Questions and answers about Zen with Fr. Ama
© Thomas Müller
What is the meaning of the word Zen?
The word Zen is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana. It can be translated as meditation. Zen originated as a Mahayana Buddhist sect in the 6th century in China. The word Zen can refer to this Buddhist sect, to the meditation method practiced by this sect, to the experience and realization coming from this practice, to enlightenment which is the fruit of Zen practice, or to the way of life flowing from all of the above. Zen meditation and realization have to be differentiated from Zen Buddhism. The latter is a religious sect; the former is beyond any one particular religion. Indeed, Zen is the religion of no-religion and in its light religions can be truly themselves. Zen as practice and realization transcends every philosophy, ideology and ‘ism’ (monism, pantheism, nihilism, secularism,
humanism, etc). It transcends both negation and affirmation and grounds and authenticates every reality in its suchness and uniqueness. It is the death of the 'old wo/man' and the birth of the New Wo/Man, of the New Heaven and New Earth. However, Zen is not so much a theory but practice and action. It is practice with the master, with the sangha, and in daily life; body-mind-spirit practice; actualized in the in-between of self and others: One Action of the universe.
To study the Buddha way is to study the self
To study the self is to ‘forget’ the self
To ‘forget’ the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.
To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to remove the barriers between oneself and others.
No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
-Dōgen Zenji, 1200-1253, "Genjokoan"
What is the particularity of Zen?
"A rose is a rose is a rose!" Zen is just Zen, just practice. Zen, to be understood and practiced properly, has to be situated in its tradition and community. It is difficult to talk abstractly about its particularity. Yet we can say that Zen is unique and special. There are two major Zen schools in Japan: Soto and Rinzai. The Soto method of meditation is mainly "shikantaza," i.e., “just sitting.” The Rinzai method is centered on koan practice. Here, one meditates on some of the ancient paradoxical Zen questions and stories, e.g., “What is the sound of one hand?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” and brings an answer to the teacher. The whole process is dynamic and interpersonal. The whole way of zen life is simple and yet paradoxical: mystical and pragmatic, this-worldly and
© Giancarlo Buletti
transcendent, joyful and compassionate. Freedom and compassion are Zen’s hallmark. Zen has elements of all other ways, yet it is a unique flowering of the human spirit. It can lead those who practice it to peace, freedom and joy.
Is Zen Buddhist? Can Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims or atheists practice Zen?
Zen is rooted in Buddhism, particularly in Mahayana Buddhism. But Zen meditation, Zen experience and Zen awakening are not confined to Buddhism and to Buddhists. Any person with intention and willingness can practice Zen. Zen master Yamada Koun used to say that Zen was like tasting tea, there was no Christian tea or Buddhist tea, tea is tea, and that Christians doing Zen should become better Christians. However, Zen is religious or better, spiritual; and it should not be uprooted from its grounding in Buddhism. Particularly those who teach Zen should be knowledgeable in Buddhism, should have reverence and intimacy with the Buddha and Zen Buddhist tradition. Zen experience and awakening are not apart from Zen Buddhist language. There are two ways of practicing Zen for non-Buddhists: one is to practice Zen in order to deepen one's own religious experience and faith; however, if one is fanatical about one’s beliefs and practices, Zen may not be suitable. The other and the better way is to practice Zen just as Zen. This means in a sense ‘dying’ to one’s own religion and tradition, and ‘passing over’ into Zen and Zen tradition. Such ‘passing over’ can be deeply liberating. One can then ‘come back’ to one’s own religion and tradition, transformed and liberated. Then, in a sense, one stands in the in-between. It is a beautiful and dynamic place to be!
What are the key ideas of zen?
Throw away all ideas! You are the universe, the universe is yourself! Live Thus: a free and compassionate life.