ZEN BUDDHISM: BELIEFS, ASCETICISM, AESTHETICS AND LIFE AT A ZEN MONASTERY

ZEN BUDDHISM

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Zen Buddhism evolved out of the Ch'an School, a Buddhist sect that was founded in China in the A.D. 8th century. Ch'an is pronounced Zen in Japanese. It means "contemplation" or "mediation."

Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Sung Dynasty in the 10th century by a Chinese monk named Huineng. It had a relatively small following for two centuries and didn't take hold and flourish in Japan until the 12th century.

The Ch'an sect’s origins are obscure. It is it not clear whether its early patriarchs were legendary or real. Under the leadership of its sixth patriarch Hui-neng (A.D. 637-723) it grew from a cult with around 500 members to a distinct sect after Hui-neng spent 15 years meditating in the hills.

Once Zen Buddhism took hold in Japan had a profound influence on the Japanese. Its austere tone and the simplicity of the doctrine appealed to the military class and artists and was a focal point of samurai culture and art from the 12th century onward. Not only that, Zen Buddhists helped bring Chinese philosophy, especially Neo-Confucianism, to Japan and were involved in commercial endeavors, such as shipping lines, that controlled trade between Japan and China.

Samurai were trained by Zen Buddhist masters in meditation and the Zen concepts of impermanence and harmony with nature. The were also taught about painting, calligraphy, nature poetry, mythological literature, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony, which all had Zen overtones. Even swordsmanship and the martial arts were steeped in Zen and ascribed to philosophies that were very esoteric and hard to understand.

Zen Schools in Japan

In the early days there were who two competing schools of Zen Buddhism: Soto, which emphasized mediating in the seated position under strict guidelines, and Rinzai, which emphasized lengthy question-and-answer drills and the contemplation of koan (metaphysical riddles that have no logical answer) such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

The Rinzai sect, the oldest of the Japanese Zen sects, was founded in the 12th century by Myoan Eisai (See Below). The Soto Zen sect was founded by Dogen (1200-1253), a student of Eisai who also studied in China. It emphasizes shitan taza (literally "just sitting"). Sometimes trainees of the Soto Zen sect a make a vow of silence and spend their time meditating, studying and eating in silence. There are 15,000 Sato Zen temples in Japan today.

Daruma (Bodhidharma)

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Another image of Daruma
The Ch’an school is said to have been founded by Bodhidharma, a south-Indian prince who became monk and traveled to China around A.D. 520. It is not clear whether he was a real person or not.

According to legend, when Bodhidharma arrived in the Chinese capital of Nanking, the devout Chinese Emperor asked him how much merit he had earned building temples and copying scripture. Bodhidharma replied: “No merit at all...All these are inferior deeds, which would cause the doer to be born in heaven or earth again. They will show the traces of worldliness. They are like shadows following objects. A deed of true merit is full of pure wisdom and is beyond the grasp of conceptual thought. This sort of merit is not found in any worldly works.” The Emperor then asked what is the holy truth? Bodhidharma replied: “Great Emptiness, and there is nothing in it to be called holy.” The emperor then asked him who was. Bodhidharma said; “I do not know.”

After this sharp condemnation of the pursuit of merit as basically selfish and self-indulgent, Bodhidharma left for northern China and meditated for nine years by staring at the wall of a cave. He sat there so long in meditation it is said that his legs fell off. To battle his occasional bouts of drowsiness he cut off his eyelids so his eyes wouldn't close.

While Bodhidharma was meditating a monk named Hui Ko came to visit him and seek the answer to troubling questions and calm his mind. Initially Bodhidharma was so absorbed in mediation that he did not notice the monk. Hui Ko waited in snowdrifts for some time but received no response. Finally he cut off his arm and gave it to Bodhidharma who at that point gave his attention to the monk. Hui Ko received the advise he sought and later became the second patriarch.

Bodhidharma is associated with ascetic discipline, serious mediation, yoga, psychic power and the Shaolin school of martial arts. He said: “A special tradition exists outside the scriptures, not dependent on words or letters; pointing directly into the mind, seeing into one’s own nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.”

Daruma dolls are red, round dolls named after Daruma> They commonly sold around New Year with both eyes painted over. One eye is unpainted when making a wish. The second eye is unpainted when the wish comes true. Daruma dolls have wide open eyes and fierce scowl that are intended to keep evil spirits and demons away and bring good luck. They have no legs because Daruma sat so long in meditation that his legs fell off. Daruma himself is featured in both 15th century paintings and 21st century television cartoons.

Important Figures in Zen Buddhism in Japan

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Zen painting
Three of the most important Japanese figures in Zen were Ikkyu, a hard-drinking womanizer who thumbed his nose at authority but demonstrated great incite into Zen through his poetry and calligraphy; Hakuin, who developed an influential theory of enlightenment and style of teaching; and Ryokan, a wandering poet who expressed Zen virtue through his simple and contemplative poetry and lifestyle.

