Zen (Japanese: Zen, 禅; Chinese: Chán, 禪; Korean: Seon, 선; Sanskrit: dhyāna) is a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism, practiced especially in China, Japan, and Korea which incorporates Taoist thought. It stresses the role of meditation in pursuing enlightenment. Because Zen is the name for this branch in Japanese as well as in English, this article will concern itself with both traditional Zen in Japan and with Zen as an international phenomenon. For information specific to Asian countries other than Japan, please follow the appropriate links below.

Spread of Zen

Traditionally, Zen traces its roots back to Indian Buddhism, where it was known by "dhyāna", a Sanskrit term for meditation. This name was transliterated into Chinese as Chán (禪); "Chán" was later transliterated into Korean as Seon, and then into Japanese as "Zen."

According to these traditional accounts, an Indian monk named Bodhidharmabrought Zen Buddhism to China in the fifth century CE. Later, Japanese monks studying in China learned of Zen and brought it back to Japan around the seventh century.

Zen in Japan

The following Zen traditions still exist in Japan: Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. Originally formulated by the eponymous Chinese master Linji (Rinzai in Japanese), the Rinzai school was introduced to Japan in 1191 by Eisai. Dogen, who studied under Eisai, would later carry the Caodong, or "Soto" Zen school to Japan from China. Obaku was introduced in the 17th century by a Ingen, a Chinese monk.

Zen teachings and practices

Zen teachings often criticize textual study and worldly action, concentrating primarily on meditation in pursuit of an unmediated awareness of the processes of the world and the mind. However, these teachings are themselves also deeply rooted in the Buddhist textual tradition, drawing primarily on <mahayna> sutras composed in India and China, and on the recorded teachings of masters in the various Zen traditions themselves.


Zen meditation is called zazen. Zazen translates approximately to "sitting meditation", although it can be applied to practice in any posture. During zazen, practitioners usually assume a lotus, half-lotus, burmese, or seiza position. Rinzai practitioners typically sit facing the center of the room, while Soto practitioners sit facing a wall. Awareness is directed towards complete cognizance of one's posture and breathing. In this way, practictioners seek to transcend thought and be directly aware of the universe.

In Soto, shikantaza meditation, sometimes translated as "just-sitting," i.e., a meditation with no objects, anchors, "seeds," or content, is the primary form of practice. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found in Dogen's Shobogenzo.

Koan practice

The Zen schools (especially but not exclusively Rinzai) also employ koans (Japanese; Chinese: gongan; Korean: gong'an). The term is borrowed from that for a signpost used in ancient China, on which new laws were announced to the public. In much the same sense, a koan embodies a realized principle, or law of reality. Koans, which are often paradoxical are not meant to be apprehended rationally but rather to be realized in experience.

? 2004

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