No Zen puns: An introduction to Zen Buddhism

““What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This short question,’or koan, sums up much of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. What is the educated, twenty-first century man or woman to make of this seemingly irrational nonsense? Many claim that Zen is nothing more than an elaborate trick that has been played on a gullible public for almost 1,400 years; others believe that it’s the single most important shift in human consciousness” [Chaline, p. 6]

In this post, I will discuss the form of Buddhism most commonly identified by its Japanese title, ‘Zen’, but also known as ‘Ch’an’ in Chinese and ‘Son’ in Korean.

“Zen Buddhism” is a term widely recognised in the Western world. Indeed, if most Westerners were asked to name terms associated with Buddhism, they might name “Buddha”, “Zen”, or “the Dalai Lama”, and not much else. Yet few people would know what Zen actually is.

Like much of the study of Buddhism, the answer to the question “What is Zen?” is quite enigmatic, and frequently framed in terms of what it is not. I have gained the impression that Zen scholars dislike being tied down to definitions. However, some general observations may be made, and then some of these may be explored more deeply to obtain a fuller understanding of the nature of Zen, including the major differences between Zen and other forms of Buddhism. “Zen is extremely elusive as far as its outward aspects are concerned; when you think you have caught a glimpse of it, it is no more there; from afar it looks approachable, but as soon as you come near it you see it even further away from you than before” [Suzuki 1949, p. 43].

Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, with significant influences from Taoism. As with other forms of Buddhism, its goal is achieving enlightenment or awakening. However, in Zen this is not a far-off objective to be achieved in some future life, after hundreds of lives of Samsara. To the Zen devotee, enlightenment may be imminent in this life, and this may be the source of its widespread attraction. The sole source of enlightenment in Zen is one’s own mind. Joshu was once asked what Zen was, and he replied, “Your everyday thought” [Vas, p. 32].

Zen holds that enlightenment cannot be achieved intellectually — it must be experienced, and realised. In this, it is not significantly divergent from other Buddhist streams. However, “Zen, among the various schools of Buddhism, is the one which has emphasised over everything else the attainment of this realisation in this very body, here and now, and provided a method, tested through the centuries, for accomplishing it” [Ross, in Ross (Ed.), p. 18]. That method is meditation, which Zen appears to strongly accentuate over learning. “The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external or super-added” [Suzuki, p. 44].

I said earlier that Zen scholars frequently frame a definition of Zen in terms of what it is not. Some of these features are: –

  • Zen has no set doctrines, and no sacred books. This is not to say that there is no such thing as Zen literature, of which there is a substantial quantity dating back to its earliest Chinese origins, however nothing is stipulated as holy or doctrinally ordained. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Zen attaches no intrinsic importance to sacred Sutras. Suzuki goes so far as to say that, “all the Buddhist teachings as propounded in the sutras and sastras are treated by Zen as mere waste paper whose utility consists in wiping off the dirt of intellect and nothing more” [Suzuki, p. 38]. In this, he is echoing the Zen master Hakuin, who says a little less genteelly, “All the scriptures are only paper good for wiping off excrement”;
  • Zen has none of the characteristics of a ‘religion’ that Westerners might associate with the word. It is better characterised as a philosophy than a religion. Zen has no gods, no sacred rituals, no heaven or hell, and no salvation model excepting an internalised salvation of one’s own mind. However, the latter being decidedly one’s present mind, in this life, rather than an immortal soul;
  • Zen has no dogma. “Zen teaches nothing. Whatever teachings there are in Zen, they come out of one’s own mind. We teach ourselves; Zen merely points the way” [Suzuki, p. 38].

With all the things that Zen is apparently ‘not’, the charge may easily be levelled that Zen is nihilistic. For example:

“During dokusan a nun complains of her failure to the abbess: “No matter how l look at them, the paper windows only look like paper windows”. The answer: “Well paper windows are paper windows”. At this moment the spontaneous outcry of enlightenment overtakes her. “Whether I look at the Buddha, or the abbess, or the sitting cushion, all have become ‘nothingness’. Unbounded nothingness expands infinitely and is everywhere the same” [Dumoulin, p. 146].

