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The basic teachings of Japanese Zen
May 11th, 2013 (May 13th, 2015)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The basic teachings of Japanese Zen

After the six Nara schools (, Shingon (, and Pure Land buddhism (, the one major tradition missing from my series on "Buddhism in early Japan" was Zen (which arrived from China during the Kamakura period (1185–1333)). I will focus here on the core teachings though, rather than on historical events.

Buddhism can be seen as going cyclical phases of elaboration and simplification (elaborating from the initial direct teachings toward the Abhidharma analysis, deconstructing the Abhidharma by the teachings on Emptiness, elaborating again with the Mind-Only schools to explain the arising of form 'out of' emptiness, deconstructing again…); Zen is primarily camped into the simplification tendencies.

Zen teaches caution against all elaborations, privileging a direct grasp of the nature of reality. While the name could mean "meditative absorption", this is however not to say that Zen is without teachings or that Zen is not based on a deep understanding of the teachings it warns against.
Zen is not a caution born out of fear or ignorance, it comes from the simple realisation that one cannot get free from conventional thinking as long as one relies on conventional thinking. In Zen's perspective, it is irrelevant how deep one's conventional understanding goes, it still is 'only' conventional (thus ignorant to some extent).

The basic teachings of Zen rely on thus-ness, which is not accessed by conventional thought. The various sub-schools have diverged in terms of pedagogical means to teach thus-ness though.

A common focus is on the practice of meditation (classically called 'zazen'), even though the sub-schools might come at it from different angles: in any case, meditation is an opportunity to put one's "self" (or lack of self!) face-to-face with reality, without intermediation of a text, a teacher, etc.

From the quieter schools (i.e. Sōtō in Japan), zazen is the direct embodiment of buddha-nature. There is no goal to justify sitting, it is the practice of "just sitting". It would be wrong though to consider that the Sōtō only advises to sit and do nothing, in contradiction with compassion or simply in contradiction/denial of engagement with reality as it is. "Just sitting" is merely a teaching device, and Sōtō practitioners would similarly "just walk", "just eat", "just clean the dishes", "just help"… The focus is on thus-ness, not on sitting in and of itself.

From the tradition going back to shouting and kicking master Línjì ('Rinzai' in Japanese), zazen is an opportunity to 'work' on a koan, commonly an inconsistent conventional anecdote/narrative, the purpose of which is to make the meditator realise the inadequacy of conventional thinking to grasp thus-ness.
Any 'solution' to a koan might only be beyond 'right' and 'wrong' (conventional labels in the first place) and beyond words. The embodiment of a solution though should also not come from acting silly for the sake of acting silly. If 'silliness' is involved, a Zen master would approve the answer only if it was "just silliness" rather than silliness with an agenda (of being clever and beating the master at his own 'game', for example).

Both Sōtō and Rinzai rely on meditation, and both rely on understanding the limits of conventional truth, so while the teachings did manifest slightly differently, it is inaccurate to see a fundamental, intrinsic, inherent difference between e.g. "just sitting" and "just silliness". Both are very much about thus-ness, or "just being (without 'own'-being or 'self'-being)."

The basic teachings of Zen also rely on buddha-nature, the emptiness of any inherent, intrinsic separation between us and buddha, or between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa.

This was historically important in Japan, for example with the pastoral role the Sōtō Zen temples took on and the introduction of funeral cremation for all. Prior to such social commitment, funeral rites in Japan were reserved to the nobility and those close to the sovereign.

The understanding of buddha-nature is a strong antidote against any delusion of superiority of the monastics over the laypeople (and the use of the Vimalakirti sūtra is a support). It also supports considering any 'experience' as a teaching.

The understanding of buddha-nature supports the inclusion of women on par with men. While Zen had its share of sexism (often as excuses in 'political' fights over succession and lineage), Zen also has a record of supporting women and acknowledging women more than other traditions.

Finally, the importance given to buddha-nature supports the bodhisattva ideal of compassion. Again, this contrasts sharply with any image which would suggest that Zen's ideal is limited to sitting in isolation.

An interesting characteristic teaching of Zen is the "transmission outside of scriptures". A foundational teaching is the Flower sūtra but the whole Zen lineage has been based on "direct, mind-to-mind transmission." While this clearly indicates a cautious position vis-a-vis scholarly knowledge alone of the sūtras, and the strength of Zen in its focus on direct realisation and direct application of insights, it is also a weakness of Zen.

By construction, the "mind-to-mind transmission" favours the arising of 'establishment' and somehow denies buddha-nature by making teacher and receiver special and separate from others not having received transmission yet.

It also favours a view (which Dōgen criticised) that there exists "something to be transmitted", in contradiction with emptiness and thus-ness. Admittedly, many Zen koans warn against such an understanding of mind-to-mind transmission and would regularly enquire into this idea that something, anything, is transmitted. It is indeed one of a sign of seniority in Zen when one stops believing that there is an 'external' solution to be received from an 'external' teacher. This seniority is not the end of the journey though, and the koans (with their classic attack on conventional solutions) throw the practitioner off again the next moment by asking them why are they wasting time, or what are they doing here, if there's nothing to receive!?

In a manner coherent with koans, Zen often talks of "true nature" or even "true self" while de facto teaching emptiness (and the lack of unique, ultimate 'self' separable from saṃsāra).

There are 3 sub-schools of Zen in Japan: Sōtō, Rinzai and Ōbaku. Sōtō and Rinzai have been presented above. Ōbaku has often been presented derogatorily as "nembutsu-Zen" for its mixings of Pure Land and Zen teachings. Ōbaku is a late development from the 17th century, to serve the need of Chinese immigrants. However, Ōbaku relates to the lineage of Línjì, and while some chanting differs (based on some differences in pronunciation) when compared to Rinzai zen, Ōbaku remains close to Rinzai (more traditionally- and intellectually-inclined than Sōtō) . Ōbaku integrates zazen and koan practice in daily life, but it also gives rituals some real importance. It did integrate sūtras from Pure Land Buddhism, but does not necessarily interpret them naively or at face-value.

#Buddhism   #history   #buddhistcircle  
(photo: Kōmyōzen-ji garden,

'Zen' is far from limited to "Japanese Zen." For those interested to go beyond, +Julio Robles is organising a series in the "Zen Buddhism" community in the coming weeks:
[resulting doc:]