Lanxi Saolong, a Chinese Zen master known in Japanese as Rankei Doryu, is credited with making Zen a credible religion in Japan. He arrived from China in 1246 and was welcomed in Kamakura by a powerful feudal leader there. He purified the forms of Zen that were practiced, was involved in establishing the Rinzai school of Zen, and helped spread it throughout Japan.

Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) founded the Soto Sect and Eiheji Temple in Fukui Prefecture. Born to noble parents that died when he was young, he traveled to China when he was 24 and underwent strict training with a famous Zen master. He returned to Japan in 1228 and lived at Kenneinji temple in Kyoto for three years before founding his first temple in Uji, near Kyoto. In 1244 he and his followers founded Eiheji in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture. Eiheji means “eternal peace.”

Eisai

Eisai (1141-1215) is also known as Minnan Yosai. Born into a samurai family from Okayama, he studied with the Tendai sect and made two visits to China and is well known among Japanese for introducing tea culture to Japan. His sect gained strength after being supported by the Kamakura period shoguns.

Eisai entered the priesthood at age 14. He studied ay Enryakuji temples, the headquarters of the Tendai sect on Mt. Hiei, but left after becoming disillusioned with the decadent behavior of the monks there. He embarked on his first trip to China in 1168 at the age of 28 to visit Mt. Tientai in what is now Zhejiang Province to study the Buddhism that was imported to Japan 350 years before. He found that the Buddhism at Mt. Tientai had been supplanted by Chinese-style Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism and returned home gravely disappointed.

Eisai embarked on his second visit in 1187 with the plan to visit the entire Buddhist world and absorb ideas on how to reform Buddhism in Japan. Authorities in China however would not let him venture beyond China so he returned to Mt. Tientai and talked to monks at Wannian Temple there and found out that the answers he was seeking could be found in Zen. The temple was surrounded by tea gardens so he learned about tea as well as religion.

During Eisai’s effort to spread the word of Zen, first in Kyushu and then in Honshu, monks at Mt. Hiei persecuted him and banned his Zen missionary work in 1194. After Eisai’s teachings were supported by the Kamakura shogunate a major Zen temple, Kenniniji temple, was founded in Kyoto.

Zen Beliefs

Zen emphasizes intuitive insight and living for the "here and now." The idea of Zen is not to do something deliberately or with intent, but rather to remove yourself from what you are doing at let "higher forces" guide you. Zen looks down on the use of logic, intellect, idolatry and sacred texts and stresses self-reliance and meditation and emphasizes concrete thought over metaphysical speculation.

The aim of Zen Buddhism is to purify the soul and achieve salvation through inner enlightenment, something that happens for brief instant after 15 or 20 years of meditation. To reach the state of enlightenment, an individuals must unite his or her body and mind with the forces that drive nature. On the journey to enlightenment, Zen Buddhists believe, each level of achievement is just as important as the final state of divinity reached at the end.

Zen emphasizes teachings transmitted from master to disciple rather than a dependance on texts or iconography.

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Zen Asceticism

Many ascetic holy men in Japan, known as hijiri, are Zen Buddhists. Followers of a strict discipline called the "ascetic way," they hope to acquire superhuman powers through the attainment of merit, attending shrines, working as shaman and seeking "ecstatic inspiration" by climbing mountains.

One man who who sought out this way of life told National Geographic, "I felt nothingness and that was valuable but I would not go back to the yamabushi life [life of the mountain ascetics]. There was no newspaper, no TV. Fasting I can tolerate, but no information makes me restless." [Source: Patrick Smith, National Geographic, September 1994]

Some Zen Buddhists engage in highly ritualized behavior. Priests in the Soto Zen sect, of example, only bath on dates that include a four or nine. Before they bath they bow three times and say, "We bath vowing to benefit all beings: may pure bodies and minds be purified both inwardly and outwardly."

Zen monks usually have a shave head and wear black robes and white tabi (socks). They sometimes go out begging. It is not so important whether they collect anything or not. What matters is the act of begging.

Monks in the Soto sect are expected to adopt one of three basic poses at all times. When standing or walking they are supposed to adopt the shashu pose in which both hands are held over the heart with elbows horizontal and the left hand formed into a fist with right hand placed on top of the fist. The posture represents concealing one’s ego.

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Zen Aesthetics and Meditation

Zen stresses meditation and disciplined aesthetics expressed through traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, archery, flower arranging or doing things like playing a shakuhachi flute with a basket over one's head. The calm orderly nature of these activities is supposed to free the mind and induce an inner sense of calm.

On his experience learning how to meditate at Eiheji Temple in Fukui Prefecture, Kenicho Okumura wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “I sat on a tatami straw mat with legs folded tightly beneath me. I was told to meditate for 20 to 30 minutes, and for all of that time I was supposed to clear my mind of all thoughts other than the fact I was sitting...This proved difficult. Many things popped into my head, from family members to the almost intolerable pain in my legs. An observing priest must have detected my lack of concentration as at one stage he delivered a sharp reprimand by whacking me on the right shoulder with a paddle.”

