An introduction to Zen

By Dr. Wah Keong Boey

Origins of Zen

Zen is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word Chan (禪). Chan, the short form of the word Channa (禅那), is the translated from the Sanskrit word Dhyana which in turn comes from the Pali word Jhana. Jhana has been referred to in the Pali sutras as the meditative absorption state which the Buddha reached to attained enlightenment. It is thus not surprising that the practice of Zen is almost exclusively meditation or zazen (坐禅).

Zen traces its origin to Shakyamuni Buddha and its aim is to emulate the Buddha’s enlightenment experience through the practice of zazen, much the same way as the Buddha himself did. For Zen, the attainment of enlightenment is not an end in itself but a means to save all beings. Hence the recitation of the four great vows, the first of which states that, “Sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to save them”, during every meditation session.

Indian Zen Patriarchs

Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted his Dharma to Mahakashyapa who became the first Indian patriarch of Zen. This was the incident at vulture peak when the Buddha held up a flower and only Mahakashyapa smiled, as only he understood what the Buddha was showing- they had the same mind. The Buddha then transmitted his Dharma to him by saying, “I have the eye treasury of the true Dharma, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, the subtle gate of the Dharma. It does not depend on letters, being specially transmitted outside all teachings. Now I entrust Mahakashyapa with this.” From Mahakashyapa the Dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha was transmitted successively until the 28th Indian Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma, who travelled to China at the age of 120 to become the first patriarch of Chinese Zen.

Chinese Zen Patriarchs

Bodhidharma was a legendary and mythical figure who was believed to not only bring Zen to China but also started Shaolin Kung Fu. He was a prince in southern India who, following the instruction of his master, travelled to China 60 years after his master's death. After a hazardous journey of three years, he landed in southern China at the age of 120. He had a famous encounter with the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, an ardent Buddhist. Buddhism in China then followed a mixture of Vinaya, Dhyana and Sutra practices. Bodhidharma brought a manifested form of pure Buddhism which can be appreciated from his exchange with the emperor.
Emperor Wu asked Great Master Bodhidharma, I have built so many temples, written shastras, ordinated many monks etc. what merit have I gained?
Bodhidharma said, “None whatsoever.”
The Emperor asked, “What is the highest meaning of the holiest truth (in Buddhism)?”
Bodhidharma replied, “Vast and void, no holiness.”
The emperor said, “Who are you in front of me?” Bodhidharma said, “I don't know.”

This exchange shows Bodhidharma's mind. He had penetrated into the depths of emptiness, much like the first line of the Heart Sutra, "Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty" and lived in that world. In this world there was neither merit, holiness nor any trace of self, just vast limitless emptiness. Hence his answers, "No merit", "Vast and void, no holiness" and "I don't know" to the emperor's questions. He was directly answering the emperor's questions.

Bodhidharma was disappointed that the Emperor had no insight into true Buddhism, he only had conceptual understanding of Buddhism. Finally, Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River and came to the Shaolin Temple (少林寺). There he sat for nine years, facing the wall.

The second Chinese Patriarch was Huike (慧可) who received transmission from Bodhidharma. The way Bodhidharma accepted him as a disciple is interesting and set the future trend for the acceptance of students by the teacher - the student had to demonstrate sincerity and determination, for the path is difficult.

Huike stood overnight outside Bodhidharma’s cave. Toward daybreak, the snow reached his knee. The master took pity on him and asked what he was seeking.
Huike in bitter tears said, “I beseech you master, with your compassion pray open your gate of Dharma and save all of us beings. “
The master said, “The incomparable Truth of Buddhas can only be attained by eternal striving, practicing what cannot be practiced and bear the unbearable. How can you, with your little virtue, little wisdom and with your easy and self conceited mind, dare to aspire to attain the true teaching? It is only so much labour lost.”
Listening to the master's admonition, Huike took out his knife and cut off his left arm and presented it to the master.
The master recognised his sincerity and said, “Buddhas, when they first seek after the truth, gave no heed to their bodies for the sake of Dharma. You have cut off your arm before me, I see sincerity in your seeking.”
Huike said, "Your disciple's mind is not yet at peace. I beg you, Master, put it to rest."
Bodhidharma said, "Bring your mind to me and I will give it rest."
Huike said, "I have searched for the mind but have never been able to find it." (This answer was not given immediately but after a long period of deep practice and searching).
Bodhidharma said, "I have finished putting it to rest for you."