Such passages are common throughout Zen literature, and point to a nihilistic thread in Zen Buddhism. The charge is difficult to defend, because the defence seems to be based on the insider’s reality: “Trust me, if you were enlightened, you would also realise that Zen is not nihilistic”. For example, D.T. Suzuki:

“Zen always aims at grasping the central fact of life, which can never be brought to the dissecting table of the intellect. To grasp this central fact of life, Zen is forced to propose a series of negations…. But we may insist upon asking Zen what it is left after all these denials, and the master will perhaps on such an occasion give us a slap in the face, exclaiming, “You fool, what is this?”…. When the spirit of Zen is grasped in its purity, it will be seen what a real thing that slap is. For here is no negation, no affirmation, but a plain fact, a pure experience, the very foundation of our experience and thought” [Suzuki, p. 51].

However, on the face of it, there is nothing to suggest that Zen is any more or less nihilistic than any other school of Buddhism, and indeed at least offers the hope of achieving enlightenment in this life, the only life after all that we know with any certainty.

The above quote also leads nicely into the next charge against Zen, foreshadowed in my introduction: that Zen is nonsense. This is not extensively covered in the literature, as writers on Zen are either devotees, or religion studies academics trained to treat their subjects with respect. However, the defence seems to be similar to that against the charge of nihilism — that to the insider it is profound, even if to the outsider it appears as nonsense. To this may be added that, if it were indeed a monstrous joke, it would not have endured over 1,400 years and in three discrete societies. Indeed, that it would not have been the form of Buddhism taken up most enthusiastically in the West over the past century or so.

So, what is Zen? Three masters, when asked this question by their disciples, had three individualistic answers:
— One slapped his disciple’s face;
— One held up his finger;
— One kicked a ball.

In contrast to its conceptual ambiguity, the origins of Zen are well known. Perhaps much ofthe foregoing has raised the question of what all this has to do with the legacy and teachings of Gautama Buddha. It seems so far removed from the Four Noble Truths, the cycle of Samsara, the Eightfold Path, and the modern-day practices of Theravada Buddhism that it hardly appears to be part of the same religion. Yet there are identifiable links and common themes, both to the Buddha and to the more mystical ancient past of Indian religious practices in which Buddhism was nurtured. “The claim of the Zen followers that they are transmitting the essence of Buddhism is based on their belief that Zen takes hold of the enlivening spirit of the Buddha, stripped of all its historical and doctrinal garments” [Suzuki, in Barrett (ed.), p.41].

Although a specific development of Zen principles and practices in India subsequent to the Buddha’s life is not possible to discern, some thematic roots of Zen are identifiable. “If the characteristic note of Zen is immediate or instantaneous awakening, (tun wu) without passing through preparatory stages, there are certainly evidences of this principle in India” [Watts, p. 98]. Dhyana, the meditative practice at the heart of Zen, is mentioned in the Upanishads of Hinduism, and can therefore be considered to predate Buddhism.

Bodidharma (c. 470 — 534 C.E.) is identified as the founder of Zen/Ch’an. A prominent monk who was also an Indian patriarch, in 517 (according to Zen tradition), he commenced an arduous journey to Southern China, one of many Buddhist monk missionaries that introduced Mahayana Buddhism to that country. Bodhidharma became the first of the Chinese Ch’an patriarchs. His successors as patriarch further developed Dhyana and, absorbing the influence of Taoism, the Ch’an/Zen form of Buddhism came into being during this era.

Bodhidharma was summoned to the Chinese court and is reputed to have had a famous conversation with Emperor Wu. The emperor asked Bodidharma what merit he had earned from his many good works.
“None at all”, Bodhidharma replied.
Perplexed, the emperor asked, “What then is the meaning of the Holy Truths?”
“Emptiness. Nothing is holy”, came the reply.
Exasperated and confused, the emperor asked, “Who is facing me?”
“l do not know”, Bodidharma replied. [Chaline, p. 26]

Contrasting with other forms of Buddhism, including Mahayana in general, Bodhidharma’s replies illustrate in Zen the lack of merit in good works, and the rejection of “scholastic transmission of Dharma through the study of the scriptures” [Chaline, p. 27].

