Zen Buddhism in Japan: The History, Definition, and Importance of Meditation
Buddhism, as some of you might already know, originates from India and its history runs deep. Traditions and teachings of Buddhism state that Buddhism came to be when Buddha held up a flower to a man named Kasyappa, which made Kasyappa smile. This smile is believed to signify that he understood message Buddha meant to relay about the wordless essence of the dharma by raising the flower. With this, Kasyappa became the second patriarch of Zen.
Centuries later, specifically in the first century CE, Buddhism was introduced to China for the very first time. China accepted Buddhism and started referring to their version of Buddhism as Chan. Their scriptures state that it was introduced to China by the 28th Indian patriarch of Zen named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was an Indian monk who taught Dhyana and upon introducing Buddhism to China, he became China’s first patriarch of Zen.
Eventually, it made its way to Japan in the 8th century CE. This was considered to be in the Nara period, which is from 710 to 794, and it continued to grow as a religion in the Heian period which was from 794 to 1185. During those times though, Buddhism was taught but not to the extent that schools were established to teach Buddhism solely.
It was in the 12th century that these specialized schools of Japan for Buddhism would come to be and prosper. The first brave soul to do so was a man named Nonin who established the Daruma School. 4 years into running the Daruma, Nonin sent two students to China to request for Nonin’s promotion to be recognized as a Zen master from a Chinese Zen master named Cho-an Te-kuang.
Considering all that Nonin has done for Buddhism, his request was certainly approved by the master but this did not make him the first Japanese monk to do so because Myosan Eisai is the holder of that title. Myosan Eisai went to China twice to learn Buddhism. He was an apprentice of Koan Esho which would, later on, result in his establishing of the Linji lineage of Zen in Japan. This Linji lineage would soon be known to all as Rinzai.
Aside from bringing Rinzai to Japan, this man is also responsible for starting the practice of tea-drinking. He brought this practice with him because it was used as a meditation aid for monks who were practicing their meditation. He is also responsible for founding the very first Zen temple in Japan which is the Shofuku-Ji. He spent the rest of his days spreading the teachings of Zen Buddhism to cultural centers like Kyoto and Kamakura, which he initially avoided to go to because of the pessimistic people at the time.
Great masters usually produce great apprentices or disciples and in the case of Myosan Eisai and Dogen Zenji, this definitely was the scenario. If Myosan Eisai is known for being the first Zen master, Dogen Zenji is known as the greatest Zen master of Japan. This was so because he elevated the religion of Buddhism with his actions. He was a student of Myozen, who was a disciple of Eisai, and he was taught the way of Rinzai Zen. He, however, had a lot of questions about the Rinzai tradition and how it seemed to rely heavily on koans.
This lack of satisfaction made him go on a voyage to get the answers he needed. He headed to China, which was, in those times, known as the “Buddhist Capital”. This was not an action of retaliation from the gray areas he found in Rinzai Zen because he did so with the intent to recreate what Esai had done when he first came back from China. This feat was bringing with him the new knowledge that started Rinzai Zen in Japan.
On this voyage, he found a master named Nyojo. He was the 13th patriarch of the Caodong lineage of Chan Buddhism or Chinese Buddhism. Master Nyojo taught Dogen Zenji that true Buddhism is about “Shikantaza”. This term meant to sit in silence and meditate. Dogen did so and eventually, he attained the stage of enlightenment during one of his Zazen or meditating sessions. With this, Dogen was satisfied for he had found the answers to his questions.
He stayed in training for two more years after first reaching enlightenment and in the year of 28, he returned to Japan to establish the Caodong Buddhism. This Caodong Buddhism would, later on, be called Soto Zen which was a branch of Buddhism that heavily focused on deep meditation. This is not to say that Rinzai Zen does not use meditation because it does. It just so happened that what the Rinzai and Soto focus on while meditating is different from one another.
Meditation in Rinzai Zen makes use of phrases or riddles known as koans. When following Rinzai Zen, your meditation should focus on the koan that your Zen master gives you. You ponder on this phrase or riddle until you unlock your true mind and experience your awakening and enlightenment. Others take seconds to figure it out while some take months, even years, to do this feat. Either way, the goal is the same.
