Japan Glossary

Zen
Zen . . .Buddhism is based . . .on a single, esoteric idea: all humans have a Buddha nature inside them and to realize this nature all a human being has to do is search his or her inner self. The key to Buddhahood in Zen is simply self-knowledge. The way to gain self-knowledge is through meditation (which is what the word "zen" means). Now, "meditation" is one of the cornerstones of Buddhism, where, under the name dhyana , it forms the final and most important aspect of gaining enlightenment. But Zen (in Chinese, Ch'an ) or Meditation Buddhism granted meditation an exclusive importance not ascribed to it in other Buddhist schools. This is indicated by its very name: all other Buddhist schools either take their names from important Scriptures (such as the Lotus sect, which takes its name from the Lotus sutra) or from a philosophical position (such as the Consciousness-only sect) or an individual philosopher (such as Nichiren), whereas Zen takes its name from the practice of meditation. Meditation, which was a means to an end in other Buddhist schools, became the end in itself in Zen: meditation was Truth realized in action. As a result, Zen readily dispenses with the Buddhist scriptures and philosophical discussion in favor of a more intuitive and individual approach to enlightenment. Meditation, however, is a strict religious discipline: the mind must be made sharp and attentive in order to intuit from itself the Truth of Buddhahood. Part of this discipline involves waking up the mind of the disciple, making it aware of the things around it. There are several ways of doing this: motorcycle maintenance, hard labor, travel, and, in Japan, the koan, which is a question and answer session between disciple and master which involves sudden beatings and illogical answers all in an attempt to wake or stimulate the disciple's mind to make it ready for the discovery of the Truth inside.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-5-97