Zen Buddhism – A Unique Path to Enlightenment

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Zen Buddhism is a unique mix of philosophies and idiosyncrasies from three different cultures. It is a typically Japanese way of life, and yet reflects the mysticism of India, naturalness and spontaneity of Taoism and the deep pragmatism of the Confucianist mind. However, despite its special character, Zen Buddhism is purely Buddhist in its essence because its objective is nothing different that of Buddha: Achieving enlightenment, an experience known in Zen Buddhism as Satori. All Eastern philosophical schools center on the experience of enlightenment, but Zen Buddhism is distinct in that as it focuses solely on the experience itself and has no interest in any explanation that goes beyond it. In Suzuki’s words, “Zen Buddhism is discipline in enlightenment”. From the Zen Buddhism’s point of view, the awakening of Buddha and the teaching of Buddha, that we all have the potential to achieve enlightenment from, are the essence of Buddhism. The rest of the doctrine, included in the voluminous sutras, is seen only as supplemental. The experience of Zen Buddhism is, therefore, the experience of satori, and since this experience finally transcends all categories of thought, Zen Buddhism is not interested in any abstraction or conceptualization. It emphasizes its independence from all fixed thoughts and does not adhere to any particular philosophy or doctrine.

You can talk a lot about Zen, but that doesn’t have much value. If we try to explain it, we do it for the simple reason that much of the Japanese arts are based on this practice. The Zen Buddhism is pure intuition. Zen is the Zen, as the teachers have repeated; a branch of Buddhist philosophy that advocates that the state of enlightenment (satori) is achieved through meditation or reflection or thought on the impossible (Koan).  Satori is a state beyond the dualism. In this state there is no good and evil, beautiful and ugly or Buddha and the non-Buddha. It is therefore a state that is achieved by overcoming human perceptions and by understanding that they are the reflection of a world to which we believe falsely eternal and immortal. The way to reach the satori, however, is not rational, but depends to a greater extent on intuition.  When it comes to koan, the Zen Buddhism scholar, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, defines the it as follows: Koan is a question on a subject that has been given to a student to answer. It literally means  public documents, and, according to a Zen Buddhism scholar, it’s called such because it serves to examining the authenticity of the enlightenment that a student claims to have obtained.

Nirvana is a mental state that will naturally arise spontaneously in enlightenment. To become enlightened is to go beyond concepts and see the world as it really is. Nirvana, literally, the state that arises when a flame is extinguished, is often described as formless, hollow, or empty. But the formlessness should not be considered merely as “nothingness”. Vice versa, it is actually the essence of all forms and the source of all life. That’s why Buddhists also call the ultimate reality Sunyata that is to say, the void or emptiness. Zen Buddhism places less emphasis on scripture than other models of Buddhism and prefers to emphasize that truth is attained directly through spiritual breakthroughs. Zen teaching is full of paradoxes, the aim being to loosen the bonds of the ego and facilitate entry into the realm of the true self or formless self, equated with the Buddha himself.   Zen Buddhism has been conveyed through the ages, since Sakya Muni Buddha to the present day, from teacher to disciple. The tree of the spiritual genealogy of Zen Buddhism has its root in the Sakya Muni Buddha and has grown throughout history developing various lineages.

Zen Buddhism is more persuaded than any other school of Eastern mysticism that words will never be able to convey the ultimate truth. However, the experience of Zen Buddhism can be conveyed down from Master to disciple. In fact, it has been conveyed through special techniques typical of Zen Buddhism for many centuries. In a classic four-line summary, Zen Buddhism is described as the following:

– A special transmission external to the scriptures

– Not supported by words or letters

– Pointing directly at the human mind

– Looking directly at nature and reaching Buddha’s state

This “lead-point” technique is Zen Buddhism’s special flavor. It chooses to present the facts as they are, with no commentary, which is typical of the Japanese mind, which is more intuitive than intellectual. Zen Buddhism teachers are not adept at the word and hate all kinds of theorization and speculation. In this way they developed methods that directly point to the truth, with sudden and spontaneous actions and words, which expose paradoxes of conceptual thought and, like koans, that are oriented to stop the mental process of thought, thus preparing the student for mystical experience. This technique looks very well illustrated in the following examples of short conversations between teacher and disciple. The majority of Zen Buddhism literature is comprised of these conversations, in which teachers use their words to redirect the disciple’s attention away from abstract ideas and toward concrete reality.

