Zen

Buddha Yakushi Nyorai (1648)

Buddha Yakushi Nyorai (1648)

Zen is an important school of Buddhism in Japan. It arose in the 6th century in China as Ch’an, a form of Mahayana Buddhism. By teaching development of mental tranquillity, fearlessness and spontaneity, all faculties of the enlightened mind, the school of Zen has had a lasting influence on the cultural life of Japan.
During the 16th-century period of political unrest, Zen priests not only contributed their talents as diplomats and administrators but also preserved the cultural life; it was under their inspiration that art, literature, the tea cult and the nō theatre, for example, developed and prospered. Neo-Confucianism, which became the guiding principle of the Tokugawa feudal regime (1603-1867), was originally introduced and propagated by Japanese Zen masters, too.

According to Zen, the Buddha-nature, or potential to achieve enlightenment, is inherent in everyone but lies dormant because of ignorance. The world is full of illusions: everything we see or think is just a fabrication of our minds and a cause for suffering. If we could cease to grasp and follow our thoughts we would be closer to enlightenment. This ‘opening the hand of thought’ will bring us in contact with the universal life force, thereby letting us live life without obstructions from our self-created egos. To reach enlightenment (satori in Japanese) we need training, and different Zen sects all have their own training methods.
The Rinzai sect, introduced to Japan from China by the priest Eisai in 1191, emphasizes sudden shock and meditation on the paradoxical statements called kōan. The Sōtō sect, brought to Japan by Dōgen on his return from China in 1227, prefers the method of sitting in meditation, called zazen. A third sect, the Ōbaku, was established in 1654 by the Chinese monk Yin-yüan (Japanese: Ingen). It employs the methods of Rinzai and also practices nembutsu, the continual invocation of Amida with the devotional formula namu Amida Butsu (homage to Amida Buddha). These invocations can still be heard in Japan today.

David van Ooijen


Back to Things Japanese