In the case of Soto Zen, when meditating or practicing Zazen, they do not want to use koans because they believe that it actually opposes or goes against the nature of Zen. They think this because pondering on such riddles makes the practitioners use intellect which leads them to be distracted from truly being “one” with the world. In Soto Zen, that is the goal of meditating. It isn’t about attaining enlightenment or Satori. Meditation in Soto Zen is all about being in the moment completely. It is about being aware of everything around you and resetting one’s consciousness to something that is pure and in harmony with the universe.
The simplicity that Soto Zen brought to the table made it the most popular of the 3 Zen organizations to be found in Japan. Soto Zen is followed by Rinzai Zen and the smallest or least popular of the 3 is the Obaku Zen. This third sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan was established in the year 1661 by a faction of students and Zen masters from Japan and China, respectively. It is very similar to Rinzai Zen considering its focus and use of koans as well as the practices are done in both. The difference between Rinzai and Obaku lies in things like the difference in the sutra chanting style and such alike.
The Zen Buddhism Book worth Reading and the Symbols and Information it contains
Acknowledging that Zen Buddhism revolves around thought processes and mental discipline, one could already expect that there would be books written by practitioners to aid those in need or to just share their success with Buddhism along with tips on how to make it happen for yourself as well. There are also books that just talk about the concept and beliefs of this religion. Whether its books to help others or books to increase one’s overall knowledge about the topic at hand, these books are works of art that should be appreciated by followers and could be appreciated by those who don’t follow Buddhism.
There are numerous books that you can look into to have a deeper appreciation for Buddhism. It is sometimes even considered a problem that there are already so many books about Zen Buddhism because it makes it hard for people to pick out those books that truly stand out from the rest. With this being said, continue to read on to find out about a book that is considered to be the best start-off book for Buddhism enthusiasts.
The book that is worth recommending is a book written by Shunryu Suzuki entitled “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. This book, as some of you might already know, is considered a classic work of literature about Zen Buddhism. It tackles the basics of Buddhism as well as the many methods involved in the practice. It also stands out above the rest because it is delivered in a way that makes it easy to understand Zen even if you are a beginner and it surely will not bore you for even a second because of the joyful insights shared by the author as well.
It also helps that this book is still selling 40 years after its original publication. For any book to still be published again and again for 40 years, it must be one that defeats the challenges and changes that time brings to all. The messages and information found in this book about Buddhism are so relevant that time itself could not make this book outdated, even 40 years after.
Zen Buddhism Quotes: The Four Noble Truths
All religions follow a certain set of rules. For Christianity, it would be the 10 Commandments. For Zen Buddhism, it would be the teachings that Buddha himself laid down for the common man to follow which came in the form of the “Four Noble Truths”. There are additional rules and beliefs that certain divisions of Buddhism may follow but these four truths are what is constant throughout all versions of Buddhism.
The first noble truth states “to live means to suffer”. It may sound sad but it is, in fact, a definite truth in this world. Humans are not perfect so they are bound to suffer, either from their own mistakes or the mistakes of others. Even aging is a testament to this truth because as we age, we inevitably deteriorate. Accepting this truth is important because there is nothing you can do to change it. The best you can do is make sure that what you suffer for is worthwhile and is of importance to you and others.
The second noble truth says that the origin of suffering is the attachment. This truth comes as a double-edged sword because too much attachment makes a person greedy while too little attachment makes a person lose sight of the value of that person or object. This is important to acknowledge because Buddha is challenging you to rise above the tests of attachment. Only then will you be able to reach higher levels of existence.
The third noble truth states that the cessation of suffering is attainable. In other words, this is saying that suffering can be stopped by practicing non-attachment. This supports the second truth as the second truth realizes that attachment is the source of suffering so by practicing to exist above the influence of attachment means to be free of its effects on you as a person. This freedom is another term for reaching Santori or the state of enlightenment.
The fourth noble truth reaffirms that Santori is attainable by following the practices of Buddhism. It specifically highlights another set of rules that Buddhism follows and that set of rules in the “Eightfold Path”. It can be likened to the “Beatitudes” if you will. Nevertheless, it is a truth that tells people to live a balanced life to attain salvation.
With all this discussion of the history and beliefs related to Zen Buddhism, it can clearly be seen why it fit so well in Japan. All this talk of balance and being one with nature is already a description you read about the Japanese people without involving the influences of Zen Buddhism. It is a very peaceful religion and it is one that is centered on existence for all beings, not only humans. You may believe in a different superior being but it wouldn’t hurt to try the practices of Zen Buddhism to center yourself as a person. After all, it has been known to have that effect on people, regardless of their intention to practice it.