Zen Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment in 535 BCE at the age of 35 while sitting under the Bodhi tree. While not a practising Buddhist myself, I do resonate with much of its philosophy and outlook on life.

The word Buddha means the "awakened one".

Three major traditions arose in the years after the Buddha’s death.

The earliest known one was Theravada Buddhism (the Southern tradition), which emphasised monasticism, strict ascetic practices, including vipassana (insight) meditation. It taught that only monks could attain enlightenment.

The second was Mahayana Buddhism (the Northern tradition), known as the great vehicle, and arose after the first schism. It seemed to be more open towards the laity, and also emphasised compassion over wisdom. It is here we first encounter the concept of the Bodhisattva.

A Bodhisattva is a soul that has attained enlightenment but refuses to enter Nirvana until all other souls are enlightened, choosing instead to return to earth to teach others.

Vajrayana (tantra) is generally recognised as the third tradition (possibly a breakaway from Mahayana, along with Cha'an, Pure Land Buddhism, and Nirchiren Buddhism).

Today it is broadly associated with Tibetan Buddhism.


And so to Zen

Zen Buddhism is said to have been brought from India to China around 520 AD by the monk Bodhidarma, whom some believe to be a reincarnation of Siddhartha Buddha. Other reports say it developed independently there in the Cha’an school.

Zen broke all the rules.

It taught Buddhism as an experiential, not a theoretical way of living.

Enlightenment was for everyone.

Even bloggers!

Zen Buddhism asserts there is nothing to learn, and nothing to do, and that we already have all the truth, we just don’t realise it. Now before you start reaching for your kaftan and the next flight to India, take heed, this is not as easy or as trite as it seems.

Zen teaches that enlightenment is one’s natural and true state. Therefore, you cannot seek it because you already have it.

The USS has a lot of time for Zen!


Zen and the paradox of all things

Zen loves paradoxes. These are often conveyed in the form of a riddle or koan, which is a question or statement that defies any answer. Examples,

'what is the sound of one hand clapping?'


‘when a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?’

You must provide the answer, for it was in you the question arose.

Actually there is neither a question nor an answer, for both are a collection of words, and words have really no intrinsic meaning.

The Zen student will relly on her intuition.

The world too is a paradox. Buddhists refer to is as maya (illusion), but don’t go thinking that means it doesn’t exist. It’s there when you wake up every morning!

Our senses tell us the world is somewhere ‘out there’. Zen would say it’s there because we reach for it. Everything’s about grasping. You own all your desires. You either have them all around you, or you have the craving for them. And this includes things you don’t want. In this case you have the ‘fear’ of them, or the ‘not wanting’ them.

So what about illness?

Why is there so much suffering in the world? Because we create it with our desire, that’s why. Everything is a consequence of something else, and mind creates all. But then as we saw mind is an illusion, so there’s really nothing.

So, how does that explain suffering?

In order to think about, or dwell upon the idea of wellness, you must first have a notion of sickness. You can’t not have a negative thought.

Some New Agers could do with a crash course in Zen!


The Buddha’s answer to this is: Compassion.

Sometimes we think of compassion as a kind of grand pity. But it’s not that at all. It’s really to look at everything and see that it has not yet awakened, and behold the sorrow in that. Together with the great love of knowing that one day it will.

Every illness answers a need that the person has, either on a physical or a soul level. By judging another's illness we are adding to it. Instead let us view their suffering as the vehicle which they've chosen to bring them to enlightenment.

Maybe they could have made a more intelligent choice and achieved the same result, but be that as it may. They had their own reasons, and those are known only at a very high level. Let us respect that choice.

That too is compassion.

No illness is ever wrong, A Course in Miracles teaches, but all illness is a mistake.

A truly Zen Buddhist statement!

How to live in compassion

The way to exercise compassion is to experience it in our hearts, without becoming attached to the actual suffering. If we become attached we end up ‘in’ suffering ourselves, which is not the purpose of compassion. If your friend breaks her leg you can’t help her by breaking yours too. You only add to the total amount of suffering.

However, at a mental and emotional level this is what we do all the time. We support others in being victims, we align with their feelings of unfairness, we become entangled in their pain. We end up lost in their suffering and this is not the same as compassion.

We need to begin with ourselves. To feel compassion for our own suffering too, our failures, our weaknesses, without getting lost in them. At times this can be hard to do.

The way to begin is by stilling the mind.


Zen, more than any other form of Buddhism places unique emphasis on meditation as the means to enlightenment.

Two types of meditation

Zazen (or sitting meditation) is where one beholds the reality of all things. This is central to Zen. Another is kinhin (walking meditation), carried out between intervals of zazen. Did you notice the Zen approach to seeing the illusion of the world was to first recognise its realness?

Weird, or what?

Zen has permeated every aspect of our culture today; art, film, and so on. But its bohemian appeal and relaxed nature belies a very strict discipline underneath.

Zen is not for dummies!

The word Zen is Japanese for Cha’an. It came there from China around the 12th century.

In Japan there are two schools of Zen, Soto and Rinzai, which hold paradoxical views on enlightenment.

Soto believes the act of awakening is a gradual event, while Rinzai holds the view that it's something that happens instantaneously. 

This is a point worthy of reflection. When is the awake one awake?

In true Zen fashion they’re probably both right. It’s a little like the singer who becomes an overnight success – after twenty years!

See life through the lens of Zen

It’s good to look at life with humour. Look at it through the eyes of Zen.

Buddhism, as filtered through the Western mind often comes out in a garbled way. It mistakes Nirvana for nihilism, and the mind for the brain.

However, true Buddhism sees the mind as the sixth sense, and locates it in the heart.

In the West we think of intelligence as understanding something, and then applying that to something else. But that is instruction, not intelligence. Knowledge for us is two plus two equals four. But to the Zen master intelligence is intuition. He looks into his heart to find the knowledge required in any given situation. After all, all wisdom is there.

But it can only be accessed by compassion.

See also:

Zen Meditation

The Four Noble Truths

Rupa, Karma and Dharma

Return from Zen Buddhism to the home page.

There is a voice that doesn’t use words - listen!


Reality is merely an illusion - albeit a persistent one.

Albert Einstein