After Huike, transmission continued until the sixth Patriarch Huineng (惠能) who stopped the tradition of patriarchal Dharma transmission to a single person but allowed multiple Dharma successors. Zen then spread all over China and developed into its 5 schools and seven sects. From China, it spread to the neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan. Everywhere it went, it not only affected the religion of the country but also its literature and culture. This is especially so in Japan where all the arts have an element of Zen in them.

What is Zen?

Zen training eschews all outer expressions of Buddhism and focuses entirely on attaining enlightenment through the practice of zazen just as the Buddha did. This experience is described as realizing your 'mind', 'face before you were born' or 'true nature'. Probably the best way to explain Zen would be to discuss the four line stanza which Bodhidharma himself used to describe what he brought over from India:

1. Transmission outside scriptures
2. Not relying on words
3. Pointing towards the mind.
4. Seeing mind and becoming Buddha

1. Transmission without scriptures

In Zen, Dharma transmission is very important. This is how we can trace our lineage right back to Shakyamuni Buddha and practice the way the Buddha did to achieve the same results. But this transmission has to be from a clear eyed master to his student. If the teacher is unclear, the transmission weakens as the student will also be unclear and the lineage may die off - hence the importance of authentic transmission. There is an ancient Zen saying, “The one who is his teacher’s equal has diminished his teacher by half. Only a student who surpasses his teacher can transmit his teacher’s teaching.” That is to say the student should always surpass his teacher in the clarity of his eye if Zen were to survive.

But what is transmitted? This is a difficult question to answer as normally, transmission means giving something to another. In Zen, it is the enlightened mind which is transmitted. This mind cannot be given, it can only be realized by the practitioner himself. So the job of the teacher is to guide the student until he has the same insight as he and eventually see with the same eye as him. Both minds become just this one ‘empty mind’ as a literal fact. This mind was described by the 6th patriarch Huineng as, “Originally there was not a thing.”

So Zen transmission does not depend on your knowledge of scriptures. It requires you to practice and attain the experience just as Shakyamuni Buddha did. Then the Buddha will have transmitted his Dharma to you. You will then naturally understand all the subtleties of the scriptures.

2. Not relying on words

The Prajna Paramita world is different from the dualistic world which we are familiar with. This world is totally empty and yet it contains everything - tree, flowers, sun, moon, you and me etc. It has no good or bad, right or wrong, life or death and yet it does not deny the existence of these things. Normal logic, concepts or understanding do not apply. The Buddha in expediency explained this world using the concepts of form and emptiness or phenomenon and essence. It is like your hand. The back of your hand is the dualistic world of form/phenomenon which we are familiar with while your palm is the world of emptiness/essence. But the real hand is your whole hand itself. In reality, both form/phenomenon and emptiness/essence is just this one thing.

This world cannot be described, explained or understood with words. It can only be experienced and thus known, just as one would know the taste of tea by tasting it. Any amount of description, however eloquent is merely the painting of the reality. Any amount of understanding is just the reflection of the moon on the surface of the water. Neither is intelligence or literacy a prerequisite to enter this world. In the history of Zen, the 6th patriarch Huineng is held in especially high regard for his deep attainment. He is reputed to be the only one, other than the Buddha, to have a sutra from his teachings - the platform sutra. And Huineng was illiterate!

The only way to enter this world is to sincerely practice and find out for yourself. Relying on words through reading, thinking or understanding will not get you there. Similarly, no amount of words can convey your experience to another. Master Mumon described this as, “You will then be like a dumb man who has had a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only. “

That is why it does not rely on words. The thousands of words of the sutras merely try to point to this world.

