What is Zen?

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the 6th century as Chán. The word Zen is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which translates roughly as “absorption” or “meditative state”.

Zen is a variety of Buddhism, influenced by Confucianism and Taoism as Buddhism spread to China from India, and later to Japan. It is a system of metaphysics taught with koans (riddles), meditation and by blows in various forms of martial arts.

Origins in Buddhism

Buddhism originated in India around 500 B.C.E. with the prince Siddhartha Gautama. The prince gave up his family, material possessions and sheltered life when he discovered could not protect him from old age, illness, unhappiness and death. He set out to seek a higher kind of life; an elevated state of being.

After seeking wisdom from others and failing to find it, he had his own revelation of a higher life which came as he meditated under the Bodhi-tree. He taught the Truth that he had learned, and a group of followers gathered around him to learn from his wisdom. His followers grew into the monastic order still powerful in much of the Orient. He was known to his followers as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Buddha taught that there is an eternal, endless universe of Absolute Being, of which we are all temporary incarnations. We are all subject to delusions and temptations, pain and trouble, illness and death. Only by studying to find wisdom, living to do good, and concentrating to achieve control over mind and body, we can escape from the dominance of the physical world, and transmit a good inheritance of karma to our later forms.


Karma is defined as the “moral kernel of any being which survives death and continues in transmigration.”

Buddha taught that we are part of a succession of many forms or many different lives. Each new being aspires to improve its common inheritance of karma and can eventually rise to an existence entirely free of the physical world: the state of nirvana. Buddha himself is said to have achieved nirvana at his death – that is, permanent enlightenment in a state free from rebirth.

Buddhism spreads to China

A thousand years after Buddha, a monk from India came to China bringing with him a modified form Buddhism. This traveler was called Bodhidharma (Bodhi= enlightenment, Dharma = Truthful Way), and he is believed to have come to China in 520 C.E.. Ultimately, this form of Buddhism became widely practiced in China, and later in Japan. It was named Zen.

After the original Bodhidharma, Zen was transmitted through a body of monks and a patriarchs. Each patriarch would leave his robe and begging bowl to his chosen successor as a badge of office. About one hundred and fifty years after Bodhidharma, Zen had transformed into a way of life for the simple folk as well as for the studious devotee.

What’s the difference?

Zen neglects karma, reincarnation, and nirvana, but it still requires meditation,
Concentration and physical discipline. Zen teaches that “enlightenment” may come to dedicated laymen, suddenly and intuitively, and does not require long years of study and concentration to be attained.

Achieving enlightenment in Zen is not a rational or methodical process, but rather a dynamic, non-rational, unexplainable, and intuitive one.

Zen training in concentration, in the characteristic cross-legged position, and the Zen teaching of koans (non-logical riddles and stories) are designed to put the student in a state where he can abandon logic and make the leap upward into enlightenment. In Japanese this state of enlightenment is called satori.


In satori we look beyond the immediate, physical world into the universe of original, eternal, Absolute Being often called the Great Emptiness. The Great Emptiness was before our world was formed, and will continue to exist long after it disappears. In this condition we lose our sense of Self, our individuality, and know ourselves to be part of the great Oneness of all. Knowing ourselves to be part of this whole; part of an Absolute Being, our individual ego and worldly problems of ego (sin, pain, poverty, fear) all melt away. In Zen, this is salvation; the nearest approximation of nirvana in Buddhism.

In the state of satori, we awaken to an awareness that everything in this world around us is connected. All other living and non-living things, even our lowest animal functions, are part of Absolute Being; a universal organism, and thus everything is holy. The tallest mountains and smallest rocks, trees and grass-blades; elephants and microbes, all share equally in the Eternal.

The Absolute Being

This new-found awareness imbibes our daily life with a new freedom, a new sureness, a new sense of doing the work of Absolute Being even in the smallest or menial task of the present. All work can be done with pleasure; in harmony with nature. A simple tea ceremony in Japan becomes a holy ritual of devotion; a seventeen-syllable haiku poem is a universal statement of faith; A quick brush-drawing a gesture becomes of piety in Eternity.

Each of us is the apex of a long chain of causality; of past ancestors, and the beliefs, acts, and events which determined them. Each also is a point from which a new line of individuals and events will arise, in some part as a product of what we are and what we will become. We are all a part of Absolute Being, and we are all a part of each other.

The concept Zen attempts to convey has been described in the allegory of Indra’s Net:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe. The horizontal threads are in space, the vertical threads are in time. At every crossing of threads is an individual, and every individual is a crystal bead. The great light of Absolute Being illuminates and penetrates every crystal bead; but also every crystal bead reflects not only the light from every other crystal in the net – but also every reflection of every reflection throughout the universe.

Through Zen, we learn that we live in all other beings and all other things. They, in turn, live in us. This duality of existence as both the self and the everything makes our lives are richer and more filled with obligations than we ever knew before.

Zen Buddhism: An Introduction to Zen with Stories, Parables and Koan Riddles Told by the Zen Masters, by Peter Pauper Press

About the creator of ZenInsights

In my 24 years on this Earth, though I am far from my full potential, I have learned much. The most important lesson of all is that we are not static beings. Our lives are dynamic, constantly in flux and adapting to new circumstance.

I was raised Catholic, but have since come to find inspiration in all manner of religions including: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. There is no one set way for us to lead our lives. We can only do our best to follow what we know to be right in our hearts and minds.

Zen Insights is a journey into my mind’s eye.  Several contributing authors and myself, write our thoughts on philosophy, science and broader issues.  The principle focus is on personal experiences, development and self improvement as individuals striving for enlightenment.

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