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What is Zen, and how does it differ from other schools of Buddhism?

Through the centuries, Indian Buddhism gradually spawned hundreds of sects and sub-sects, and thousands of scriptures, and tens of thousands of commentaries on those scriptures. When Buddhism spread over Central Asian trade routes to China, all this material came at once. The Chinese were blasted with a cacophony of religious insight that was exotic, extravagant and, most importantly, foreign. The Chinese had long cherished their own twin traditions of Confucianism and Taoism and were resistant to ideologies introduced by barbarians from beyond the borders of the "Middle Kingdom." There was also a severe linguistic challenge for the Chinese in digesting the Buddhist message from abroad. The Sanskrit language was so different from Chinese in sensibility and syntax that translation was almost impossible.

Gradually, Indian and Central Asian Buddhism began to be reshaped by its encounter with Chinese culture. This reshaping eventually led to the creation of Zen, an entirely new school of Buddhism. (The word "Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese "Ch'an," which means "meditation." Here we use "Zen" because it is the word generally used in the West. Ch'an, though, did not come to Japan and become "Zen" until around the eighth century.)

Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of Zen in China. He is said to have arrived in China about 520. (Buddhism had by then been known in China for about 400 years.) He was soon summoned to the emperor, who had questions for him. "According to the teachings, how do I understand the merit I have accrued in building temples and making donations to monks?" the emperor asked. Bodhidharma, usually depicted as a scowling, hooded, bearded figure, shot back, "There is no merit." "What then is the meaning of the Buddha's Holy Truths?" the emperor asked. "Empty, nothing holy," Bodhidharma replied. Shocked, the emperor imperiously asked, "Who addresses me thus?" "I don't know," Bodhidharma replied, turned on his heel and left the court, to which he never returned.

He repaired to a distant monastery, where, it is said, he sat facing a wall for nine years, in constant meditation. A single disciple sought him out, and to test the disciple's sincerity, Bodhidharma refused to see him. The disciple stood outside in the snow all night long. In the morning he presented Bodhidharma with his severed arm as a token of his seriousness. The monk become Bodhidharma's heir, and thus began the Zen transmission in China. So, at least, the story goes.
This legend illustrates Zen's style and values. Zen is a pithy, stripped-down, determined, uncompromising, cut-to-the-chase, meditation-based Buddhism that takes no interest in doctrinal refinements. Not relying on scripture, doctrine or ritual, Zen is verified by personal experience and is passed on from master to disciple, hand to hand, ineffably, through hard, intimate training.

Just don't seek from others,
Or you'll be far estranged from Self.
I now go on alone;
Everywhere I meet It:
It now is me; I now am It.
One must understand in this way
To merge with thusness.

Dongshan Liangjie

Though Zen recognizes-at least loosely-the validity of normative Buddhist scriptures, it has created its own texts over the generations. Liberally flavored with doses of Taoism and Confucianism and Chinese poetry, and written in informal language studded with Chinese folk sayings and street slang, Zen literature is built on legendary anecdotes of the great masters. Buddha is barely mentioned, and when he is he is often playfully reviled. "Old man Shakyamuni," the saying goes, "is only halfway there."

Although the Zen school created controversy at first in all the countries it spread to, it eventually became by far the most successful school of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. By the mid-1980's, the Zen traditions of all these countries had been transmitted to America.

Zen Methods

Although Zen eventually developed traditions of study and ritual, its emphasis on personal experience has always made it a practice-oriented tradition. The practice is meditation. "Sitting Zen" (Japanese: zazen) has, as Bodhidharma's legend shows, always been central in Zen training centers, where monks rise early each morning for meditation practice and do long retreats consisting of many, many silent unmoving hours on the cushion. Zazen is an intensely simple practice. It is generally taught without steps, stages or frills. "Just sit!" the master admonishes, by which he or she means, sit upright in good posture, paying careful attention to breathing in your belly until you are fully alert and present. This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen, and although there are many approaches to Zen meditation, they all come back to this. Life's secret, life's essence, and the truth and power of Buddhist liberation all come down to this intense and illuminated presence which is beyond words and concepts. Though it cannot be explained, it can be experienced and expressed through the daily actions of a Zen life.

Because the practice of intensive zazen is so central, Zen practice is essentially monastic. That is to say, it depends on a life that allows for long periods of concentrated meditation. In the Zen monastery, life is entirely organized around sitting in the meditation hall. But zazen is also understood to be something more than this sitting. It is conceived of as a state of mind or being that extends into all activities. Work is zazen; eating is zazen; sleeping, walking, standing, going to the toilet-all are zazen practice. In Soto Zen, the Japanese school practiced extensively in the West, there is an especially strong emphasis on this "moving Zen."

Zen schools are more or less divisible into those that emphasize a curriculum of verbal meditation objects-like koans-and those that do not. Emphasizing daily life practice as zazen, Soto Zen centers generally do not work with a set koan curriculum and method, though koans are studied and contemplated. Because of this, Soto Zen has traditionally been criticized by the koan schools (the best-known koan school is the Rinzai school of Japan) as dull, overly precious and quietistic, in contrast to the dynamic and lively engagement of the koan path. But the koan way also has its critics, who see the emphasis on words, meaning and insight as working against real non-conceptual Zen living. Koan training systems also have the disadvantage of fostering competition and obsession with advancement in the system.

To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget oneself is to be actualized by myriad things.
When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.

