Discover the Way of Zen

February 16, 2006 by  
Filed under Christian yoga, Hatha Yoga

Zen offers you a practical way to refocus your life on what matters

Zen, the Japanese translation for the Chinese Chan, is a school of Mahayana Buddhism. Zen emphasizes strict, regular meditation practices and experiential wisdom — particularly as realized in the form of meditation known as zazen —in the attainment of enlightenment. It has a reputation for de-emphasizing both theoretical knowledge and the study of religious texts in favor of direct, experiential realization.

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The establishment of Chan (Zen) is traditionally credited to the Indian prince turned monk Bodhidharma who is recorded as having come to China to teach a “special transmission outside scriptures” which “did not stand upon words”. The emergence of Chan as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century AD. It is thought to have developed as an amalgam of various currents in Mahayaha Buddhist thought — such as the Yogacara and Madhyamaka philosophies and the Prajnaparamita literature — and of local traditions in China, particularly Taoism and Huáyán Buddhism. From China, Chan subsequently spread southwards to Vietnam and eastwards to Korea and Japan. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zen also began to establish a notable presence in North America and Europe.

Zen asserts, as do other schools in Mahayana Buddhism, that all sentient beings have what is called a Buddha-nature, the universal nature of inherent wisdom (Sanskrit prajna) and virtue, and emphasizes that Buddha-nature is nothing other than the nature of the mind itself. The aim of Zen practice is to discover this Buddha-nature (universal wisdom) within each person through meditation and mindfulness of daily experiences. Zen practitioners believe that this provides new perspectives and insights on existence, which ultimately lead to enlightenment.

In distinction to many other Buddhist sects, Zen de-emphasizes reliance on religious texts and verbal discourse on metaphysical questions. Zen holds that these things lead the practitioner to seek external answers, rather than searching within their own minds for the direct intuitive apperception of Buddha-nature. This search within goes under various terms such as “introspection,” “a backward step,” “turning-about,” or “turning the eye inward.”


In this sense, Zen, as a means to deepen the practice and in contrast to many other religions, could be seen as fiercely anti-philosophical, iconoclastic, anti-prescriptive and anti-theoretical. The importance of Zen’s non-reliance on written words is often misunderstood as being against the use of words. However, Zen is deeply rooted in both the scriptural teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama and in Mahayana Buddhist thought and philosophy. What Zen emphasizes is that the awakening taught by the Buddha came through his meditation practice, not from any words that he read or discovered, and so it is primarily through meditation that others too may awaken to the same insights as the Buddha.

In the past 30 years or so, an emerging movement has developed in which western Christians (mostly Catholics but some Protestants as well) have attempted to actually work out intellectually just how Zen practice and ideas can be integrated into a holistic Christian worldview. The results, naturally, have been mixed… and many people consider Christian Zen to be somewhat confused. Nevertheless, both practical experiments and theoretical research continues.

One of the pioneers in Christian Zen was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton whose book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968), is considered a classic exploration of how Christians can use Zen methods to deepen their own spiritual lives. Earlier, another monk, Dom Aelred Graham, had written a book called Zen Catholicism that explored the similarities and differences between western mystical experience and that of Zen. In more recent years, the Jesuit priest William Johnston wrote Christian Zen and the evangelical writer Kim Boykin penned Zen for Christians: A Beginner’s Guide (2003).

The British-American philosopher Alan Watts took a close interest in Zen Buddhism and wrote and lectured extensively on it during the 1950s. He understood it as a vehicle for a mystical transformation of consciousness, and also as a historical example of a non-Western, non-Christian way of life that had fostered both the practical and fine arts.


The Dharma Bums, a novel written by Jack Kerouac and published in 1959, gave its readers a look at how a fascination with Buddhism and Zen was being absorbed into the bohemian lifestyles of a small group of American youths, primarily on the West Coast. Beside the narrator, the main character in this novel was “Japhy Ryder”, a thinly-veiled depiction of Gary Snyder. The story was based on actual events taking place while Snyder prepared, in California, for the formal Zen studies that he would pursue in Japanese monasteries between 1956 and 1968

What attracts many westerners to Zen — both committed Christians and those with little or no religious faith — is often its practical, real-world spirituality. The core of Zen practice is seated meditation, widely known by its Japanese name zazen, and recalls both the posture in which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, and the elements of mindfulness and concentration which are part of the Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. All of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings — among them the Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, the idea of dependent origination, the five precepts, the five aggregates, and the three marks of existence — also make up important elements of the perspective that Zen takes for its practice.

