History of Zen Buddhism


Zen in India

The history of Zen and buddhism begins in India. In Buddha's lifetime, yoga as a practice in the concentration of the spirit was widespread. It is in the nature of yoga to concentrate the spirit on one point: the achievement of serenity through seated meditation. In fact, the yoga methods of the day were limited at this time to restrictions on what was to be eaten, fasts, and certain vows such as the vow to remain standing on one leg for a prolonged period of time. Through such ascesis and a whole array of exercises, the yogi trained himself in indifference to external stimuli and in the control of the slightest movement of his own spirit.

Buddha practised this kind of yoga for twelve years from the moment that he decided to renounce a mundane life. He visited saints and interviewed wise men, travelling to the four corners of the country. But in the end Buddha did not find in Yoga any answer to two essential questions: What is man? How should man live?

Buddha abandoned ascetism, sat down quietly, crossed his legs and observed his breathing. During the dawn of the eighth day with this practice he attained a higher level of consciousness as he observed the light of a star. Buddha discovered his true nature in the universe and a rule for the existence of all men.

Zen in China

Zen as it was later to be called, was passed on by buddha's successors as a method 'beyond words. until it was introduced to China by Boddhidharma. Boddhidharma represented the twenty eighth generation of Buddha's disciples. At that time China was divided between rival states. Chaos reigned everywhere owing to the upheaval caused by the struggle for power. The country was oppressed by tyrants and bloodied by rebellions. The Liang dynasty ruled over one of the states of ancient China. The emperor Wu-Ti, head of this dynasty and fervent Buddhist, heard of Boddhidharma and invited him to his palace. In response to Wu-Ti's question: "What is the basic principle of Buddhism?", Boddhidharma replied: "An immense vacuum. A clear sky. A sky which does not distinguish between the enlightened and the ignorant. The world exactly as it is." In spite of his being a fervent Buddhist, Wu-Ti did not understand Boddhidharma's message and the latter realised that the time for spreading Zen in China was not yet ripe. For this reason, he crossed the Yang-Tse river and retired to the Shaolin temple in the Northern mountains. There he practised Zazen seated in front of a wall for nine years, some say uninterruptedly.

Zen spread quickly through China six generations later, thanks to Eno (Huei-Neng) considered one of the greatest Patriarchs of Chinese Zen. After Eno, a five-petalled flower blossomed. This Zen expression means that Zen opened up like a flower with five petals and spread throughout the whole country thanks to the five schools which arose from Master Eno's lineage. These schools were Igyo, Hongen, Soto, Unmon, and Rinzai. In the mountains and forests of China, construction began on thousands of temples in which tens of thousands of people lived, devoting themselves to the study and practice of the Dharma of Buddha. In the course of time Zen would impregnate Chinese civilization, elevating its thinking, culture and art to sublime heights.

Of these five Chinese schools, only three reached Japan: Soto, Rinzai and Obaku (the latter is considered a branch of the Rinzai school). The other two died out in China.

Zen in Japan

In Japan only the Rinzai and Soto schools took firm roots, the former thanks to Eisai and the latter thanks to Dogen and Keizan. The Rinzai tradition is based on a strict discipline designed to disarticulate mental creations. The Koan or enigmatic question that is difficult to answer is of great importance and its resolution, beyond the realms of the intellect, leads directly to the experience of Satori and awakening.

The Soto tradition aims above all to concentrate on the life of Buddha, that is to say, follow Buddha's daily life, advancing continually in achievement thanks to daily practice, without expecting anything extraordinary. The essence of Soto is Shikatanza, sitting, only sitting.

With the Master Dogen (1200-1254) the Soto tradition and the very essence of Buddhism attained a level of maturity and precision difficult to encounter at other times. His masterpiece, the SHOBOGENZO is a work that is indispensable for understanding Buddhism and the essence of a whole Eastern civilization.

Zen has exercised a profound influence on the daily lives of the Japanese people. This influence can be appreciated in any aspect of Japanese life: eating, clothing, painting, calligraphy, architecture, theatre, music, gardening, decoration etc.

Even today, although many Japanese do not know what Zen is, their behaviour and expressions reveal the extent of the influence of this teaching on the Japanese soul.

These details are compiled from various sources.

Living Karate - Sydney Matsubayashi Ryu