One day, a monk, asking for instruction, said to Bodhidharma: “I have no peace of mind. Please, calm my mind.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring your mind here to my front, and I will appease it to you.” The monk said, But when I look for my own mind, I can’t find it.” “That!” Bodhidharma replied energetically, “I’ve appeased your mind.”

One monk said to Joshu: “Please show me the path to enlightenment.” Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice?” The monk replied: “Yes, I’ve already eaten.” Joshu says: “Then you’d better wash your dish to enlighten.”

These dialogues show another aspect of Zen Buddhism that is characteristic. Enlightenment in Zen Buddhism does not mean withdrawing from the world, but on the contrary, an active participation in daily life. This view attracted much to the Chinese mentality that placed great importance on a practical and productive life and the idea of the perpetuation of the family, so he could not accept the monastic character of Hindu Buddhism. Teachers always emphasized that Zen Buddhism, was in our daily experiences, the “feed of every day,” as Ma-tsu proclaimed. Awakening in the middle of daily activities was emphasized and they made it very clear that they saw daily life, not only as the way to achieve enlightenment, but as the enlightenment itself.

In Zen Buddhism, satori means the immediate experience of Buddha nature of all things. First and most important among these, there are objects, facts and people involved in daily life, so that although it emphasizes the practical things of life, Zen Buddhism is still deeply mystical. Living entirely in the present, giving full attention to daily matters, someone who has achieved satori experiences the admiration and mystery of life in every situation: “How wonderful and how mysterious this is. I carry the wood, I sack water from the well.” Zen Buddhism’s perfection is therefore to live daily life naturally and spontaneously. When Po-chang was asked to define Zen Buddhism, he said, “When I’m hungry, I eat; when I’m tired, I sleep.” Like so many other things in Zen Buddhism, this is actually a pretty difficult task despite the fact that it appears to be simple and obvious. It takes a great deal of spiritual effort and a lot of training to regain our original naturalness. A very famous Zen saying goes like this: “Before studying Zen, the mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, the mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you reach the benightment the mountains are mountains again and rivers are rivers again”.

Although the foundation for this emphasis is solely Buddhist, the emphasis on spontaneity and naturalness clearly demonstrates the Taoist tradition. It is the realization that the enlightenment process merely consists of transforming ourselves into what we were created to be, and the belief in the perfection of our original nature. When Master Po Chang was asked about looking for the Buddha nature, he replied, “It’s very similar to riding the ox while searching for the ox.” Zen Buddhism is neither a reasoning nor a theory. It is not understandable knowledge of the intellect alone. It’s a practice, an experience. At the same time objective and subjective, since it does not separate these two complementary points of view, in the same way that it does not dissociate the body and the spirit, physiology and psychology, the conscious and the unconscious, but makes a call to the whole being. In this sense, it corresponds to the aspirations that currently guide the progress of modern civilization, which tries to overcome the categories, narrow separations, divisions in all domains. “We must harmonize the opposites, going back to their origin. This is the Zen attitude, the Way of Harmony: encompassing contradictions, making their synthesis and realizing balance,” said teacher Taisen Deshimaru. At the base of the awakening is self-knowledge. This point is and was the essential of the teaching of many philosophies and religions, although it is true that this search for knowledge of itself has led to selfishness and individualism. Today, after the discoveries of deep psychology and psychoanalysis, the conception of self and self has evolved and cannot be comprehended with a rational objective study of consciousness, nor with purely intellectual analysis. On the other hand, it seems that man cannot live based simply on social, religious and moral values outside him. He currently needs an interior entrenchment, discovered and lived in the depths of himself. Life in society educates man according to conditions that teaches him to judge good and evil according to criteria that are more of an acquired habit than a really lived notion. Moreover, everyone is aware of this state of events, which produces one of the most important factors of the discomfort felt by individuals. All this leads us to a more acute and more personal inner search, and brings us closer to the problem in a different way: What is the nature of man and the universe? What is life? What is death? Neither science nor religion, through the history of men, has provided a satisfactory response. “We, as a body and spirit, are life” is the answer of Zen Buddhism.  The fact of living and profoundly realizing this body-spiritus unity makes us discover the source of life in ourselves, here and now. This feeling of life is the universal thing in us and we in the universal, beyond the ego and beyond life and death, in the interdependence of all existences. This feeling of universal unity is the basis of the love that unites everything that lives.

