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What is Zen? (The historical question)
What is Zen? (The spiritual question)
Why do Zen writings seem like nonsense?
What is meditation?
How should a beginner begin their study of Zen Buddhism?
Introductory reading list  
About this FAQ

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What is Zen? (The historical question)
Historically, Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Around 500 B.C. he was born a Sakyan prince (Indo-Scythian) north of Benares at Kapliavastu.  At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he renounced his privileged life, his wife and child, and went out among the Shramana (shaman) acetics to seek understanding.  After 6 years of struggle he finally understood the meaning of enlightenment under the legendary Bo-tree. After this he was recognized as a Buddha (meaning "The Awakened One"). He taught for some forty years then died at Kusinagara in Oudh, India. According to the Mahayana tradition the Buddha did not actually die, because the Buddha is a spiritual entity called the Dharmakaya.  Only the corpse of Siddhartha Gautama remained behind where it was given the burial of a Chakravartin (Wheel King).
The very first sermon was delivered by the Buddha in Benares on the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path.  He taught that proper religious practice consists in  the avoidance of sensualism and physical austerities, called the Middle Way.  In the Four Noble Truths, he declared the truth of suffering; its nature or cause; its ending, and the correct means to accomplish the end of suffering.
   The school of Zen Buddhism begins with a Central Asian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma arriving in Southern China (470-475 C.E.) who belonged to the Lanka School which later became known as Zen (C. Ch'an).  Based on the _Lankavatara Sutra_, the doctrine of the Lanka School mainly concerned itself with the study of Mind, both its absolute nature, and its evolved nature.  It is believed by scholars that Bodhidharma lived and taught in Northern China for about fifty years. The original practitioners of the Lanka School were noted for the ascetic (C. t'ou-t'o) life, living faraway from human dwelling places.
   Not until the ninth century did the name Ch'an (J. Zen) become adopted.  Early Zen became associated with enlightenment rather than physical seated meditation. During the Sung period of China Zen was synonymous with Buddha Mind (C. fo-hsin), not seated meditation as it is commonly believed by present day Japanese Zen teachers and their followers.  Around 1200 A.D. Ch'an Buddhism spread from China to Japan where it is called (at least in translation) Zen Buddhism and known primarily in its Japanese form.

What is Zen? (The spiritual question) (to the top)

This question basically asks "What is the fundamental nature of Mind?"  It appears in various guises throughout Zen literature, from "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" to "The One hand clapping sound." The question penetrates into the heart of the matter and can only be answered in a flash of intimate intuition in which the truth of Mind is seen to be the substratum of existence.  As to the role of practice, or what the Chinese Zennists call "cultivation", Zen is paradoxically the cultivation of non-cultivation, recognizing that we need only remove the illusion of non-enlightenment to become enlightened.

Why do Zen writings seem like nonsense? (to the top)

One of the central points of Zen is intuitive comprehension.  When we come to realize the fundamental nature of Mind, Zen becomes super-logical.  On the other hand, when we attempt to examine the nature of Mind through emotions, ego-pain, mental pictures, and discursive ideas based on sense perception, Zen seems like nonsense.  Because all things arises from Mind, Mind cannot be measured through its creations because the latter are not as perfect as  Mind itself.  On the other hand, in directly coalescing with Mind everything makes perfect sense just as they are, as they arise from Mind.  All things thus reveal the pure function of Buddha Mind.  Just so, we see the natural world as a manifestation of the cosmic Buddha.  When the Zen master Joshu wipes crumbs off his robe he is demonstrating the primordial power of Mind to move his body perfectly--although he is no longer attached to his body, now being Mind.

What is meditation? (to the top)

Meditation refers to contemplation, generally, the contemplation of both the body within and the living principle of Buddhism.  The Buddhist Sanskrit term for meditation is BHAVANA which literally means the action of promoting, or the same, attending.  Because we are potentially pure Mind, mentally attending to the body calms it down and makes it peaceful and less violent.  In this meditation, we neither cling to thought forms and emotions, nor reject them.
    This is called Shamatha (C. chih) meditation.  In Vipashyana (C. kuan),  or insight meditation, Mind is directed to recollecting itself because it suffers from spiritual amnesia, having in the past followed its generations, forgetting its native whereabouts.  Through Vipashyana meditation we come to uncover the nature of Mind itself.  As a result, we observe that all phenomena are changing, momentary, and finite; that in fact they arise from the pure source of Mind itself and return to it moment to moment.  Thus we begin to see that all things are like a dream, a sudden flash of lightning, or bubbles in a body of water. In seeing this way, we reside in the fixed immovable source of things, this being Mind.  Both forms of meditation are vital in Zen Buddhism.  But Shamatha meditation alone cannot restore the nature of Mind which we are unable to remember.  The Zen adept also needs to meditate on just what the nature of Mind exactly is.  Insight meditation as well, becomes impossible if the body is not relaxed and calmed.  If we are attached to violent thoughts and emotions, unable to control our desires, Vipashyana meditation becomes difficult to maintain.

