“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear, does it make a sound?” Ever hear these odd questions? We usually think of them as silly, humorous, even nonsensical statements. What most people don’t realize is that these are genuine expressions of Zen Buddhist belief. Called koans, these questions are meant to cause a person to go outside rational thought and experience an intuitive understanding of reality. This flash of spiritual perception, called satori, is the goal of the Zen practitioner. Zen teaches that enlightenment is not basically a matter of belief, or intellectual comprehension. Instead, it is a non-rational experience of the divine, of recognizing one’s own identity with “the all.” It is emptying the mind of thought so that a person comes into an immediate perception of ultimate truth. One man defined Zen practice as “concentration with an empty mind.”
The creation of Zen is credited to a Buddhist sage named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma is said to have traveled to India to study Buddhism. He spent forty years there preparing himself. Then he traveled to China to teach his particular form of the Buddhist faith. (By the way, Bodhidharma is also credited with being the creator of Kung Fu, the ancient forerunner of all the martial arts.) His form of Buddhist practice is called Chan (Chinese) or Zen (Japanese), both words meaning “meditation.”
In traditional Buddhism it is believed that Nirvana, or enlightenment, is achieved only after living many life times. Only after many reincarnations may a person know the bodhi, that is his own enlightened self. Zen teaches that the experience of enlightenment can happen now through the practice of seated meditation (zazen) and learning to empty the mind and experience satori. When a Zen practitioner has disciplined and trained himself to do this effectively, he will experience a sudden, spontaneous flash of spiritual understanding—recognizing his unity with all of existence. It is in seeking to experience this that the Zen devotee will undertake various mundane activities with an intentional mindfulness of his own spiritual union with all things. He will practice archery, becoming “one with the arrow.” He will create a painting, becoming “one with the canvas.” He will even prepare tea in a ritualistic fashion in an attempt to recognize his unity with the tea, the cups, and the teapot. (Hence the Japanese tea ceremony.)
The follower of Zen may spend many hours in meditation. He will focus on any object—a flower, a rock, a tree—training himself to see beyond the object, to be the object, to realize his union with the object. Often a Zen teacher, a roshi, will observe his disciples in this practice. If he sees their mind wander or their concentration falter, he may hit them with a stick. This has the potential of not only calling them back to their mindless concentration, but may actually awaken them to satori. Many times the roshi will employ the use of the koan. The may be a question, as noted above, or a story or a parable. This may involve a dialogue between master and pupil, in which the master gives non-rational answers to inquiries from the student. For example, it is recounted that one teacher, Dongshan Shouchu, was asked by a Zen monk, “What is the Buddha?” The master replied, “Three pounds of flax.” Such nonsensical responses are one of the techniques meant to induce a non-intellectual insight in reality. The goal is to empty the mind and “just experience being.” This type of mind-emptying contemplation is considered so important that legend says that Bodhidharma lost the use of his legs because of sitting in zazen so long. It is also said that he even cut off his eyelids so his eyes would remain open for meditation.
There are millions of Zen Buddhists around the world. It is very popular in Japan. Beginning with D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and followers of the Beat movement in the 1950’s, it spread throughout the U.S. The popularity of Zen may be due in part to its focus on the self. No responsibility to any God or creed is necessary. All that a person needs to achieve ultimate salvation is inherent in the self. Also, Zen is at once both mystical and mundane. The goal of satori is very much a mystical experience. And there are Zen Buddhists who draw away from the world to devote themselves to meditation. However, at the same time, in Zen thought, we are already in union with all reality. Therefore, satori can be experienced while doing the most ordinary daily tasks—making tea, shooting an arrow, or working on your car engine.
What is so bad about Zen? First of all, it denies the true reality of a personal God. Not only is there no accountability to our Creator, there also is no possibility of a relationship with a heavenly Father. Secondly, moral and social responsibility are not major concerns in Zen. The question of sin is basically ignored. There is a striving to rise above the “darkness” and travel to the “light.” But both light and dark, good and evil, are necessary parts of the reality we all live in. There is no adequate solution to the basic problem of humanity—sin. Finally, as with classical Buddhism the major problem with mankind is asserted to be the individual ego, the self—still there is a huge paradox here. For in Zen the only way to overcome the self is to focus on the self. Zen is concerned with looking inward, the individual realizing his own divine status. Zen is a very self-centered philosophy. And what happens when you experience enlightenment? You understand that you really do not exist as an individual person. There no ego, no soul. What a depressing conclusion to a life spent staring at a wall or contemplating “What is the color of wind?”
Summary of Beliefs
God: Basically irrelevant. Zen, as with classical Buddhism, essentially denies God’s existence.
Jesus: Mostly disregarded. He may be considered a wise man or teacher.
Salvation: Salvation is achieving enlightenment, i.e., recognizing that you are one with the ultimate reality. This is achieved through meditative, non-rational means.
Human nature: Man has no individual ego, no personal existence, no soul.
Sin: Sin is neither affirmed or denied. It is basically unimportant. Satori is what matters.
Afterlife: There is belief in reincarnation. But it is the experience of the now that is considered of true importance, not what comes after this life.
Scripture: There are Zen writings. However, they are not as important as the present experience of the Zen follower.
Truth: Relative to the individual person. The highest truth in Zen is the self.