind to preserve the integrity of Buddhism, the people who followed him, including Nāgārjuna, left a plethora of textbooks in every region. They were transcribed, translated and distributed from India to China, then to Korea and finally to Japan. If you wanted to be a priest, you had to study many textbooks in several languages. As much as it was a religious pursuit, it was also an intellectual endeavor.
Zen was born during the 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 foundations of Zen, is said to have meditated facing a wall for nine years. His approach was to keep meditating until he became part of the wall so that he could see everything from a completely neutral perspective. Zen believed in the “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. The Zen masters denied the relativity of philosophical theories that were written down because they were prone to multiple interpretations.
Zen evolved further in China, branching into multiple sub-schools in the next several centuries. The 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 the 11th ~ 13th centuries, 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 had started to grow larger, moving beyond the control of the aristocrats. The conflicts between them and regional military leaders intensified. People had to suffer from constant warfare and famine, and were desperately in need of something they could lean on to overcome their despair.
Responding to their desperate cry, six new schools of Buddhism emerged, opening up their doors to helpless people with no power. Three schools, or “shu” – 浄土宗 (Jodo-shu), 浄土真宗 (Jodo-Shin-shu) and 時宗 (Ji-shu) were founded by Japanese priests, advocating “他力本願 (tarirki hongwan, meaning your salvation is always guaranteed by the mercy of Buddha).” Jodo-shu and Jodo Shin-shu leveraged the nembutsu chanting: ”南無阿弥陀仏 (namu amida butsu) – I will devote myself to the mercy of Buddha.” Illiterate people (which were the majorities) enthusiastically supported nembutsu chanting to endure hardship. Jishu, one of the Jodo-shu’s sub-schools, even added dancing and singing to the nembutsu chanting. It resonated with many people who were oppressed and suffering. Of the three, Jodo-shu and Jodo Shin-shu are the two largest schools practiced today in Japan. After these, there were two schools of Zen that were brought from China: Soto-shu and Rinzai-shu. The remaining one was Nichiren-shu. Those six schools are called “鎌倉新仏教 (New Buddhist Schools emerged in Kamakura era)”.
Although each of six had a unique approach to share Buddha’s teaching to save people, five out the six embraced a new audience including ordinary people, peasants, women, local samurai, rank-and-file aristocrats and disadvantaged people. The only exception was the Rinzai school of Zen which garnered support from military leaders and became influential as the ally of the aristocrats – existing Buddhist 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). As has been the case historically with other regimes in the world, religion and political power were closely linked in Japan. The authorities supported existing schools such as Tendai-shu or Shingon-shu, and rejected Zen as new and foreign. And exactly because of that, emerging regional military leaders picked Zen as their own school to counter the aristocratic establishment. Zen was particularly effective to keep moral high for samurai warriors because it prioritized stoic physical training (meditation). They were especially invested in the 臨済宗 (Rinzai-shu) because the other major Zen school, the 曹洞宗 (Soto-shu), distanced itself from politics and attracted core followers from among the ordinary people and local samurai.
As the aristocrats started to yield to military power, the Rinzai-shu also started to increase its influence. And since the priests were the intellectuals, internationalists (they had strong connection with China – the power center in Eastern Asia) and trend setters with unique quasi-neutral social status, the Rinzai priests were highly sought after during this unstable, conflict-ridden time, helping the military dynasties to cement their foundations.
Both the Kamakura and Muromachi dynasties tried to incorporate the Rinzai-shu as part of the social system, and established the 五山十刹 (Gozan-jissatsu) system, copying the Chinese who ranked the Buddhist temples and prioritized high ranking ones. There were Gozan-jissatsu both in Kamakura and Kyoto, and many of them still exist today as religious/historic centers attracting many visitors.
It was mainly the Rinzai-shu Zen priests who helped the military leaders as mentors, advisors, diplomats, negotiators, innovators, and led the wabi-sabi culture as trailblazing artists.
What is Zero (kuu), the core tenet of Buddhism?