3. Pointing towards the mind

Zazen is pointing towards the mind. A mind which wanders around, leading you by your nose, will not be able to achieve anything. You need one pointed concentration of the mind if you want to realize this same mind. That is why the first practice given to a beginner is a practice to improve the concentration. This is usually 'breath counting' or 'following the breath'. Of the two, 'breath counting' is more effective. It has a built in mechanism to let you know if your mind wanders for if you lose your concentration you will lose count. When your concentration is strong enough, the teacher will then assign the next practice. This can be shikantaza (just sitting, 只管打坐) or the koan Mu (無).

Shikantaza is the oldest and purest form of meditation and probably what the Buddha did. Here, you do not hold on to anything at all, you simply sit, neither rejecting or accepting whatever comes and slowly ripen. However, in this present age of feeble aspiration, poor stamina and constant distractions, it is a difficult practice for a beginner. In my lineage, it is more common to be given the koan 'Mu' by the teacher when your concentration has ripened to a certain degree. However, students who have finished koan practice after many years of practice often come back to shikantaza to continually polish their eye. Both are important practices in Zen.

Koans (公案)were developed in China in the Tang dynasty and are unique to Zen. These are parables, teaching points or incidents in the past which when meditated upon have the power to bring the student to break though and see the reality. They can also be used by the teacher to gauge the level and monitor the progress of the student. Without the eye of enlightenment, koans do not make sense as they are all seen from this view.

Here are some examples of koans:

1. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
2. A monk asked Baso in all earnestness, “What is Buddha?” Baso replied, “No mind, no Buddha.”
3. When you were neither thinking of good or evil, at that moment, what was your face before you were born? (or who were you?)
4. The monk asked Jôshû in all earnestness, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Jôshû said, “ Mu! (無) ”

This last koan, the koan Mu, is the koan mentioned earlier as usually the first koan to be given to the student. When asked if a dog has Buddha nature, Joshu said Mu (No, 無;). Great as Master Joshu may be, Shakyamuni Buddha himself declared that all sentient beings have Buddha nature! So what is the real meaning of this Mu of Joshu’s? No amount of analysing, thinking or research will give you the answer as it transcends logic. The teacher will ask you to sit in full concentration, breathing in and then breathing out with ‘Muuuu’ until you lose yourself and become ‘Mu’ itself. Then at a fortuitous moment Mu will break forth to reveal itself. That will be your ‘self-nature’ revealing itself to you.

Incidentally, one can develop deep concentration whilst playing music or solving a mathematical puzzle but that will never bring you to enlightenment. Only by turning this one pointed concentration inwards at your self will your true self reveal itself.

This is called pointing towards the mind.

4. Seeing mind and becoming Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha, after great sacrifice and intense practice, realized his self-nature and became the Buddha - the awakened one. He was a sentient being, just like us. After finding out this great truth which liberated him, he spent the next 49 years till his death teaching and urging us to emulate him and achieve the same liberation. He even told us not to believe him but to find out for ourselves! This was his message and the real aim of Buddhism- to find your true self.

What is meant by "Seeing mind?" In the first case, the word 'mind' is a poor translation of the Chinese word 'xin' (心, kokoro jp.) as there is no equivalent to ‘xin’ in western philosophy. Xin in Chinese is taken to be the innermost 'I' or 'Self' which distinguishes 'myself' from others. It is the source of our individuality, our personality and ego. Perhaps a better translation of ‘xin’ would be 'heart-mind'. But what is this heart-mind? We can't see it, smell it, taste it but we know for sure that it is there! Because it is ME! Seeing mind is to find out what this very heart-mind is or, to put it another way, who you are.

We know that it is not easy as the second patriarch Huike searched very intensely for a long time before finally came back to Bodhidharma to confess that he could not find it. Strange as it may seem, the heart-mind cannot be found as it does not exist- it is completely empty. That is why Bodhidharma answered the emperor's question, "Who are you standing in front of me?" with "I don't know!" It is not possible to know anything about something which does not exist. But knowing that the heart-mind does not exist is still not sufficient, it is conceptual understanding. For enlightenment, you need to realize through experience that your heart-mind is totally empty. It is a definite experience and is called ‘kensho’ (見性) or ’seeing your self-nature’. When you have a true kensho you will know for yourself because you will recognize your ‘own self’.