The concept of clearing one’s mind was articulated by Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) as shikantaza. Meditating monks are taught to cast their eyes downward, assume the lotus position, keep their backs straight, breath rhythmically, block sensation and attempt to clear their mind in such a way that enlightenment is allowed to grow out of the state of nothingness. If novice monks droop their head or fall asleep while mediating their instructor whacks them on the shoulder with a stick, telling them to "concentrate."

Zen is often applies to the arts. The shakuhachi, a kind of flute that arrived in Japan via China about 1,400 years ago, has a long association Zen and is said to have a meditative quality because its sound is so closely linked with human breath. Patterson Clark, an American who studied the shakuchi in Japan, told the Washington Post, the shakuhachi is “notoriously difficult to play...It forces a face-to-face confrontation with expectation, self-criticism, disappointment, frustration, and impatience---all in a single breath. Exhaling through all these impediments and releasing one’s attachments to them can dissolve the ego so that one experiences only the sound---and become the sound.”

Zen also teaches that every act in life, even mundane activities from of everyday life like eating and bathing and doing chores, are directly related to Zen practice and Are regulated by zen.

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Zen calligraphy

Zen, Western Culture and Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen caught the interest of Beat writers and Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s and has been an object of counterculture fascination ever since. These days Japanese salarymen are turning to Zen to build disciple and alleviate stress and help them get thoughts of work out of their minds.

Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: “Many Westerners first heard of Buddhism through Zen, the Japanese derivative of China's Chan Buddhism. Zen was popularized by the American Beat Generation of the 1950s: novelist Jack Kerouac, author and radio host Alan Watts, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, among others. Soon you could take adult education classes in Zen art forms like calligraphy and ikebana (flower arranging) or rituals such as tea ceremony or archery. Once Madison Avenue discovered Buddhism's selling power, Zen became synonymous with cool, giving birth to dozens of products named Zen, from a skin-care line to an MP3 player.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert Pirsig was a big hit in the United States as the glow was wearing off the 1960s and has sold more than 5 million copies as of 2009. In it Prisig uses a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to San Francisco to illustrate the principals of his “Inquiry into Values” theorem which he felt transcended the Western notion of emotion versus intellect, technology over romanticism and the like and focused on the idea of “Metaphysics of Quality” which paraphrased is basically the notion that the only job worth doing is one done well.

Before the book Pirsig was institutionalized and forcibly given electroshock therapy.. Afterwards he devoted much energy to battles within the University of Chicago philosophy department which Pirsig described as a high drama “featuring a rebel genius against the tenured forces of dankness.”

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Daruma dolls

Life in a Japanese Zen Monastery

At Eiheji Temple in Fukui Prefecture, monks wake up at 3:30am in the summer and 4:30am in the winter. They are allowed a single bowl of water with which to wash their face and clean their teeth. After that they spend 40 minutes meditating and one hour to 2½ hours at a morning service.

Breakfast usually consists of rice with soup and pickles. The better part of the morning is taken up with chores such as cleaning corridor floors or working in the garden. Cell phones, televisions and newspapers are forbidden, On monk told the Daily Yomiuri he didn’t find out about a Prime Minister resigning until two weeks after the fact when he saw news about on scrap newspapers he was using for cleaning.

Describing his experience at a Zen monastery Patrick Smith wrote in National Geographic: "I ate an austere dinner of rice and fresh, cold vegetables. Under the watchful eye of a youthful priest-trainee, I spent 30 minutes at zazen meditation that evening. Before I could begin it took him that time to get my position just right---legs properly crossed, hands correctly placed, head at the desired angle. Then I was to follow my thoughts wherever they led. I slept on a tatami mat on the floor." [Source:"Inner Japan" by Patrick Smith, National Geographic September 1994]

"At 3:30 the next morning," Smith continued, "I was awakened and led to a room where row upon row of priests, kneeling on a vast spread of tatami, were softly chanting a Buddhist sutra. So the monastery began its day. It was cold and breakfast (as austere as dinner) was hours away; hunger gnawed at my attention, and my eyes wandered across the old plaster walls and the heavy ceiling beams, darkened by the smoke of countless sticks of incense."

Monks often spend a lot of time sweeping, scrubbing floors and cleaning. These activities are regarded as part of their monastic training. One monk told the Daily Yomiuri he didn’t mind that, “The shortage of sleep still annoys me most, although I have become used to other hardships.”

Image Sources: 1) 1st Daruma, British Museum, 2) 2nd daruma, Onmark Productions, 3) Koyasan and diagrams JNTO 4) Monks, Ray Kinnane, 5) 19th century monks and hermit 6) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 7) calligraphy, painting, Tokyo National Museum.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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