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What is Zen?

Basic Stance

What is the basic stance of the Zen School?


“Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “chan” 禪, an abbreviated form of “chan’na” 禪那, which is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit dhyana, meaning “meditation.” “Zen School” thus literally means “Meditation School,” the school of Mahayana Buddhism that places particular emphasis on meditation as the central practice leading to enlightenment. Its history begins with the methods of meditation taught by Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, transmitted from generation to generation of Indian meditation masters, and introduced to China by Bodhidharma (d. 528?), a monk honored as the twenty-eighth patriarch of Indian Zen and the first patriarch of Chinese Zen. Also known as the Buddha Mind School and the Bodhidharma School, the Zen school as a distinct tradition first developed in China, underwent centuries of development there, and then spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In Japan there are at present three main Zen lineages: Rinzai 臨濟, Obaku 黄檗 , and Soto 曹洞. The present website is concerned with the Rinzai and Obaku traditions; for more information on the Soto School, see http://www.sotozen-net.or.jp/.

What is the Rinzai School?

The Rinzai school emerged in China from the teaching line of Linji Yixuan 臨濟義玄 (J., Rinzai Gigen, d. 866), and was first introduced to Japan by the Japanese monk Myoan Eisai 明菴榮西(1141-1215). In Japan the Rinzai teachings underwent further refinement, especially in the lineage of Hakuin Ekaku 白隱慧鶴 (1686–1769), the great reviver of the Japanese Rinzai school. A second introduction of the Chinese Linji school took place in 1654, when the Chinese master Yinyuan Longqi 隱元隆琦 (Ingen Ryuki; 1592-1673) transmitted the teachings as they had developed in China from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries. Yinyuan’s lineage came to be called the Obaku school.

Throughout their histories these schools have sought, through the practices of zazen, koan training, and samu, to awaken the practicer to the Buddha-nature inherent in all beings. In the Record of Linji, Master Linji says, “On your lump of red flesh is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet proved him, look, look!” The basic stance of the Rinzai and Obaku schools is the self-realization of this “true man without rank.” This self-realization, called kensho 見性, is regarded as the essence of Shakyamuni’s teaching, and has been passed from generation to generation in Zen, like, as the Zen expression has it, “water poured from one container to the next.”

Buddha Mind School

“Buddha Mind School,” another name for the Zen School, is based on Zen’s view that truth lies not in words recorded in written texts and scriptures, but in the Buddha Mind—the true Dharma—inherent in all beings. This is the mind to which Shakyamuni awakened when he was enlightened, and that his disciple Mahakashyapa, renowned for his practice and discipline, awakened to at Eagle Peak:


One day at Eagle Peak Shakyamuni stood before the assembly of eighty thousand students and simply held up a golden flower. No one responded except Mahakashyapa, who broke into a smile. At this the Buddha said, “I possess the treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the ineffable mind of nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate. It does not depend on words and letters, and is a special transmission outside the teachings. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa.”


After Shakyamuni’s passing, Mahakashyapa recognized the same awakening to Buddha Mind in Ananda, Shakyamuni’s cousin and personal attendant. These were the first links in a continuous chain of succession from master to disciple down through the generations to the present day.

The Buddha Mind is none other than our own pure, original mind that is always present, and merely hidden by deluded thought. Many Zen texts from the earliest times describe this:

Hongren (600-674): Just as the light of the sun is never destroyed, but is merely obscured by clouds and mists, the pure mind possessed by all sentient beings is merely hidden by layered clouds of discursive thinking, false notions, and deluded views. Just clearly maintain [awareness of] the mind and do not give rise to false notions. The Dharma sun of nirvana will then naturally appear. Thus we know that our minds are inherently pure.

Huineng (638ー713): Huineng said, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is your original face before your father and mother were born?”

Damei Fachang 大梅法常 (752–839): Monks, strive to reach the root; do not chase after the branches. Reach the root, and the rest will naturally follow. If you wish to perceive the root, just see into your own mind. This mind is the source of all, both mundane and supermundane. When mind arises the various dharmas arise; when mind is extinguished, the various dharmas disappear. If you give rise to the mind that is unattached to good and bad, all things are in their true state.

Linji (d. 866): If you will just bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind, you will not differ from the patriarch-buddha.Turn your own light inward upon yourselves!

Bodhidharma School

The Zen School is also known as the “Bodhidharma School” because it traces its origins as a distinct Chinese tradition back to Bodhidharma (d. 528?), an Indian meditation master honored as the twenty-eighth patriarch of Indian Zen. Bodhidharma is said to have been the third son of a king in southern India. He left home and studied Buddhism under Prajñatara, the twenty-seventh Indian patriarch, and received from him transmission of the Mind-seal (inka shomei 印可證明), signifying the same realization of Buddha Mind as that of Shakyamuni Buddha. After receiving transmission he made the long sea voyage to China, where he remained the rest of his life spreading the teachings of Zen.

He first visited the land of Liang in southern China, where he met with the great Buddhist patron Emperor Wu. The emperor asked, “What is the first principle of the sacred teachings?” Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” “Then who is this that is facing me?” inquired the emperor. “I do not know,” said Bodhidharma. The emperor failed to fathom his meaning, so Bodhidharma went north to the temple Shaolin si 少林寺 (Shorin-ji), where, it is said, he meditated for nine years in a cave facing the wall. He stressed the teachings of the Lankavatara-sutra, which reflected the “consciousness-only” doctrine of the Yogacara school. He is known for his famous verse summing up the essential standpoint of Zen:

          A special transmission outside the scriptures,
          Not relying on words and letters;
          Direct pointing to the human mind,
          Seeing one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

Bodhidharma is regarded as the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen, and transmitted the Zen teachings through his Chinese disciple Huike 慧可 (487–593).