This website is named zero = abundance. Based on the concept conceived by the ancient Indian philosophers, we believe that zero, or nothingness/emptiness, is not null as it appears, but is actually a boundless source of inspiration, creation, engagement, and ultimately happiness. The ramification of the zero concept was so profound that the Buddhists dedicated themselves for centuries, if not a thousand years, to cement its principle. Eventually, Zen, a school of Buddhism that thrived in Japan during the Middle Ages, crystallized the essence in the form of various arts, most notably the Zen garden. The beauty was so captivating that it influenced modern minimalist arts, design, architecture and even business philosophy around the world.
In Eastern Asia, the concept of zero is expressed using the Chinese character “空,” which is pronounced “Kuu” in Japanese, and means “sky”, “void” or “emptiness.”
Zero (kuu) and Buddhism
The “zero” (or mathematical zero) as we know it today was first developed in India around 650 AD. It was conceived as a placeholder to recognize “nothingness” to perform complex calculations. The original sign for zero, or dots under the numbers, was also called “sunya” — a concept from ancient Indian philosophy to describe “emptiness,” “void,” or “sky.” While mathematical zero emerged as an essential element to advance science in the modern world, “sunya” has always been a major interest of Asian philosophy and religions. Buddhists have especially devoted themselves to pursue the truth of zero.
Buddha, who found the Buddhism in the 5~6th century BCE, used the word “縁起”(engi) to describe the concept of zero. He used “engi” to teach that everything we perceive is established only because it has relative relationships with other elements or factors. He maintained that all the things we believe exist, do not actually exist, if the definition of “existence” requires uniquely definable substantiality permanently. Since everything constantly changes its status, nothing exists. The “me” of today is one day older than the “me” of yesterday. While I may believe I am sitting on a “chair” as I write this, there is no such thing as an absolute “chair,” because your chair cannot be a chair if mine is a chair. If we accept the general notion of “chair” that can be applied to mine and yours alike to avoid that situation, my chair will lose its unique substantiality. Then the word “chair” becomes empty because it fails to capture the essence that constitutes my chair.
Does this mean that everything on Earth is meaningless? No, it’s actually the opposite. because everything can only be defined through its relationships with other elements and factors. “I” can be non-existent at the same time that I am not non-existent. In the world of “engi,” everything we perceive – including words or our ego – can exist without inconsistency no contradiction because we are “empty.”
Keeping true to his engi teachings, Buddha never wrote down his beliefs. (What’s the point of doing so if everything is relative and would eventually change?) His teaching was passed down by his apprentices after he passed away, who gathered to record their dialogues with Buddha.
But keeping up with the teaching that “nothing is absolute and existential” is challenging. After many groups tried hard to practice exactly what they believed Buddha taught, his followers eventually separated into two major groups: one group pursued a strict religious life, and the other group sought ways to practice Buddhism without abandoning social activities such as working and supporting a family.
The Mahayana Buddhism and Zen
The latter group, the Mahayana (it means “great vehicle” in Sanskrit) branch, had a breakthrough in the 2-3 centuries AD with the emergence of a great philosopher called Nagarjuna who established the foundation of the next generation of Mahayana Buddhism . Nagarjuna produced a solid logic system surrounding “空,” one of the most complicated philosophical concepts.
He further developed Buddha’s “engi” concept and found that all the things around us – both tangible and intangible – can be perceived only because of the relative and mutually influencing relationships with other elements and factors. I exist only because my surroundings shape me, but each element that constitutes my surroundings can exist because my presence. And we collectively exist because of mutual relationships. This is the reason why everything is “empty (kuu).” And because all are kuu, they are inherently temporary, and because they are temporary, words and statements are always contingent. And within kuu emerges solid neutrality.
Just as a pencil or a railroad can be considered short or long depending on a perspective, everything we say is relative. In his most well-known work, “Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way”, Nagarjuna stated that “‘kuu’, as taught by Buddha, means a departure from any perspective. In his world of kuu logic, nothing contradicts or conflicts with each other, because no word has absolute materiality. If a word contains no materiality, no words or statements can collide with each other. As a result, we no longer have a need to argue, which was one of the most important teachings of Buddha.
But how do you practice such a complicated concept, when in reality we live in a world where everyone has their own “absolute” perspectives and does not want to compromise? What was the approach taken by Zen, which emerged in China in the 5~6th century as one of the new schools of Mahayana Buddhism?