The best way to learn about Zen, is to drop in on one of our evening meditation sessions in Brisbane, Samford or Darwin. Alternatively, you can also enrol in our dedicated introductions to Zen evenings or visit one of our regular day retreats. We always give introductions on Zen practice to newcomers.
Since Zen is not a religion, we do not ask you to believe in anything or for that matter, abandon any existing religious beliefs.
Most newcomers avail themselves to our comprehensive introduction to Zen lectures. These 6 lectures are designed to provide a theoretical understanding of Zen in combination with practical aspects and applications of Zen’s methods.
After completing the lectures, and perhaps after some practice periods, participants may decide to become a formal student or a member of Pathway Zen. This is usually a path taken by those who feel they wish to incorporate Zen practice into their daily life. It requires a committed practice as well as the participation in retreats.
What is Zen?
Zen is a Japanese word that translates into English as meditation. The word Zen was translated into Japanese from the Chinese word Chan which in turn originated from the Pali word jhāna and the Sanskrit word dhyāna. Zen emerged as a stream of Buddhism in China and is known as a meditation school.
Understanding Zen can only be accomplished through directly experiencing Zen. Any description of Zen is always secondary to the realisation of Zen. Interpretations, no matter how eloquent, can only point to the experience and therefore never reveal the fact of Zen. To use a frequently used analogy, we can say that to understand the taste of Tea is only possible by drinking it. How can anyone transmit what Tea is, through words?
Most of us seek out meditation or mindfulness practice as a way to improve ourselves. We want to be happier, relieve anxiety or stress or perhaps tame the tyranny of our constant mind chatter. Few people consider however that the desire to improve ourselves is the cause of anxiety or dissatisfaction itself. That for example seeking to go from “unhappy” to “happy” is a self-perpetuating cycle. This is because our ordinary way of dealing with our likes and dislikes, is through a dualistic way of perceiving the world. Everything has an opposite and what we do by default, is gravitate towards that, which we perceive as being on the right side of the equation. We constantly set preferences like healthy instead of sick, wealthy instead of poor, smart instead of stupid, me instead of you and so on. Reality does not care about our preferences, which is why, when reality does not align with our preferences, we suffer.
Meditation, in its original Buddhist context, was never practiced to simply gravitate towards one side of the dualistic equation as this only gratifies and does not last. Instead, meditation was and continues to be practiced to experiencing ourselves outside our constant dualistic referencing. This realisation, must be obtained as a direct insight (kensho), for it to trigger a profound shift of awareness in order to dislodge the hold our ordinary dualistic way of thinking has on us. Once this direct realisation occurs, it frees us from the never ending like/dislike cycle and offers a new perspective from which to function in our daily life.
The goal of Zen is therefore to guide anyone that is interested in obtaining this awareness for themselves.
The three aims of Zen:
- Meditation. A regular meditation practice, object based and/or objectless, that over time, increases our capacity to direct and hold our concentration on an object or activity without getting lost in our mind chatter.
- Kensho. A direct-seeing and a profound insight-experience that opens a new perspective by breaking the barrier of dualism.
- Post Kensho practice. The personalisation of a kensho experience in our daily life through a methodology that includes meditation, koan practice, mindfulness practice and precept practice.
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.
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:
- A strict code of conduct called the Vinaya.
- A rigorous meditation practice.
- 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.
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)