What followed Bodhidharma were several centuries of development of Zen through five further patriarchs. It derived from Taoism, together with other sudden-enlightenment sects, the belief that “true understanding comes instantly in a sudden flash of intuition, not from preparation, learning, or rational thought” [Simpkins & Simpkins, p. 29]. However, this latter observation is specifically pertinent to the so-called ‘Southern’ school of Zen. Following the sixth and final Chinese patriarch, Ch’an split in 732 C.E. between the ‘Northern’ school of Shen-Hsiu, which held to gradual enlightenment, and the ‘Southern’ school of Shen-hui, which held to sudden enlightenment. Within a few generations, the Northern school died out formally, however the two schools of thought endure in Japanese Zen today in the form of the Soto School (northern view) and the Rinzai School (southern view). Both views have relevance in modern-day Zen thought.

Zen spread to Japan in the 600s and, following the end of the line of patriarchs, many of the developments that moulded the Zen of today occurred in that country. Prominent in this process were several notable Zen masters. One of these, Hakuin (1686-1769), I have already mentioned. Hakuin created a number of the best known koans (or paradoxical questions) and his successors developed structured koan-based assessment of disciples’ awakening. Dogen (1200-1253) is recognised as the founder of the Soto school, promoting Zazen, a quieter and highly meditative route to enlightenment than that typically followed by Rinzai teachers.

These and other famous masters developed Zen into what it is today – the most geographically universal of Buddhist forms. Unlike most notably Theravada Buddhism, Zen practice is for anybody, not just the Sangha, and in Zen anybody can achieve Enlightenment. It may even, if one’s barriers are sufficiently lowered, be practised by devotees of other religions. Age is no bar, and Enlightenment may be achieved after a lifetime’s diligent practice, or very quickly.

The two prominent features of Zen practice are its emphasis on meditation, and the use of the koan by masters to assess their disciples’ progress. Devotees believe that Zen is transmitted directly from mind to mind, and thus the relationship between the master and his disciple is also of prime importance.

Meditation (Zazen) plays a central role in Zen, particularly in the Soto school, where it forms the bulk of the training. Dogen described Zazen as “the Dharma gate of great rest and joy” [Chaline, p. 90]. Typically, practitioners will emulate this in spending extended periods sitting in the ‘lotus’ position, concentrating on their breathing. Bohdidharma is reputed to have meditated for nine years facing the wall of a cave. Whilst not achieving the lengths of Zen’s founder, most Zen practitioners will nonetheless perform Zazen for hours at a time, several times a day. This can become extremely painful, particularly for beginners, however the arduous nature of the practice has a purpose – emptying the mind of worldly desires and concerns to better facilitate the achievement of Enlightenment (known as Satori in Japanese).

In a typical Japanese Zen monastery there is a meditation hall, in which both monks and lay devotees may attend formal sessions of Zazen. One week per month is set aside for intensive Zazen practice known as Sesshin, which typically will comprise several sessions a day of about 50 minutes of sitting, followed by 10 minutes of walking meditation. Monks will monitor these sessions carrying sticks, and at signs of slouching or dozing, will rap the devotees twice with the stick to restore concentration. Meditators can request a rap if they feel drowsiness coming upon them.

In the Rinzai school of Zen, particular emphasis is placed on the koan, of which there are about 700, and a master will tailor koans to their students. “Koans often contain paradoxical statements or puzzles, but the intention is not to test the student’s lateral thinking. There is no clever answer to a koan, and for many students, there may be no answer at all” [Ibid, p. 92]. Practitioners meditate on their assigned koans, or carry them with them during their everyday life. I opened this post with one of the most famous koans – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. Another is “The flower is not red, nor
the willow green”, or the famous saying of Fudaishi,

“Empty-handed I go and yet the spade is in my hands;
I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding;
When I pass over the bridge,
Lo, the water floweth not, but the bridge doth fIow”
[Barrett (ed.), p. 115]

Koans often appear to outsiders as nonsense, however it is thought that a realisation that rational modes of thinking are fruitless (through meditation on koans) will heighten the practitioner’s awareness and aid enlightenment. It is thought that the meaning of koans will become apparent to the devotee spontaneously. Below are another couple of koans:
“A monk asked Tung-shan, “Who is the Buddha?”… “Three chin of flax””
“A monk asked Chao-chou, “What is the meaning of the First Patriarch’s visit
to China?… “The cypress tree in the front courtyard” [Barrett (ed.), p. 134]

In Rinzai Zen, progress through koans are used to assess the disciple‘s progress towards Enlightenment, and there are five levels of difficulty, beyond which the master may certify the disciple as having achieved Satori.

