Zen Buddhism is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures. Zen schools of meditation played a profound role in late medieval and early modern Japan.

Zen Buddhism (Rinzai, Soto and Obaku) is the fourth largest Buddhist sect in Japan with 5.3 million followers according to 2021 statistics on religion by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. It 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."

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The essential element of Zen Buddhism is found in its name, for Zen means "meditation." Zen teaches that enlightenment is achieved through the profound realization that one is already an enlightened being. This awakening can happen gradually or in a flash of insight (as emphasized by the Soto and Rinzai schools, respectively). But in either case, it is the result of one’s own efforts. Deities and scriptures can offer only limited assistance.

Zen in its own words
A special transmission outside the scriptures
Without reliance on words or letters
Directly pointing to the heart of humanity
Seeing into one's own nature. [Source: BBC ]

According to the BBC: “Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It began in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century. The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language. Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and are often used, for example, by Christians seeking a mystical understanding of their faith.

Zen Zen Buddhism WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-Zen ; Zen Guide zenguide.com ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ; The Zen Site thezensite.com ; ; Famous Zen Temples: Ryoanji Temple and Garden is a Zen temple established in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ryoanji site ryoanji.jp ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Japan Guide japan-guide.com Eiheiji Temple Websites: Japan Guide Japan-guide ; Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Photos Reggie.net Daitokuji Temple is the headquarters of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Japan Guide japan-guide.com

Zen and the Chan School of Buddhism

Zen traces its origins to India, but it was formalized in China. Chan, as it is known in China. According to legend it was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the A.D. 6th century CE. It was called Ch'an in China. 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.

Chan's golden age began with the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), and ended with the persecution of Buddhism in China in the middle of the A.D. 9th century during the Tang Dynasty. Most of those we think of today as the great Zen masters came from this period. Zen Buddhism survived the persecution though it was never the same again in China.Chan spread to Korea in the A.D. 7th century CE and to Japan in the 12th century CE.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art;“Chan was transmitted to Japan and took root there in the thirteenth century. Chan was enthusiastically received in Japan, especially by the samurai class that wielded political power at this time, and it became the most prominent form of Buddhism between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The immigrant Chinese prelates were educated men, who introduced not only religious practices but also Chinese literature, calligraphy, philosophy, and ink painting to their Japanese disciples, who often in turn traveled to China for further study.

History of Zen Buddhism in Japan

Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Song 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. 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.

Peter A. Pardue wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Zen Buddhism was the third major movement to emerge out of the Kamakura matrix, although it did not reach full strength until the Ashikaga shogunate (1338–1573) and after. In its soteriology it was the reverse of the Pure Land and Nichiren sects, and it did not become equally popular, although it was immensely appealing to many individuals for whom neither otherworldly theism nor ascetic withdrawal were meaningful forms of religious action. It was successfully transplanted to Japan by Eisai (1141–1215) and Dogen (1200–1253). Dissatisfied with the condition of Tendai Buddhism, Eisai left for Sung China, where he studied with a Lin-chi (Rinzai) master. After returning to Japan he settled in Kamakura, where his practical teaching found popular acceptance among the new warrior aristocracy. Later he went to Kyoto, with the intention of blending both Shingon and Tendai esotericism with his doctrine. His alliance with the new political order and his compromise with the other sects were major factors in the successful institutionalization of Zen in Japan. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Dogen, a Tendai monk of aristocratic birth and Confucian training, studied with a master of the Ts’ao-tung (Soto) school. He tried to strike a balance between the patriarchal and scriptural traditions, approving both Hīayana and Mahayana sources and minimizing the importance of the koan. His soteriology stressed rational modes of self-perfection through meditation and ethical and intellectual striving. He retained a strong sense of the dignity of physical labor and the discipline of work in the world, rejecting an easy accommodation of moral standards to given conditions.

Though Dogen refused to lend open support to the incumbent political regime, Zen teaching in general provided a remarkably creative base for coordination with the secular needs and cultural goals of the state. Zen monks assisted the emperor in many tasks and helped to cement diplomatic and economic relations with China. They were instrumental in establishing a state-sponsored Buddhist church during the Ashikaga shogunate, which imported and promulgated Sung Neo-Confucianism, provided educational services, and printed textbooks.

Zen, Samurai and Culture

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 had a liberalizing influence on the arts, Peter A. Pardue wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: , "including the military art of swordsmanship (stern discipline, selflessness, and spontaneity), the classical tea ceremony, and many aesthetic refinements which became part of the vital mainstream of Japanese cultural life. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

The egalitarian thrust of these new religious movements initiated during the Kamakura period contributed richly to the moral and religious health of Japanese culture, but they were not basically reformist. They did not undercut the feudal or patrimonial basis of the society. Although at first they broke through the social boundaries of the old aristocracy, they later supported the ethic of the new warrior class, in many direct and indirect ways, by reinforcing the feudal leader-follower nexus. The demand for unswerving loyalty to the lord had structural and psychological parallels with the authority of the Zen master and the Pure Land hereditary patriarch. The early prophetic-critical tension was also siphoned off in other ways — through the aesthetic life, which Zen promoted by affirming the inner spiritual validity of the natural world as it is given, and in the otherworldly piety of the Pure Land devotee, which did not give rise to rational social criticism but rather to discrete philanthropies.

In the late medieval period, as the rationalization of state Shinto and the first glimmerings of a real national ideology began to emerge, Buddhism was increasingly regarded as a political menace because it reinforced clan particularism and, with the exception of Zen, seemed to add little to political or economic reason. In 1571 the military unification of Japan by General Oda Nobunaga was dramatized by the deliberate destruction of the Tendai establishments, including the razing of over 3,000 buildings and the massacre of all their inhabitants. His pretext was that Tendai had provided sanctuary for political rebels, but the more general reason given was that it obstructed “the maintenance of law and order in the country,” a notion which presaged subsequent events affecting the fate of Buddhism in Japan during the next two centuries.

