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Though Zen recognizes—at least loosely—the validity of normative Buddhist scriptures, it has created its own texts over the generations. Liberally flavored with doses of Taoism and Confucianism and Chinese poetry, and written in informal language studded with Chinese folk sayings and street slang, Zen literature is built on legendary anecdotes of the great masters. Buddha is barely mentioned, and when he is he is often playfully reviled. "Old man Shakyamuni," the saying goes, "is only halfway there." Like most Zen masters, Bodhidharma left little written material. But here are four Zen dicta ascribed to him, which are always quoted to illustrate the essential Zen spirit:
A special transmission outside the scriptures.
No dependency on words and letters
Pointing directly to the human mind.
Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood.
This shoot-from-the-hip Zen spirit appeals to the American mind, which is as iconoclastic and anti-authoritarian as it is religious. In any case, it appealed to me and to the many others like me who were and are looking for a direct route to awakening. It has also appealed, over many generations, to millions of Buddhist practitioners in the Far East, who, conditioned by the Taoism and Confucianism that had been imported everywhere from China, could easy relate to the Zen message and style. Although the Zen school created controversy at first in all the countries it spread to, it eventually became by far the most successful school of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. By the mid-1980s, the Zen traditions of all these countries had been transmitted to America.
3. Zen Methods
Although Zen eventually developed traditions of study and ritual, its emphasis on personal experience has always made it a practice-oriented tradition. The practice is meditation. "Sitting Zen" (Japanese: zazen) has, as Bodhidharma's legend shows, always been central in Zen training centers, where monks rise early each morning for meditation practice and do long retreats consisting of many, many silent unmoving hours on the cushion. Zazen is an intensely simple practice. It is generally taught without steps, stages or frills. "Just sit!" the master admonishes, by which he or she means, sit upright in good posture, paying careful attention to breathing in your belly until you are fully alert and present. This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen, and although there are many approaches to Zen meditation, they all come back to this. Life's secret, life's essence, and the truth and power of Buddhist liberation all come down to this intense and illuminated presence which is beyond words and concepts. Though it cannot be explained, it can be experienced and expressed through the daily actions of a Zen life.
Because the practice of intensive zazen is so central, Zen practice is essentially monastic. That is to say, it depends on a life that allows for long periods of concentrated meditation. In the Zen monastery, life is entirely organized around sitting in the meditation hall. But zazen is also understood to be something more than this sitting. It is conceived of as a state of mind or being that extends into all activities. Work is zazen; eating is zazen; sleeping, walking, standing, going to the toilet—all are zazen practice. In Soto Zen, the Japanese school practiced extensively in the West, there is an especially strong emphasis on this "moving Zen." Soto monastic life tends to be highly ritualized, so as to promote concentration in all things. There is, for instance, a special elegant and mindful practice, called oryoki, for eating ritualized meals in the meditation hall.
Zen schools are more or less divisible into those that emphasize a curriculum of verbal meditation objects—like koans—and those that do not. Emphasizing daily life practice as zazen, Soto Zen centers generally do not work with a set koan curriculum and method, though koans are studied and contemplated. Because of this, Soto Zen has traditionally been criticized by the koan schools (the best-known koan school is the Rinzai school of Japan) as dull, overly precious and quietistic, in contrast to the dynamic and lively engagement of the koan path. But the koan way also has its critics, who see the emphasis on words, meaning and insight as working against real non-conceptual Zen living. Koan training systems also have the disadvantage of fostering competition and obsession with advancement in the system.
In koan Zen, contemplation of a koan begins with zazen practice. The practitioner comes to intense presence with body and breath, and then brings up the koan almost as a physical object, repeating it over and over again with breathing, until words and meaning dissolve and the koan is "seen." This practice is done in the context of an intensive retreat led by a qualified Zen koan teacher, whom the practitioner visits several times each day for an interview. In the interview, the student presents his or her understanding of the koan (however lame it may be) and receives a response from the teacher (however understated it may be) that reorients the search. Eventually, with luck, diligence and a few judicious hints, the koan's essence is penetrated, and the practitioner enters the interview room with playful joy, capable of answering any sort of question about the koan, however non-conceptual or absurd the question may seem. The responses to koans are traditional stock answers, and although some real experience is generally necessary in order to "pass" a particular koan, it is clear that one can pass many koans without necessarily undergoing any significant spiritual transformation.
Like all systems, the koan system can degenerate into a self-protective and self-referential enclosure. It's the teacher's job to see that this doesn't happen, but sometimes it is not preventable. There are many different systems of koan study, but most of them emphasize humor, spontaneity and openness. The koan method is, at its best, a unique and marvelous expression of human religious sensibility.
4. Zen Schools
Zen has had a long and varied history in several different Far Eastern cultures. Each culture has produced a tradition that is recognizable as Zen, but differs slightly from all the others. Vietnamese Zen is the one most influenced by the Theravada tradition. It tends to be gentle in expression and method, to emphasize purity and carefulness, and to combine Zen with some Theravadin teaching and methodology. In China, Zen eventually became the only Buddhist school, inclusive of all the others, so contemporary Ch'an includes many faith-based Mahayana practices that existed initially in other Buddhist schools, especially faith in and repetition of the name of Amida Buddha, the savior Buddha who will ensure rebirth in an auspicious heaven to those who venerate him. Korean Zen is the most stylized and dramatic of the Zen schools, and also the most austere. Korean Zen includes prostration practice (repeated, energetic full-to-the-floor bows of veneration) and intensive chanting practice, and has a hermit tradition, something virtually unknown in Japanese Zen.
Within each of the Asian Zen traditions there are several schools, and within schools the styles of individual teachers often differ greatly. Still, it is remarkable how essentially similar the various teachers within a particular Zen "dharma family" can be in personal style and mode of expression, even though, paradoxically, each one is quite distinctive and individualistic. This uncanny fact—radical individuality within the context of shared understanding—seems to be an indelible feature of Zen.