November 25, 2008

Zen, the form of Buddhism that developed in China, Korea, Japan, and beyond, revolutionized Buddhist practice. But what distinguishes Zen from other forms of Buddhism?

Zen, by Martine Batchelor (who practiced as a Zen Buddhist nun in Korea for 10 years and continues to practice and teach from her home in France), delivers short answers to many beginner questions. In just 100 small pages (including many beautiful illustrations), short, revealing descriptions are provided for a wide range of Zen topics: basic ideas & principles, history, 10 oxherding pictures (metaphors for practice and awakening), instructions for sitting & walking meditation, and descriptions of typical Zen retreats.

The book is so short and logical that I was able to complete it in a single afternoon, but by the time I was ready to close the book I found myself with more questions than I had when I started. I feel like I could study this book for a long time. On the other hand, there is something about the process of reading that can make short descriptions harder to ponder than long ones. Reading, like practice, has an experiential dimension. It is not purely intellectual. A short session can be more puzzling than a long one.

As for my original question about the distinction between Zen and other Buddhist traditions, let me quote some selections from the book:

“Zen actually means meditation. It comes from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which means meditative state in the Buddhist tradition. Zen is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes the practice of meditation as the key to awakening one’s true nature and uncovering one’s innate wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism, there are various schools of thought about Buddha-nature. Some traditions see it as a seed to develop in practice over aeons and some see it as a natural state that is covered by our delusions and can be uncovered at any time. Zen belongs to the latter approach. Zen reacted against the idea that enlightenment and Buddhahood were remote conditions; so far away that one might not even get started, being too discouraged by the lengthy process. The Zen tradition was very much influenced by the Avatamsaka sutra which states that all sentient beings are Buddhas and all Buddhas are sentient beings. Zen is not about becoming an idealized person but more about living who we are and can be in our more spacious moments.”

And also a quote from Dogen, founder of Soto Zen:

The way of the Buddha
Is to know yourself,
To know yourself
Is to forget yourself,
To forget yourself
Is to be enlightened by all things.


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