How should a beginner begin their study of Zen Buddhism? (to the top)

First, it is always necessary to become familiar with the language of Buddhism. If you are not familiar with the language of Buddhism how can your friends help you and teach you about the mysterious nature of Mind?  If you, for example, don't know what gold looks like, how can you begin your search?  You need, for instance, to learn the Four Noble Truths, understanding what they mean.  You need to know that the Four Noble Truths pertain to the nature of Mind, that when Mind blindly clings to its manifestations it comes to experience suffering, or the same, disharmony (dukkha).

Beginners should be familiar with the canonical works of Buddhism called the Tripitakas. In addition they should read Mahayana scriptures of the Mahaprajnaparamita class, most important the _Heart Sutra_ and the _Diamond Cutter of Doubts_.  In addition, students should read the foundational Sutra of Zen Buddhism which is the Lankavatara Sutra.  Other Sutras such as the Shurangama, the Vimalakirit Nirdesha, and the Shrimaladevi Sutra, are also extremely important to read.

As for Zen texts in particular, it is important to read orthodox material such as the _The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma_; _The Platform Scripture_ by Hui Neng the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism; _The Zen Teaching of Huang Po_ and _The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai_.  Beginners should avoid modern books on Zen if they m do not teach Mind doctrine.  Beginners should first ground themselves in orthodox Zen classics and traditional Buddhist literature avoiding non-Mind doctrine publications.  In so doing they will be able to reach the fruit of the path sooner and come to know the joy of breaking the bonds of rebirth.
    In reading proper and accepted books on Zen Buddhism there will be no karmic error created either, and thus no future cause for regret.  Historically, in China, Zen literature was by far the most widely published and read. Traditional Zen masters studied all the major Sutras and were very skilled in commenting on the arcane principles contained in the various Sutras.Beginners should understand that Zen Buddhism is the most direct teaching in Buddhism, and to become a members one must be want to be a member.  Just like an University, Zen is only looking for a good people whom are intelligent, free from religious pride, non-hating, and compassionate, and above all are willing to learn the sublime doctrine of the Buddhas.


The following short list of books is meant to help the beginner gain, not only a philosophical understanding of Zen, but also, at least, an intellectual understanding of Law of Buddha. There are many other books available, so many that space on this FAQ does not permit anything close to a comprehensive list.
    Instead we give this short list which covers most fundamental aspects of Zen and the Mind doctrine.  There are also many other wonderful writers and books on this subject, this list is INTRODUCTORY ONLY.  You are encouraged to use your intuition whenselecting material to read.

May these books be the Point of departure of your path to Awakening.

*A Buddhist Bible* Edited by Dwight Goddard
(Boston : Beacon Press,1970, c1938)
  This book has translations of the Diamond Sutra, Dao De King (more popularly known as Tao Te Ching), the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch (See NOTE) the Awakening of Faith Shastra, solid fundamental discussions of the historical Buddha and his teachings.  NOTE:  This particular translation of the Sixth Patriarch's Platform Sutra is worded in a way which might be easier understood by reading other translations.

*Questions to a Zen Master* By Taisen Deshimaru
  Except for the excellent chapter on Zazen (Soto style) this book shows many basic religious and philosophical implications of Zen.  With a heavy taste of the "just sitting" Soto Zen style, Master Deshimaru covers frontiers of the mind in an easy reading style that maintains the integrity of Truth.

*Zen letters : teachings of Yuanwu*, trans. & ed. J.C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary.
(Boston : Shambhala,1994)

*The Zen teachings of Master Lin-chi*, trans. Burton Watson
(Boston : Shambhala Publications, 1993)

*Meditating with koans*, trans. J. C. Cleary
(Berkeley, Calif: Asian Humanities Press, 1992)

*The transmission of the lamp : early masters* trans. Sohaku Ogata
(Wolfeboro, N.H. : Longwood Academic, 1990)

*The Zen teaching of Bodhidharma*, trans. Red Pine
(San Francisco : North Point Press, 1987)

*The record of Tung-shan*, trans. William F. Powell
(Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1986)

*A Zen forest, sayings of the masters*, trans. Soiku Shigematsu
(New York: Weatherhill, 1981)

*Zen : poems, prayers, sermons, anecdotes, interviews*, trans. Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto
(Athens, Ohio : Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, 1981)

*The recorded sayings of Ch'an master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen prefecture*, trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki
(Kyoto : Institute for Zen Studies, 1975)

*The Zen teaching of Hui Hai on sudden illumination*,  trans. John Blofeld
(London : Rider,1969, c1962)

*The Zen teaching of Huang Po on the transmission of mind*, trans. John Blofeld (Chu Ch'an)
(London : The Buddhist Society,1968, c1958)

Hui-neng, *The Platform Scripture*, trans. Chan, Wing-tsit
(New York : St. John's University Press, 1963)

*The iron flute; 100 Zen koan*, trans. Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Strout McCandless
(Tokyo, Rutland Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co., 1961)

*Ch'an and Zen teaching*, ed. & trans. Lu K`uan Yu (Charles Luk).
(London : Rider,1960)

Paul Reps, *Zen flesh, Zen bones*
(Tokyo, Rutland, Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co., 1957)

D.T. Suzuki, *Manual of Zen Buddhism*,
(London, New York : Published for the Buddhist Society, by Rider,1956)


About this FAQ  (to the top)

You are free to copy and to distribute this Zen FAQ.
Your comments are welcome.
Revised and edited by Mark Vetanen and Ardent Hollingsworth

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