Getting Started

For newcomers

The best way to learn about Zen, is to participate in one of our evening meditation sessions in Brisbane or  Samford. We always give introductions on Zen practice to newcomers at any given event. 

Next, newcomers can avail themselves to an overview and theoretical understanding of Zen in the form of  6 introductory lectures.  These lectures are given concurrently to the weekly evening program in both Spring Hill and Samford. They offer a comprehensive introductory foundation to Zen practice and the Zen path in general. Since these lectures do not have to be taken sequentially, most evenings offer an opportunity for participation as well as some practical meditation or zazen practice. There is no fixed charge for the lectures, but we would appreciate a suggested donation of $10.00 (or as one can afford) to cover costs.

After completing the lectures, and perhaps after some practice periods, it is possible to become a formal student or member of Pathway Zen.  This is usually a path taken by those who can incorporate daily Zen practice into their life. 

What is Zen?

Zen is a Japanese word that translates as meditation in English. The word Zen was translated into Japanese from the Chinese word Chan which in turn originated from the Sanskrit word dhyāna. Zen emerged as a stream of Buddhism in China in the 6th century and is known as the meditation school.

Understanding Zen can only be accomplished through directly experiencing Zen. Any description of Zen is therefore never Zen. Interpretations, no matter how eloquent, can only point to the experience and therefore never reveal the fact of Zen.  The same is true for Buddhism. Buddhism can only describe the path and the experience, but never actually convey Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening directly, as this requires a direct personal experience. To use a frequently used analogy, we can only understand the taste of tea through drinking it. Books and descriptions can describe tea but can never transmit what it is like to drink Tea. 

The goal of Zen is nothing less than the striving to experience awakening, as experienced by Shakyamuni Buddha, directly. To this end, Zen has developed a process that is grounded in Buddha’s Eightfold Path and that includes a method that evolved over Buddhism’s 2500 year history. The method can be summarised as follows:

The three aims of Zen are:

  1. Zazen or Meditation
  2. Kensho. A direct-seeing or insight experience that breaks the barrier of dualism.
  3. Post Kensho practice. The personalisation of a kensho experience in our daily life which requires ongoing zazen, koan practice, mindfulness practice and precept practice.

 

History

India

The origin point of Zen is the awakening experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, which he experienced while sitting in meditation some 2500 years ago. This experience can also be said to be the origin point of Buddhism. The Buddha, through his teachings, endeavoured to convey this awakening experience to his followers and they in turn endeavoured to convey it to their followers and so on. The various teachings, philosophies, canons and schisms that developed as a consequence of this evolution is known as the Buddhist tradition or Buddhism.

As Buddhism spread from India to the rest of the world, it continued to evolve into many traditions with each culture incorporating their own interpretations, rituals and insights into the mix. This is why, Tibetan Buddhism is so different to Theravada Buddhism or Zen Buddhism.

Also, as a consequence of this evolution, we cannot point to one Buddhism, but many Buddhisms, the richness of which, lies in the varied pathways each tradition developed.

The resulting adaptations, methods, philosophies and canons that derived from Buddha’s single awakening experience are thus seen as the guides, pointers, and confirmations of Buddha’s experience. 

China

When Buddhism encountered China about the 3rd century CE, Buddhism had already developed into many schools of philosophical thought. During this time, China had a well-developed social structure in the form of Confucianism as well as various indigenous religions dominated by Taoism. Nevertheless, the teachings of Buddhism offered intriguing aspects of philosophy, cosmology and spirituality that were readily integrated within the existing indigenous Chinese religious, social and political structures.

Zen or Chan, as it was then known in China, was born in the 6th century after Buddhism had already existed in China for over 300 years. The origin of Chan is traditionally credited to an Indian monk named Bodhidharma who is said to have visited China during this time.

Chan (Zen) emerged as a sub-group, out of the pre-existing mainstream Buddhist schools in China and as a movement that distanced itself from the way Buddhism was taught and practiced. Chan re-prioritise meditation as the primary method for awakening. Chan claimed that Buddhists in China lost sight of the original purpose by getting too preoccupied with its philosophy and teachings and the Chan or Zen method became known as the method outside scriptures and doctrines. 

As a consequence, Chan developed in China as a small meditation school, focusing on teaching its followers through a monastic model, a methodology that included:

  1. A strict code of conduct called the Vinaya.
  2. A rigorous meditation practice.
  3. The development of Koan practice, an insight or wisdom practice that breaks down dualism and works on personalising any insight obtained during practice, in our daily functioning.

These practices  follow the path elements of the Eightfold Path being: Morality, wisdom and meditation.

Chan flourished and peaked as a Buddhist school in China during the Tang and Sung dynasties (650-1279). Unfortunately, Chan all but died in China as an independent school as it was eventually absorbed into mainstream Buddhist schools due to the prevailing political pressures.

Japan

The teachings of Chan reached Japan in the 12th century CE, which was about 300 years after mainstream Buddhism was already established during the Nara period. The Chinese word Chan was translated into Japanese, as Zen.

In Japan, Zen kept Chan’s original purpose and teachings alive. In fact, the Zen schools in Japan solidified and consolidated the teachings and practices through the two predominant Rinzai and Soto schools for over 700 years.

The influence of Zen Buddhism in Japan was eventually absorbed into its entire culture.

Just like in China, Zen was mainly practiced in a monastic setting, with few lay followers having had access. The most well-known Zen masters of Japan were Dogen, the Japanese founder of the Soto school and Hakuin, the great reviver of the Rinzai school. Both masters are greatly revered in Japan and the West and most of their writings are now accessible in English.

In the 19th century, a Soto monk named Dai’un Harada Roshi was disenchanted with his tradition by not finding a truly accomplished master in that sect. He thus went to train at Shogen Temple and Nazen Temple, two Rinzai monasteries in Japan, under the guidance of Dokutan Rôshi. There, he finally found what he was looking for and realised “the great matter”. Harada Rôshi eventually combined the teachings of Soto and Rinzai and taught this to his student Haku’un Yasutani Rôshi, who eventually founded a new school, the Sanbôkyôdan school in 1953, now called Sanbo-Zen International.

Sanbo Zen developed as the first Zen householder or lay school of practice, and was able to teach, for the first time, non-monastic as well as non-Buddhist students from the West. This resulted in the first generation of Western teachers obtaining Zen teaching accreditations regardless of their religious affiliation.    (For more information on the Sanbo Zen history, please view our blog entry)