Getting Started

For newcomers…

The best way to learn about Zen, is to visit and participate in one of our evening practice groups in Brisbane or Samford. We always provide an introduction to Zen practice to newcomers at any given event. 

Newcomers can also attend the regular scheduled  introduction to Zen lectures. These lectures offer a comprehensive overview of Zen and the Zen practice path in general. The six lectures are given in a separate room to the weekly evening program in Spring Hill and outside under a verandah in Samford. They include at least one period of zazen (sitting meditation) with the regular practice group.  Since these lectures do not have to be taken sequentially, participants can make up missed lectures on other dates.  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 rental and other expenses. 

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 aim to incorporate daily Zen practice into their life. 

What is Zen?

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

In our lineage of Zen, there are three core aims:

The first aim of Zen is to establish, increase and strengthen our capacity to direct and hold our concentration, on any given object or moment. We achieve this through the practice of zazen or mediation. This practice results in a build-up of  concentration that is called joriki in Japanese (Pali: samādhibala; Eng: concentration-power). Joriki thus arises as a result of establishing a consistent meditation practice. The first aim in Zen is thus to develop joriki, being the resulting qualities of deep meditation or concentration experiences.

The second aim of Zen is the experiencing of kenshō (experiencing our true-self) revealed to us as a result of having developed joriki. A Kenshō experience is a prerequisite before moving forward on the Zen path and denotes a beginning rather than an end of the journey. Without this experience, Zen can easily descend to a level of intellectual inquiry. Here, any notion of awakening needs to be validated through this experience. 

The third aim of Zen is the personalisation of a kenshō experience in our daily life. This post-kenshō clarification process is the most difficult goal of Zen practice. This third aim is more than just a goal in the ordinary sense of the word, as it is seen as a continuous process where Zen practice reveals itself in a practitioners life. Yamada Roshi calls it a continuous process of “making the eye clear” since it is extremely rare to break through to complete clarity in one kenshō experience. This post-kenshō practice is unique to Zen, and requires a personal one-on-one engagement with a Zen teacher. Here, a Zen teacher works with a student to clarify his or her insights through kōan practice. The ultimate aim is the embodiment of complete freedom or awakening, through our character, in our everyday engagement with life. 

Do I need to be a Buddhist to practice Zen?

You do not need to be a Buddhist to practice Zen. Buddhism is simply a vehicle through which Zen originated and can be taught. As such, Zen methods can be formulated or interpreted through different frameworks. For example, Zen can be explained through a secular, scientific, Buddhist or through other religious formulations.

From an ultimate perspective, the experience of Zen (kenshō) is free of any concept or tradition and is not unique to Zen or Buddhism. Any experience simply finds expression in whatever setting, language or concept we articulate it. Pathway Zen teaches the Zen-Buddhist methods that have developed over a thousand years and offers a classical context in its formulations and rituals, in a critical and secular way. According to the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha has reportedly said: “My teaching is like a raft. ‘A raft is meant to carry you across the river; once you have crossed the river, you leave the raft behind on the shore. If even correct teachings must be left behind, how much so incorrect teachings!”

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 around the 1st 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 nearly 600 years. The origin of Chan is traditionally credited to a legendary 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 prioritised 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 a methodology that included:

  1. A strict code of conduct called the vinaya (Eng: morality; Skt: sila).
  2. A rigorous meditation practice in order to awaken to our true-self (Eng: concentration Skt: samadhi).
  3. The development of encounter dialogues in the Tang dynasty, which eventually developed into kōans (Eng: cases) in the Sung dynasty as a wisdom practice (Eng: wisdom Skt: prajna).  

Chan flourished and peaked as a Buddhist school in China during the Tang (618-907) and Sung dynasties (960-1279). Unfortunately, Chan all but died in China as an independent school as it was eventually absorbed with other mainstream Buddhist schools including the popular Pure Land school due to 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 to a large non-monastic as well as non-Buddhist cohort of 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 the blog entry)