Zen Buddhism in the Western Thinking

Many contemporary Western thinkers have been sensitive to Zen Buddhism teaching and have expressed interest in it. For example psychoanalysts C. G. Jung, Erich Fromm and Karen Horney. Also eminent philosophers such as Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Martin Baber and Simone Weil. The great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, catholic mystic Thomas Merton, as well as many writers such as Dr. Paul Chauchard and German Eugen Herrigel, Americans Henri Miller and Alan Watts, the English R. H. Blyth and Christmas Humphrey, as well as other artists such as Braque, Picasso or French choreographer Maurice Bejart. You can also find echoes of the Zen Buddhism spirit, of its attitude to life, in the works of Goethe, William Blake and Emerson, as well as in the great Christian mystics such as Master Eckart, Tauler and Suso in the 15th century, and Jacob Boehme in the 17th century.

Zazen (Zen Meditation)

Zazen is the basis of Zen practice. It recreates the Buddha’s sitting in Bodh Gaya under the Bodhi tree that led him to enlightenment and which later became the lessons about mindfulness and concentration taught in the Eightfold Path. Without Zazen there is no Zen Buddhism. Zazen is the practice of Buddha, the practice of awakening of consciousness. Thanks to Zazen we find great inner freedom and great energy in our lives. The teaching of the Zen Buddhism can only be transmitted from heart to heart, from being to be, from teacher to disciple. The master-disciple relationship is therefore fundamental. By Zazen, you make your body unite with the universe and the essence of all things and consequently you are ego-free.  Living according to the Law of Buddha, you bring lucid judgments and full of wisdom. Zazen means absorption of consciousness in its own original light through perfect stability of the body and mind. To achieve this peaceful balance, we must take into account three fundamental aspects:

– Correct body position

– Fair breath

– Attitude of just conscience

The lotus position is, par excellence, Zazen’s natural position. In the lotus posture, the feet press on each thigh areas containing important acupuncture points corresponding to the meridians of the liver, vesicles and kidneys, encouraging and strengthening them. The pelvis must be tipped forward at the level of the fifth lumbar vertebra. This way the mass of the internal organs is free and placed forward, which allows them to function more optimally and at the same time lightens the load of the spine. The spine must be as upright as possible, respecting its natural curves. The chin should be collected and the neck should be stretched. The navel and the nose should be on the same vertical line. The neck is relaxed and the shoulders fall naturally. The mouth is closed, without crispness. The tongue’s tip touches the upper palate during Zazen. The eyes are semi-closed, the look is, in fact, back inward. You don’t look at anything, although you can see everything. The head should not fall forward or backward either, but stay right on the shoulders. The thumbs should not plummet or climb, but remain in a perfect horizontality.


