Jesuit priest A M A SAMY runs a Zen training centre, Bodhi Zendo, in Perumal Hills, Tamil Nadu. He walks us through the fundamentals of the practice.
The word ‘Zen’ is a Japanese modification of the Sanskrit word dhyana and ‘Jhana’ in Pali. In China, dhyana became Ch’an or Ch’an-na and in Japan it became Zen or Zenna. Zen is originally Zen Buddhism, which is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism. According to a legend, a certain Bodhidharma from Kanjeevaram in south India went to China in the 5th or 6th century and taught this form of meditation. From China, Zen Buddhism spread to Korea and to Japan. An ancient verse describes the Zen method, realisation and transmission thus:
‘A special transmission outside the scriptures No dependence on words and letters Directly pointing to the heart-mind Seeing into one’s Nature, attaining Buddhahood.’
Zen Buddhism in Japan has two major divisions: Soto and Rinzai. Soto method of meditation is mainly ‘shikantaza,’ — just sitting. Rinzai method is centred on koans.
Koans are existential, paradoxical questions, as, for example: What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face before your parents were born? ‘Just sitting’ and koan-use are both important ways; however, koan training is better suited to realisation and its refinement. Zen can be properly learnt only under the guidance of a qualified master. Particularly, for koan-training, a master is a sine qua non. The master cannot give you satori; the master is there to guide, challenge, test, and confirm. In reality, the entire world is your teacher, the whole life of birth and death is the training field.
“The task of the Zen master is not to teach Self-being, but to convey that it cannot be taught, that no methodology is capable of bringing it about…. Rarely will a Zen master say what Zen is, but will inexorably express what it is not,” wrote John Steffeny. The heart of Zen is satori: Awakening or enlightenment. It is an awakening to one’s original face before one is born, to the ultimate reality of all. It is an awakening of the heart, flowering into endless compassion for all beings. Prajna and karuna, enlightenment and compassion, are the essence of the Zen way and are the two sides of a realisation. Zen meditation is also therapeutic; a healing, something that makes body-mind-spirit whole; liberation, reconciliation and atonement.
To study the Buddha way is to study the self To study the self is to ‘forget’ the self To ‘forget’ the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to remove the barriers between oneself and others. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. — Zen Master Dogen from ‘Genjokoan’
Zen can mean many things: Zen Buddhism, Zen meditation or method, Zen philosophy or approach to life; Zen experience or realisation, Zen enlightenment or awakening, and so on.
Zen meditation and realisation have to be differentiated from Zen Buddhism.
The latter is a religious sect; the former is beyond any one particular religion. Indeed, Zen is the religion of no-religion and in its light, religions can be truly themselves. Zen as practice and realisation transcends every philosophy, ideology and ‘ism’ — monism, pantheism, nihilism, secularism, humanism, and more. It transcends both negation and affirmation, and grounds and authenticates every reality in its suchness and uniqueness.
Zen is the death of the ‘old man’ and the birth of the ‘new man’, of the New Heaven and New Earth. Zen is not, however, so much a theory; it is a practice and depends on action. It is practised with the master, with the sangha, community, and in daily life; it is a body-mindspirit practice actualised in the in-between of Self and others: One action of the universe.
The Great Way has no gates, Thousands of paths enter it; When you pass through this gateless gate, You walk freely between heaven and earth. — Zen Master Wu-Men Hui-K’ai,‘The Gateless Gate’
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