Most of us seek out meditation or mindfulness practice as a means to relieve anxiety or to obtain other therapeutic gains. We want to be happy and content, learn to relax, reduce stress or perhaps tame the tyranny of our constant mind chatter.
Few people consider however, that the desire to change ourselves or our circumstances, while perhaps necessary, is also the root cause of anxiety itself.
Since our desires are inexhaustible, they constitute our main motivators and driving force in life. Thus, most of our energy and resources are directed towards satisfying our cravings resulting from our desires.
We constantly set preferences relating to our desires in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’. In fact, we always seek to gravitate towards one side of this ledger. The more ‘likes’ we have in our life, the more successful or happy we judge it to be.
When reality does not align with our preferences or desires, we usually suffer. We then seek relief through new preferences and this dualistic cycle continues.
Meditation and mindfulness practice, in its original Buddhist context, was never practiced as a means to feel better or to solely obtain therapeutic outcomes. While they are an important side-benefit of meditation, these aspects on their own simply feed back into our ledger of “likes” and “dislikes” and perpetuate the cycle of discontent.
Instead, meditation in a Zen-Buddhist context, is a practice path that aims to end suffering through direct personal insights into our own True-Nature. This is achieved through a direct experience and a personalisation process resulting from dislodging the hold our habitual discriminatory way of thinking has on our conditioned mindsets.
The best way to learn about Zen, is to visit and participate in one of our regular weekly practice groups in Brisbane or Samford. We always provide an introduction to Zen practice to newcomers at any given event.
Newcomers can also attend our introduction to Zen lectures, which are given on request or as advertised. These lectures offer a comprehensive overview and foundation of Zen and the Zen practice path in general. The six lectures are presented in a separate room to the weekly evening program in Spring Hill and outside under a verandah in Samford. Each lecture include one period of zazen (sitting meditation) with our regular practice group. Since these lectures do not have to be taken sequentially, participants can make up missed lectures on other dates. We would appreciate a suggested donation of $10.00 (or as one can afford) per evening 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 taken up by those who aim to incorporate Zen as a practice path 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 Zanbozen 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 practicing zazen or sitting mediation. This practice results in a build-up of concentration capacity or power that is called joriki in Japanese (Pali: samādhibala; Eng: concentration-power). Joriki thus accumulates as a result of a consistent meditation practice. The first aim in Zen is to develop joriki, being the mental qualities and capacities that arise from cumulative meditation or concentration practice.
The second aim of Zen is to experience kenshō (Jap. seeing our true-self or true-nature). This experience cannot be forced but instead arises as a result of having developed joriki. A Kenshō experience is a mental shift in perception of reality in contrast to the way we usually perceive it (time and space bound). It is a physical experience, not just a feeling of well being and it manifests itself when certain conditions are met. In the Sanbozen lineage, a kenshō experience is crucial before moving forward on the Zen path and denotes but the beginning of the journey. It is therefore a primary goal of a Zen practitioner. Without this experience, Zen can easily descend to a mere level of intellectual inquiry.
The third aim of Zen is the personalisation of a kenshō experience in our daily life. We could say, that it is the personalisation of Zen-Buddhism itself. This process is considered 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. In Buddhist terms, it can be seen as the process whereby the Eightfold Path elements reveal themselves in our life through our practice. Yamada Roshi called 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 personalisation practice includes koan introspection, which is unique to Zen and which requires a one-on-one engagement with a Zen teacher. Here, a Zen teacher works with a student to clarify his or her insights on a regular (often weekly) basis. 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 however the vehicle through which Zen originated and through which it inherited its forms and methods. The Pathway Zen approach is to teach Zen through its classical Zen Buddhist method albeit in a contemporary, critical and secular way.
The origin point of Zen can be said to be 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’s insights arose from this experience and through his teachings, the Buddha endeavoured to convey his wisdom and methods 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 through acculturations 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 and methods each tradition developed.
When Buddhism encountered China around the 1st century CE, Buddhism had already developed into many schools of philosophical thought. During this time, China already functioned under a well-developed social and political structure, which was influenced in part by Confucianism and the prevailing indigenous religions such as Taoism. Nevertheless, the encounter with Buddhism offered intriguing and new aspects of philosophy, cosmology and spirituality that were readily integrated within the existing Chinese religious, social and political framework.
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, as a meditation movement that distanced itself from the prevailing intellectual way Buddhism was taught and practiced. Chan claimed that Buddhism in China lost sight of its original purpose, by getting too preoccupied with its philosophy and teachings, which is why the Chan or Zen method became known as the method outside scriptures and doctrines.
As a consequence, Chan through the Tang and Sung dynasties developed a practice path or methodology that focused on the three training principles of the Eightfold Path:
- Sila. (A code of moral conduct)
- Samadhi. (Concentration or meditation practice)
- Prajna. (The cultivation and clarification of wisdom or insights through Koan* engagement)
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.
(* For further information on koan practice and its development in Chan China, please see our blog entry on this website).
The teachings of Chan reached Japan in the 12th century CE, about 300 years after mainstream Buddhism was already established in Japan 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 Sanbozen International).
Sanbozen 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. (For more information on the Sanbozen history, please view the blog entry on this website)