What is Zen Buddhism? | Reclaiming Zen

What is Zen Buddhism?

Defining Zen Buddhism

Trying to define Zen Buddhism and refining it to a book, definition, website or article is impossible. Doing such a thing freezes Zen in time and space which weakens its meaning.

Defining Zen is like trying to describe the taste of vanilla syrup to someone who has never tasted it before. You could try to explain the texture and scent, or compare it to other foods. However, vanilla is vanilla! As long as you have not tasted it, you are in the illusion of what vanilla syrup is.

The same goes with Zen because Zen Buddhism needs to be experienced. Rather than just being a concept that you can intellectualize or understand you need to experience it. This is information is a starting point but it is by no means everything that has been written about and is not where your exploration should end. 

At the heart of the Japanese culture lies Zen. Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in China about 15 centuries ago. In China it is called Ch’an Buddhism, this is the Sanskrit word dhyana which refers to a mind absorbed in meditation. The word Zen is the Japanese of
Ch’an. It is Thien in Vietnam and Seon in Korea. No matter where or what language, the name can always be translated to “Meditation Buddhism”. 

Zen is firstly a practice that was transmitted from master to disciple and goes back 2500 years to the Awakening of a man named Siddhārtha Gautama (Shakyamuni Gotama in Japanese). You may recognize him as The Buddha. It is important to remember that Zen is a complicated and wide practice with many traditions. in our discussions “Zen” is used in a general sense to represent all different schools. 

A Brief History

When the Indian sage Bodhidharma taught at the Shaolin Monastery of China zen began to emerge as a distinct school of Mahayana Buddhism. Even today Bodhidharma is called the First Patriarch of Zen. Bodhidharma’s teachings grasped some thinking already in progress, such as the confluence of philosophical Taoism with Buddhism. Taoism impacted on early Zen so much that some philosophers and texts are claimed by both.

It was under the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng that Zen shed most of its Indian trappings and became more Chinese and perhaps more like the Zen we think of now. Due to this some people consider Huineng to be the true father of Zen. Huineng was influential during what is known as the Golden Age of Zen. During these years Zen organized itself into five “houses” or schools. Two of these schools, the Rinzai and the Soto in Japanese still exists and remain distinctive from each other.

Zen was transmitted to Vietnam as early as the 7th Century during the Golden Age. It wasn’t until after World War 2 that The Western World took an interest in Zen and now Zen is well established around the world.

How Zen Defines Itself

Lineage of teachers is critical as Zen is said to be the face-to-face transmission of dharma outside the sutras. Think of it as a family tree of teachers. Throughout history teachers have transmitted their realisation of dharmato students by working with them face-to-face. A Zen teacher can trace their linage of teachers back to Bodhidharma, and before that to the historical Buddha. This lineage is often trusted and taken on faith. If anything is treated as sacred in Zen it is the teachers’ lineages. Calling oneself a Zen teacher without having received transmission from another teacher is considered a serious defilement of Zen. 

This is important to remember as Zen is becoming more and more popular. Be wary of anyone proclaiming to be a Zen master and this title is hardly ever used inside Zen. The title Zen master (Zenji in Japanese) is only given posthumously. In Zen the term Zen Teacher is used an especially beloved teacher is called a “roshi” which means “old man”.


Zen Buddhism is not a theory, idea or piece of knowledge. It is not just a belief, dogma or religion but it is instead a practical experience. You cannot intellectually grasp Zen because as humans our intelligence and wisdom is too limited. Zazen is practiced in a hall called the dojo and this is different from the university.

Zen is not a moral teaching and it is without dogma so it does not require you to believe in anything. A true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in, but instead it shows them how to think or in this case what not to think.

Zen Buddhism is not interested in metaphysical theories and rituals and focuses instead on mindful practice of Zazen. Zen is very simple and it is for this very reason that it can be hard to grasp.

Bodhisharma’s definition of zen states that it is not an intellectual discipline that can be learnt from books. It is a practice of studying mind and seeing into ones own nature. The main practice of this is zazen.

ZaZen Meditation 

The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen (Z a meaning sitting, and
Zen meaning meditation in Japanese), is the core of Zen Buddhism and without it, there is no Zen.
You can learn the basics of zazen from books, websites and videos but if it is something you are serious about then you will need regular zazen practice and even sit with others occasionally to deepen practice. If there
is no monastery or Zen centre try to find a “sitting group” of individuals who sit zazen together.

Zen meditation takes willpower and discipline, it is a way of vigilance and self-discovery which is practiced whilst sitting on a meditation cushion. It is the experience of living in the present moment, from moment to moment, in the here and now. It is through the practice of Zazen that Gautama got enlightened and became the Buddha.


We can all practice in order to reach enlightenment. Zazen is an attitude of spiritual awakening which can be practiced until it becomes the source from which all actions of daily life flow. When you eat, sleep, walk, breathe, work, talk and think and so on.

Beginners are taught to work with their breath to learn concentration. Simply find a place of silence and relaxation, sit down comfortably, be still, let go of your thoughts and focus just on your Zazen posture and breathing. Keep your back straight, let your ego and unconscious mind melt away and merge with the universe.  

Why is ZaZen so important?

It may take a lot of practice before you appreciate zazen. At first you may think of it as mind training and that it is. If you continue on with the practice of zazen meditation your understanding of why you sit will change. It could change only a few times over a long period of time or it may change regularly. This will be your own personal journey and it may not resemble the experience of anyone else.

It can seem difficult to comprehend sitting with no goals or expectations including that of enlightenment, It is very different to what we experience in our daily lives. Many will sit with goals and expectations for months or years before the goals are exhausted and we learn to “just sit”. Along this very personal and intimate journey you will learn a lot about yourself. Zen literature can often make no sense and be a little confusing. Many may say that zazen is only optional in Zen but this is a mistake. 

How To Make Sense Of It All?

Zen often makes no sense and making sense of it require a lot. Zen literature is full of vexatious exchanges. Bodhidharma said that Zen is “direct pointing to the mind.” Understanding is gained through intimate experience not through intellect. Words may be used but they are used in a presentational way not a literal way. There is no quick way to help you decipher Zenspeak. After a while of practice with a Zen teacher it may become easier. Be skeptical in your reading and consider whether they are analysing work as if it were discursive prose. Answers cannot be found through normal reading and study; it must be lived. Zen is about coming face-to-face with yourself in a very intimate and direct way. This is not always easy but the journey is definitely worthwhile. 

Let me know how you get on and what experiences you have all had.



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Reclaiming Zen

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