Does this ancient philosophy have relevance in a 21st Century world? Even on a superficial level, I believe that it does. We are highly evolved primates, who not that long ago (by the Earth’s time scale) roamed the savannah of East Africa in family groups. With much of humanity now living closely packed into cities, at the very least the practice of meditation advanced by Zen may help us to cope with an environment that our brains have created, but for which they are not adapted.

This is borne out in the literature, where a common theme is the application of Zen in the field of psychology. For example, Kondo discusses the issue of anxiety, noting that in the eyes of Dogen, this is “a reflection of the uncertainty of human existence”, and that “when this anxiety is consciously and acutely felt, there commences the flow of the Bodhi spirit that leads to enlightenment.” [Kondo, A., p. 204 in Ross (Ed.)] So, anxiety can be a good thing, rather than an affliction. He adds that modern lives are “trapped in the endless, blind, vicious circle” of drives such as competitiveness, possessiveness, arrogance, humiliation, success, failure. “And because we are busily pursuing them, we do not have time to listen to our inner voice.” [Ibid, p.204] He then lays out a practical plan for “just sitting” that he applies in his psychology practice for the treatment of various neurotic conditions. Zen meditation therefore works as an adjunct to mainstream psychology.

In this context, Simpkins et al note, “Zen’s pointing to the inner nature dispels illusion and thus helps patients bypass conflicts and become one with their own inner nature, without a problem. Perceptions become clearer, the mind becomes more concentrated and focused…. The mind, cleared by meditation, can recognise that anxiety, conflict and struggle are part of life, not to be avoided, but to be accepted and faced.” [Simpkins et al, p. 211]. lt seems to me that such an application of Zen meditation can work for mild cases of anxiety and depression, but not in instances of more severe psychosis arising as a result of mental illness.

Beyond meditation, another application of Zen in the modern world is in the arts. The people of that most urbanised of societies, Japan, have formally extended the spirit of Zen into their everyday lives, into the shaping of their environment, and into their artistic endeavours. This is the case in architecture and landscape design, in martial arts, haiku poetry, painting, flower arrangement, and the Japanese tea ceremony. In this way, Zen Buddhism acts as both a cornerstone of their cultural make-up and as a safety valve for their pressure-cooker lifestyles.

Zen has numerous other practical applications in the modern world. ‘For instance, it can inform peace activism, and environmentalism. “To take action is a logical extension of Zen practice, carried forth into daily life. There have been many Zen Buddhists who have felt their situation calls them to try and do something for others here and now.” [Simpkins et al, p. 195]. Buddhism highlights the interdependence of everything in the universe, and Zen’s concentration on meditation helps yield an outer peace through the inner peace of individual practitioners. One exemplar of this is Vietnamese Zen monk known for his peace activism during and after the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh. He asks us to stop the war inside ourselves, to quiet our distracted minds and to return to the present moment. “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.”

Although Zen is not as ancient as some forms of Buddhism, it has been in existence for some 1,400 years and its principles have a connectedness to the earliest forms of the religion. Zen Buddhism has found expression throughout North Asia and is the Buddhist form that has attracted the most Western devotees, particularly through its emphasis on meditation.


Chaline, E. (2003), “The Book of Zen: The Path to Inner Peace”, Quartro Publishing, London.

Dumoulin, H. (1979), “Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning”, Weatherhill lnc., New York

Hakuin Ekaku, “Letter in Answer to an Old Nun of the Hokke [Nichiren] Sect”

Ross, N. W. (Ed.) (1962), “The World of Zen: An East-WestAnthoIogy”, Collins, London

Simpkins, A. M. and Simpkins, C. A., (1997), “Zen Around the World: a 2,500-year Journey from the Buddha to You”, Charles E Tuttle & Co., North Clarendon.

Suzuki, D. T. (1949), “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism”, Rider & Company, London

Vas, Luis S. R. (Ed.) (2009), “Meditation Masters and Their Insights”, Better Yourself Books, Mumbai

Watts, Alan W. (1957), “The Way of Zen”, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth

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2 Responses to No Zen puns: An introduction to Zen Buddhism

  1. This is one of the best articles that I have read on Zen. My wife practices Zazen, and I have great respect for the entire ideology.

    Thank you for an EXCELLENT article!!


    Liked by 1 person

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