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). Hakuin (1685–1768) did much to popularize the practice of Rinzai Zen.

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)

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

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 (1141–1215) founded Rinzai Zen. He used koan, or logical conundrums (for example, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"), to help break Zen practitioners out of ordinary consciousness and forms of thought. Rinzai teaches that enlightenment happens instantly. Eisai also introduced the tea ceremony and Neo-Confucian thought to Japan. [Source: Gary Ebersole, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Eisai 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.

Dôgen Zenji and the Soto Zen Sect


Dogen founded the Soto school and taught that only seated meditation (zazen) was efficacious and could lead to gradual enlightenment. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Dōgen Zenji is often referred to as the leading classical philosopher in Japanese history. His essays on numerous Buddhist topics included in his main text, the Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye), reflect an approach to religious experience based on a more philosophical analysis than in the writings of Zen. (Zen is known as a “special transmission outside the scriptures, without reliance on words and letters.”) The single main element in Dōgen’s approach is his emphasis on the meaning of impermanence or the transiency of all aspects of human and natural existence.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In “How to Practice Buddhism (Bendōwa),” Dogen wrote: “Because the Fully Awakened Ones [Buddhas] provide mysterious assistance, when you practice sitting Zen, you will definitely slough off body.mind, eliminate habitually defiled thought patterns, and realize divinely genuine Buddha dharma. You will aid all Buddha activity in all Buddha wayfaring sites as infinite as atoms. You will encourage the aptitude for practicing beyond Buddha and promote the dharma beyond Buddha. At that moment all lands, plants, fences, and roof tiles throughout the dharma realms of the ten directions also engage in Buddha activity, causing everyone to obtain the Buddha’s inconceivable mysterious assistance in attaining awakening as easily as they receive natural blessings like wind and water. Just as everyone makes use of water and fire, so too you will circulate the innate realization of Buddha deliverance so that everyone living or talking with you will all embody inexhaustible Buddhavirtue. [Source: Nishio, “Shōbōgenzō,” vol. 1, pp. 101–102; WB; “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 321-324 ]

“As it unfolds and widens without end, without break, the inconceivable, infinite Buddha dharma will flow throughout the entire cosmos and beyond. The fact that the one who practices sitting Zen is unaware of the Buddha’s mysterious assistance is because it is direct realization of nondeliberative quiescence. If, as ordinary people suppose, cultivation and realization are two separate processes, then it could be possible to be aware of each in isolation. But what interacts with our awareness cannot be fundamental realization because fundamental realization is beyond deluded human thoughts.”


“Know that Buddhists must not engage in debates over the superiority or inferiority of the teachings and must not choose between profound and shallow doctrines. Just know whether the practice is authentic or not. Grass, flowers, the landscape itself, have brought some people into the Buddha Way. Merely grasping earth or sand has caused others to receive and preserve the Buddha.mind Seal. This means that the greatest words are the ones whose abundant meanings overflow from every existing thing. The Great Dharma Wheel of preaching turns in every speck of dust. In light of this, a phrase like “this very mind is Buddha” is just the moon reflected in water. “This very sitting becomes Buddha” is just a reflection in a mirror. Do not be misled by clever slogans. I now recommend the practice of direct realization of "bodhi" because I teach the marvelous Way directly transmitted by the Buddhas and Zen ancestors and because I want you to become a true man of the Way.

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 dependence on texts or iconography. 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.

Contempt for Scriptures

The Zen text the Shuso to shite no Dogen Zenji reads: There are Zen masters of a certain type who join in a chorus to deny that the sutras contain the true teaching of the Buddha. 'Only in the personal transmission from one patriarch to another is the essential truth conveyed; only in the transmission of the patriarchs can the exquisite and profound secrets of Buddha be found.' Such statements represent the height of folly, they are the words of madmen. In the genuine tradition of the patriarchs there is nothing secret or special, not even a single word or phrase, at variance with the Buddhist sutras. [Source: From Eto, Shuso to shite no Dogen Zenji, P. 246, translated by Wm. Theodore de Bary, in De Bary (ed.), Sources of Japanese Tradition, op, Cit., Pp. 255-6, Eliade Page]

Both the sutras and the transmission of the patriarchs alike represent the genuine tradition deriving from Shakyamuni Buddha. The only difference between them is that the patriarchs' transmission is a direct one from person to person. Who dares, then, to ignore the Buddha's sutras? Who can refuse to study them, who can refuse to recite them? Wisely it has been said of old, 'It is you who get lost in the sutras, not the sutras that lead you astray.' Among our worthy predecessors there were many who studied the Scriptures. Therefore these loose tongued individuals should be told,

'To discard the sutras of the Buddha, as you say, is to reject the mind of the Buddha, to reject the body of the Buddha. To reject the mind and body of the Buddha is to reject the children [followers] of the Buddha. To reject children of the Buddha is to reject the teaching of the Buddha. And if the teaching of the Buddha itself is to be rejected, why should not the teaching of the patriarchs be rejected? And when you have abandoned the teaching of the Buddha and the patriarchs, what will be left except a lot of baldheaded monks? Then you will certainly deserve to be chastised by the rod. Not only would you deserve to be enslaved by the rulers of the world, but to be cast into Hell for punishment.'

Zen, Western Culture and Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen was popularised in the West by the Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870 — 1966); although it was found in the West before that. 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.

Daruma dolls

“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.”

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.

Last updated January 2024

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