Zen “training” — and the emphasis in Zen is definitely on “training” — stresses consistent daily practice along with intensive periods of meditation. As the name Zen implies, Zen sitting meditation is the core of Zen practice and is called zazen in Japanese. During zazen, practitioners usually assume a sitting position such as the lotus, half-lotus, Burmese, or, especially in Japan, seiza postures. To regulate the mind, awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath or put in the energy center below the navel (Japanese hara). Often, a square or round cushion known as a zafu placed on a padded mat called a zabuton is used to sit on. In deference to western stiffness, some Zen centers allow students to use chairs. Another distinctive aspect of Zen meditation in groups — one that often causes fear and trepitation among beginning western students — is the use of the keisaku, a flat wooden stick or slat used to keep meditators focused and awake.

In the Rinzai Zen traditio,n practitioners typically sit facing the center of the room; while Japanese Soto practitioners traditionally sit facing a wall.

In Soto Zen, shikantaza meditation (“just-sitting”) is the primary form of practice. It is a type of meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference — in many ways, very similar to Transcendental Meditation or even various types of Vipassana meditation. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout the Zen master Dogen’s classic manual of instruction, known as the Shobogenzo, for just this type of meditaiton. The other major school or tradition of Zen, Rinzai, emphasizes attention to the breath and what is known as koan practice — meditation upon paradoxes. Zen Buddhists may practice koan inquiry during sitting meditation (zazen), walking meditation, and throughout all the activities of daily life. A koan (literally “public case”) is a story or dialogue, generally related to Zen or other Buddhist history; the most typical form is an anecdote involving early Chinese Zen masters. While koan practice is particularly emphasized by the Rinzai school, it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.


The amount of time spent daily in zazen by practitioners varies. Dogen recommends that five minutes or more daily is beneficial for householders. The key is daily regularity, as Zen teaches that the ego will naturally resist, and the discipline of regularity is essential. Practicing Zen monks may perform four to six periods of zazen during a normal day, with each period lasting 30 to 40 minutes.

Meditation as a practice can be applied to any posture. As in other schools of Buddhism, Zen also practices a type of walking meditation called kinhin. Successive periods of zazen are usually interwoven with brief periods of walking meditation to relieve the pain in the legs from sitting for long periods either in the lotus or seiza positions.

One Zen practice familiar to western Christians especially is the retreat or sesshin. Sesshin, which literally means a “gathering the mind,” is a period of intensive group meditation (zazen) held in a Zen monastery or center. While the daily routine in the monastery requires the monks to meditate several hours a day, during a sesshin they devote themselves almost exclusively to zazen practice. The numerous 30-50 minute long meditation periods are interleaved with short rest breaks, meals, and sometimes, short periods of work (Japanese: samu) all performed with the same mindfulness; nightly sleep is kept to a minimum, 7 hours or less. During the sesshin period, the intense meditation is occasionally interrupted by the master giving public talks (called teisho) and individual direction in private meetings (which may be called dokusan, daisan, or sanzen) with a Zen Master.

Because the Zen tradition emphasizes direct communication over scriptural study, the Zen teacher (roshi) has traditionally played a central role. Generally speaking, a Zen teacher is a person ordained in any tradition of Zen to teach the Dharma, guide students in meditation, and perform rituals. An important concept for all Zen sects is the notion of dharma transmission, similar in some respects to the Catholic concept of apostolic succession: the claim of a line of authority that goes back to Sakyamuni Buddha via the teachings of each successive master to each successive student.

In the last few decades, a number of western Christians have not only practiced Zen meditation but have even themselves received dharma transmission. For example, in 1991 the Jesuit priest Robert E. Kennedy received authorization to teach Zen from Bernard Glassman Sensei, founder of the Zen Community of New York and a dharma heir of Taizan Maezumi. Kennedy continues to function as both a Roman Catholic priest and a Zen teacher in the White Plum lineage through his Morning Star Zendo in New Jersey. Fr. Kennedy has himself given dharma transmission to nine of his students, including Kevin Hunt Sensei, a Trappist monk from St. Joseph’s Abbey at Spencer, Mass.

Zen is also characterized by a distinctive “style” that emphasizes simplicity, cleanliness, lack of clutter and, above all, mindfulness of what one is doing. The Japanese arts of flower arranging (ikebana), tea drinking (chado) and various martial arts including archery (kyudo) and swordsmanship have been influenced by the Zen spirit. There are other techniques common in the Zen tradition which seem unconventional and whose purpose is said to be to shock a student in order to help him or her let go of habitual activities of the mind. Some of these are common today, while others are found mostly in anecdotes. These include the loud belly shout known as katsu. It is common in many Zen traditions today for Zen teachers to have a stick with them during formal ceremonies which is a symbol of authority and which can be also used to strike on the table during a talk.

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