Zen Buddhism

Buddhism originated in India about 500 BC and slowly spread to other parts of Asia. The Buddhist teachings reached China about 100 BC but it took a few hundred years for Buddhism to become a vital part of Chinese culture.

Once the teachings had arrived in China the practices were naturally transformed by the Chinese psyche and temperament. Out of all the ingenious forms of Buddhism that appeared in China, chan became the most popular tradition.

Round 600 AD, Buddhism reached the Japanese shore where the practices gradually took on a distinctive Japanese flavor. The tradition was given the name Zen.

The two main schools of Zen are referred to as Soto and Rinzai. Two forms of Zen with their own techniques and temperaments.

The Zen Approach

One of the many things that makes Zen stand out is the use of koans or riddles if you like. For example, "What's the sound of one hand clapping?"

Koans lure the mind to stop thinking which is a technique unique to Zen.

Zen Buddhists generally refer to meditation as zazen.

Another particular Zen feature is the use of a wooden stick called kyosaku. The stick is used during sitting meditation to keep meditators alert and in an upright posture. The stick is smacked on the sides of the meditator's neck which has an energizing effect. The kyosaku is viewed as a vital tool in zazen.

Zen also has a strong emphasis on samu or work. If you live in a monastery and don't work one day, you're expected not to eat. In addition, all work should be carried out mindfully.

Zen Stories

Two reasons why Zen has grown in popularity among intellectuals in the West are thanks to the enigmatic koans and the many Zen stories, originating from both China and Japan. The stories are generally accounts of Zen masters and their monks.

These anecdotes usually take on unexpected and dramatic forms. Here's a story I recall offhand:

A monk in Japan enjoyed going to bars in the evenings and would return to the monastery late at night. The other monks knew about it including the abbot who was getting tired of the monk's lack of discipline.

So, one night the abbot waited behind the monastery wall, for the monk to return. When the monk made his way home in the dark, he jumped from the wall as usual but landed on the abbot's head in a state of terror - that's how the monk got enlightened.

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Buddhist Traditions

Zen Buddhism is way different from the forms of Buddhism practiced in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. Japanese monks for example, view those traditions as orthodox Buddhist. What they refer to is the strict interpretation of the Buddha's teachings - including living in celibacy and not having any meals after midday.

Next, kinhin is Japanese for walking meditation which is unique compared to how it's practiced elsewhere. Kinhin is a group practice where everyone walks clockwise in a circle, inside the temple. This calls for adjusting your pace to the meditators around you.

The benefit of walking meditation in a group is the build up of mental energy which fuels spiritual awakening.

In other Buddhist traditions walking meditation is practiced individually, either indoors or outdoors.

A final note. I was taken by surprise at the mountain temple in Japan, when I saw the married abbot both skinny dip and drink sake the same day.

Best of luck!

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