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Zen and Buddhism

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Essay title: Zen and Buddhism

Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism which strongly emphasizes the practice of meditation. It emerged as a distinct school in China (as Cha'an) and spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and, in modern times, the rest of the world. The common English name derives from the school's name in Japanese, zen (禅).


Traditionally, Zen traces its roots back to Indian Buddhism; it takes its name from the Sanskrit term, dhyāna, which means meditative concentration (zen is short for the rarely-used form zenna). According to traditional accounts, Chinese Zen was established in approximately 500 CE by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma is said to have been the twenty-eighth patriarch of Zen and the last Indian successor in a line begun by the Buddha's disciple Mahakaśyapa.

An early Zen text, the Jingde Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, describes Bodhidharma travelling by sea, circa 520, to the territory of the Liang Dynasty in southern China. There, in a famous exchange with Emperor Wu, he explained that good deeds done with selfish intention were useless for gaining enlightenment. This argument having met with imperial disapproval, Bodhidharma travelled north to Shaolin Temple near the Song Mountains, where he established himself as a teacher. Martial arts legend also states that kung fu was also taught by Bodhidharma at Shaolin.

Shortly before his death, Bodhidharma appointed his disciple Huike to succeed him, making Huike the first Chinese patriarch and the second patriarch of Zen in China. The transmission then passed to the second, third, and fourth patriarchs, of whom little is known beyond their names. The sixth and last patriarch, Huineng (638-713), was one of the giants of Zen history, and all surviving schools regard him as their ancestor. However, the dramatic story of Huineng's life tells that there was a controversy over his claim to the title of patriarch: after being chosen by the Hongren, the fifth patriarch, he had to flee by night to Nanhua Temple in the south to avoid the wrath of Hongren's jealous senior disciples. In the middle of the 8th century, monks claiming to be the successors to Huineng, calling themselves the Southern school, cast themselves in opposition to those claiming to succeed Hongren's student Shenxiu (神秀). It was at this point, the debates between these rival factions, that Zen enters the realm of fully documented history. The Southern school eventually became predominant and their rivals died out.

Later, Korean monks studying in China learned what was by then called Ch'an, and which had by then been profoundly influenced by Chinese Taoism and to a lesser degree Confucianism. After the tradition was expanded to Korea, it came to be called Seon there (sometimes misspelled as Soen in the West).

It is important to note, however, that Chan, Seon and Zen continued to develop separately in their home countries, and all maintain separate identities to this day. Although lineage lines in China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere appear to show direct descent from Bodhidharma, changes in belief and practice have inevitably appeared with the profusion of Chan/Seon/Zen.

The Japanese Rinzai Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki maintained that a Zen satori (awakening) has always been the goal of the training, but that which distinguished the tradition as it developed in China, Korea, and Japan was a way of life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In India, the tradition of the mendicant (holy beggar, or bhikku in Pali) prevailed, but in China social circumstances

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