Understanding Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism combines elements of Taoism and Indian Mahayana. While people remain divided on whether all of Buddhism constitutes religion or philosophy, in this context Zen could be considered a school of Buddhism. This belief system was born in China and started approximately 15 centuries ago.

Its roots began to emerge when Bodhidhara, an Indian monk who lived approximately from 470 to 543, taught at the Shaolin Monastery. Zen Buddhism progressed into Vietnam and Korea in the 7th century and to Japan in the 12th century, before becoming popular in the West in the 1950s. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a Japanese scholar, is credited with the popularization of this belief system in the Western world.

However, Westerners tend to misuse this word. Zen is not a state of being, feeling or concept. Instead, it is something you do. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the word ch’an, which is the Chinese enunciation of the Sanskrit term dhyana. In Korean, it is called seon, and the Vietnamese refer to it as thien.

Loosely translated, it means meditation. Literally, the word dhyana on which the term zen is based, denotes a mind that is immersed in meditation. In essence, Zen Buddhism is a type of belief system that uses meditation in order to directly understand the meaning of life.

However, the details of Zen Buddhism are complex. The practice and pursuit require intense discipline and dedication, which essentially should result in decisive freedom and complete spontaneity. Ultimately, this could lead to the understanding that every human being is a Buddha by nature and that anyone can discover this truth for himself.

According to Bodhidharma, Zen Buddhism isn’t something that students can learn from books. Instead of intellectual discipline, it requires the study of one’s mind and nature. To achieve this, you use the meditative discipline zazen. Literally translated, zazen means seated meditation. Daily practice of this discipline is a cornerstone of Zen Buddhism.

Students can practice zazen on their own and learn about it from books, videos or websites. However, it is important to pursue this task with others, even if only sporadically. While monasteries or Zen Buddhism centers would be ideal for this pursuit, not everyone has access to these resources. In this case, it’s recommended to find a sitting group.

Beginners are trained to achieve concentration via breathing, then they move on to sitting meditation. However, many people find zazen and its path to zen difficult to understand. This applies especially when they’re used to a society that expects its members to only complete tasks with tangible goals. Just sitting without expectations can take years to learn, especially if you’re waiting for enlightenment. Along this path, you’ll learn to discover yourself and might eventually understand Zen Buddhism.