There may be cases of spontaneous kenshos but most kenshos come from the deep practice of zazen. Furthermore, it is only through zazen that a kensho can be deepened in a systematic way. Kensho occurs when you are so deep in your absorptive practice that you forget your 'self', a point we call being 'one with your practice'. Then at that point, usually due to a stimulus, you suddenly see your true nature as it is - totally empty. The stimulus can be a sound, sight, touch, word etc. In the case of Shakyamuni Buddha, he had his kensho when he saw the morning star. Hakuin Zengi had his kensho when he heard the sound of a drum and Huineng when he heard a phrase from the diamond sutra. With kensho you realize (i.e. see and know) who you really are. Not only that but you will spontaneously realize that inside and out is the same. The stars, moon, rivers, flowers, everything, all existence, is none other than your self-nature. You are everything and everything is this one ‘empty' you. That is why Buddha after his enlightenment took 3 steps and said, "Between heaven and earth I alone am the honoured one." He also said, "All lands are my land and all the living beings in those lands are my children."

Zen literature describes this experience as "the sword that kills, the sword that gives life." Your perception of everything that existed till that point in your life is killed. The new life which you are given is none other than as described in the Heart Sutras. You will realize that form and emptiness are the same thing and that there is truly no suffering, skandhas, life and death, wisdom or attainment etc. as these do not exist. You will realize that from the beginning we were all perfect Buddhas endowed with Buddha nature. Shakyamuni Buddha described it as, "Wonder of wonders!  Intrinsically all living beings are Buddhas, endowed with the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata. It is only due to their upside down delusions that their fail to recognize this. "

However, it is not so simple to live totally in the world of Prajna Paramita which you have seen from your kensho. The Buddha was the only one who with a stroke cut it through to the roots. Even then he spent the next seven weeks after his enlightenment clarifying his experience, a process which we call 'personalization' of Zen. Most contemporary kenshos are very shallow insights into this world, just a glimpse. But even this glimpse is life changing. Then the 'habitual energies' - a term used by the Buddha - from your many lives of delusion pulls you back into your delusive world. Endless practice is necessary to continually clarify your mind and see the Prajna Paramita world clearer and clearer until you truly live in this world - a process we call personalization of Zen. Hakuin Zengi was said to have 18 major kenshos and innumerable minor ones. We are also told that even Shakyamuni Buddha is still practicing.

As an allegory, we can describe this process as first hearing about a hidden room in your own house - hearing about the Buddha Way. Because you want to find out if it is true, you start digging at the wall which separates this supposed hidden room - practice of zazen. After digging for a long time, a hole finally appears which allows you to see to the other side and to your surprise, all that they said was true, such a room exists - kensho. But it is not clear and you cannot make out much of the contents of that room but as you are so motivated, you work even harder at the hole - clarifying your eye through continuous practice. Eventually the wall is totally destroyed and to your surprise, now that you can see everything, you realize that actually it was never two rooms but had always been one big room – unity of form and emptiness (phenomenon and essence). You now recall that originally your house had always been like this, but you had forgotten about it. You then forget all about the hidden room and just live in your house normally with ease and peace - forgetting enlightenment and living the Buddha way.

In summary, the practice of Zen is zazen and its aim is to experience the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha. This experience will reveal your true nature which is simultaneously empty while encompassing all things, bringing true peace and freedom. This practice is endless and its aim is to save all sentient beings.
Dogen Zengi described this path in the Genjo Koan, Shobogenzo as:
To learn about the Buddha Way is to learn about oneself,
To learn about oneself is to forget oneself,
To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things,
To realize this is to cast off the Body and Mind of oneself and others,
When you have reached this stage, you will be detached even from enlightenment
but will practice continuously without thinking about it.


What I've tried to do is to give you an introduction to Zen. If you would like to know more about the path of Zen, I recommend the newly published book by Yamada Koun Roshi, my late teacher, titled 'Zen: The authentic gate' (Wisdom Publication). It is a wonderful book, clear and concise, written by one of the great masters of our age.