Zen Buddhism breathing plays a fundamental role in meditation and in all the actions of daily life. First of all it is aimed at establishing a slow, natural powerful rhythm. This breathing is essentially based on a long and deep breath. The first thing a beginner should do is watch his breath carefully and become intimate with it. The most important areas that act directly on breathing are thoracic box, dorsal muscles, pectoral muscles, diaphragm, intercostal muscles and abdominal muscles. During Zazen, brain cortex rests and the conscious flow of thoughts stops, while blood flows into the deeper layers of the brain. Better irrigated, the brain wakes up from a semi-dream and its activity gives an impression of well-being, calm and serenity, close to deep sleep, but in the middle of vigil. The nervous system relaxes, the primitive brain enters into activity. You are receptive and are attentive, in the highest degree, through all the cells of the body. You think with the body, unconsciously, without using energy. It is not a question of wanting to stop thoughts, which would be even worse, but of letting them pass like clouds in the sky, as reflections in a mirror, without being opposed or sticked to. In this way, the shadows pass and fade. And little by little, once the images of the subconscious emerge and disappear, you reach the deep subconscious. When the intellect empties and becomes serene and peaceful, nothing can stop the current of deep, intuitive, unlimited life that arises from the depths of our being and that is before any thought. This is the eternal flow of the activity of the whole. Sitting without any goal, you can understand MUSHOTOKU and HISHIRYO, secrets of the essence of Zen Buddhism. But this understanding is different from that of common sense or that of intellect. It’s direct perception.

MUSHOTOKU is the philosophy of non-use, of the non-hope to acquire. It is the essential principle of Zen Buddhism. Giving without expecting anything in return; leaving it all without fear of losing; just looking inward. To create a true masterpiece, whether it be in the form of a painting, a sculpture, or any other work of art, the artist must have a complete and total understanding of their craft and must be willing to fully immerse themselves in the process, letting go of any desire for recognition, material gain, or personal glory. In this way, they can produce a work that is pure, authentic, and truly beautiful.

Similarly, in the pursuit of wisdom and self-discovery, it is essential to approach the process with a similar level of commitment and focus. The seeker must be willing to let go of their own self-interests, to surrender fully to the journey, and to allow themselves to be transformed by the experience. Only by doing so can they hope to achieve a deep understanding of themselves and the world around them.

HISHIRYO is the cosmic consciousness. We can experience it during Zazen. During Zazen all kinds of thoughts fall into our minds, but if we concentrate deeply on our posture and breathing, we can get rid of thoughts, forget about all daily disturbance and harmonize with cosmic thinking. The subconscious thus emerges to the surface, thanks to this abandonment. Thoughts lengthen, deeply widen and reach universal consciousness.  During Zazen, you breathe slowly, deeply, and the agitated spirit is allowed to calm down like. The beneficial effects will quickly be felt: everyday concerns stop worrying us, move away and ultimately appear as what they are: small and insignificant waves on the surface of ourselves. Gradually, anguish becomes safety, incessant restive restlessness into a previously unknown calm and first announcement of deep serenity. A sense of relief, of recovered balance, begins to manifest.

This is what really happens and what, in fact, have now been confirmed by doctors from the University of Tokyo, Europe and America, who have examined the physiological effects of the Zazen on the meditative practitioners. Control of breathing moderates and appeases the rhythm of the heart, regularizes circulation, causes nerve tension to decrease. The deep spiration of the Zazen expels the carbon gas waste that usually accumulates in the lungs and producing nervousness and anxiety. The degree of lactic acid in the blood, a factor of aggressiveness, drops very sensitively while stretching the spine helps you gain agility and releases the nerve contractions. Finally, and above all, the functioning of the brain is modified very significantly, moving from the activity of the surface layers to the deep layers. Alpha waves appear quickly, which gives rise to a completely different state of consciousness than that of everyday life, at the same time more relaxed and more insightful, more sensitive and awake. But we must point out that this is not in any way an abnormal or ecstatic state, but on the contrary, a return to the natural and normal conditions of the physical-psychic functioning of the human being. The people who practice Zazen regularly have this feeling of taking possession of themselves again, of finding themselves again, beyond the crispness, of the distortions, in the original, primitive situation, which must be that of every man. Everyone can do Zazen. There is no medical contraindication. And while Zazen’s goal is by no means cure, the most flawed physiological conditions can be significantly improved with his practice.

Zen and Psychology

The notion of cosmic unconscious has given psychology a dimension it did not previously have. The development of the personality linked to the universal transcends the limits of the individual and the ego in particular. Inner dynamism tends towards unity and overcoming contradictions, starting with the notion of life and death. The nature of consciousness is special and deeply studied in the Zen Buddhism. One image clearly illustrates the transformation that is in place: it is the image of the door that symbolically separates the conscious from the unconscious. This door only usually opens outwards, but it should become “battler,” free. The Zen Buddhism is the path without quagmires. It teaches us to become aware of our own resources and the deep humanity that is in each of us.

Zen and Quality of Life

The Zen Buddhism develops a high degree of self-consciousness and inner peace. Abandoning individual selfishness and learning to reassure the mind, you can access the inner flow of activity and energy and intuitive knowledge. This is the wisdom that leads us to Wisdom through the Gate of Silence and without desire for personal gain.

Keep your hands open, all the desert sand will pass through your hands. Close your hands, you’ll only get a handful of sand.

– Master Doge

Zen and Freedom

Transcend the limits of one’s own conflicts, feeling one with the others, driving naturally is the way of freedom. True freedom is inner. It means self-confidence. In this way it is possible to conform to the external rules and inwardly stay free. The Zen Buddhism is at the heart of philosophy but its essence cannot be reached by thought. This wisdom that is not intellectual speculation, but motor force, the art of living and way of being.

Zen and Daily Life

To purify the spirit you don’t have to stop the activity. Zen Buddhism is not a technique of evasion or flight. On the contrary, Zazen practice develops our energy and concentrates it on the present moment, allows us to face everyday reality with a calm, with an insight, with objectivity, of which we did not believe we were capable, and that surprise us. Faced with the difficulties, against the problems, there is a just and effective reaction, of course, spontaneously, since we have uncovered the internal obstacles that made it impossible for us before. We must find our true inner peace in activity.

Zen and Art

Zen Buddhism was in the past the ferment of prodigious renewal, first in China, and then in Japan. In the extreme East civilizations, classical painting and poetry, which count among their eminent Zen Buddhism monks representatives, were permeated by the conception of nature and man’s relations with it inspired by Zen Buddhism. This has been one of the factors that has allowed them to keep intact over the centuries their freshness, and their unparalleled sobriety, so appreciated in our day. In this case, artistic creation comes from an intimate communication with the elements and stations. And it can only be born of the artist’s detachment to himself and from his perception of the hidden structures of the world around him, since his mission is to reveal the secret harmony of things. In this way, each being is in its right place, with no notion of privilege. Zen Buddhism calligraphies emerge from a single stroke, and cannot be retouched or fixed, and yet, this spontaneity is only obtained through a long practice and a long and patient inner maturation. Many Western artists are now sensitive to this promise of renewal that contains the Zen Buddhism.

Final Words

All sentient beings possess a Buddha nature, and Zen Buddhism emphasizes that this nature is nothing more than the mind itself. The practice of Zen Buddhism aims to discover each person’s Buddha nature, through daily meditation and mindfulness. Zen Buddhism practitioners believe that this work will lead to a new perspective and understanding of existence and ultimately to enlightenment. Zen can be considered an anti-rule or anti-theoretical teaching. In Zen there is no scripture, no dogma. Zen Buddhism does not force its followers to accept any belief. In Zen Buddhism, knowing something may not turn it into an inner truth. That is why personal experience and personal life are more important than anything else. In a broad definition, Zen is the way of realizing our own depth, above all by putting forward the creative and free power of our mind, by dealing not with a set of general concepts but with the living facts of life, by detaching the mind from the duality between subject and object, by transcending the mind and understanding. This way, the end of the Zen path is Nirvana.

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