Dogen Zenji

In koan Zen, contemplation of a koan begins with zazen practice. The practitioner comes to intense presence with body and breath, and then brings up the koan almost as a physical object, repeating it over and over again with breathing, until words and meaning dissolve and the koan is "seen." This practice is done in the context of an intensive retreat led by a qualified Zen koan teacher. Like all systems, the koan system can degenerate into a self-protective and self-referential enclosure. It's the teacher's job to see that this doesn't happen, but sometimes it is not preventable. There are many different systems of koan study, but most of them emphasize humor, spontaneity and openness. The koan method is, at its best, a unique and marvelous expression of human religious sensibility.

Zen Schools

Zen has had a long and varied history in several different Far Eastern cultures. Each culture has produced a tradition that is recognizable as Zen, but differs slightly from all the others. Vietnamese Zen is the one most influenced by the Theravada tradition. It tends to be gentle in expression and method, to emphasize purity and carefulness, and to combine Zen with some Theravadin teaching and methodology. In China, Zen eventually became the only Buddhist school, inclusive of all the others, so contemporary Ch'an includes many faith-based Mahayana practices that existed initially in other Buddhist schools, especially faith in and repetition of the name of Amida Buddha, the savior Buddha who will ensure rebirth in an auspicious heaven to those who venerate him. Korean Zen is the most stylized and dramatic of the Zen schools, and also the most austere. Korean Zen includes prostration practice (repeated, energetic full-to-the-floor bows of veneration) and intensive chanting practice, and has a hermit tradition, something virtually unknown in Japanese Zen.

Within each of the Asian Zen traditions there are several schools, and within schools the styles of individual teachers often differ greatly. Still, it is remarkable how essentially similar the various teachers within a particular Zen "dharma family" can be in personal style and mode of expression, even though, paradoxically, each one is quite distinctive and individualistic. This uncanny fact-radical individuality within the context of shared understanding-seems to be an indelible feature of Zen.

Lineage and Teacher

A key Zen story, shared by all the schools: Once Buddha was giving a talk on Vulture Peak. In the middle of the talk he paused and held up a flower. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile. Buddha then said, "I have the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the ineffable mind of Nirvana, the real form of No Form, the flawless gate of the Teaching. Not dependent on words, it is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust it to Mahakasyapa."

This story, however historically unverifiable, represents the beginning of the Zen transmission, said to start directly with the Buddha. The story tells us two things: first, although the Buddha taught many true and useful teachings and techniques, the essence of what he taught is simple and ineffable. Holding up a flower is one expression of this essence. Second, the very simplicity and ineffability of this essential teaching requires that it be handed on from master to disciple in mutual wordless understanding. While wordless understanding seems a bit mystical and precious, it may not be as strange as it seems. We are all familiar with the transformation that takes place in apprenticeship and mentorship relationships, processes that involve a wordless give and take between individuals, and in which something quite hard to define is passed on. feel it.

While Zen practice can be done without benefit of a teacher, having a teacher is important, and, in the end, crucial if one is to realize the depth of Zen practice and make it completely one's own. Although the Zen teacher must embody Zen and express it in all his or her words and deeds, a Zen teacher is not exactly a guru, a Buddha archetype at the center of a student's practice. To be sure, respect for and confidence in the teacher is essential if one is to undergo the transformation in consciousness that Zen promises. But the Zen teacher is also an ordinary, conditioned human being, simply a person, however much he or she has realized of Zen. This paradox-that the teacher is to be appreciated as a realized spiritual adept and at the same time as an ordinary individual with rough edges and personality quirks-seems to go to the heart of Zen's uniqueness. Through the relationship to the teacher, the student comes to embrace all beings, including himself or herself, in this way.

Taking the Path of Zen in the West

In the West, however, most Zen practitioners are not monastics. While this may seem strange, it is not at all strange if we consider "monastic" to be an attitude and a level of seriousness, more than a particular lifestyle. Unlike Zen laypeople in Asia, whose main practice is to support the monastic establishment, Western Zen lay practitioners want to understand Zen deeply and to practice it thoroughly, regardless of what their life circumstances may be. In this sense, all Western Zen students are "monastic," regardless of their life circumstances. All of them do some form of monastic-style training within the context of their lay lives. They sit meditation regularly, either at home or at a local temple, attend retreats and live their daily lives with full attention (or at least coming as close to this as they possibly can). They take lay or priest vows, and even sometimes enter monastic training at one or more Zen centers for periods of time.

Norman Fischer, "Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer"

Soto and Rinzai Zen

The two main contemporary schools of Zen, Soto and Rinzai, have their roots in the Chinese Caodong and Linji schools of a thousand years ago. These two branches of Zen were transmitted to Japan around 1200.

The distinctions between the schools goes back to to teachers, Shitou and Mazu. While Shitou's style was gentle and harmonious emphasizing the skillful use of words, Mazu's demeanor was stern and uncompromising, often using shouts and blows. This difference in style was carried through their descendants until the founders of the Rinzai and Soto schools, Linji (J. Rinzai) and Dongshan (J. Tozan).taught ( Ch. Ts'ao, J. So).


Soto's style of practice can be traced back to Shitou (700-790) whose poem "The Harmony of Difference and Sameness" (Sandoaki) is an important early expression of Zen Buddhism and is chanted in Soto temples to this day. Two masters in Shitou's lineage, Dongshan and his disciple Caoshan,are so closely associated with each other that heir names were used together to form the name of their Zen school, Caodong (which became Soto in Japan).

One of Donshan's poems "The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness" is also still chanted in Soto temples. Another set of poems on the Five Positions of Absolute and Relative is important as a set of koans used in the Rinzai school.

It was Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200-1253). who transmitted Caodong Zen to Japan. Dogen Zenji is probably the most revered figure in all Japanese Zen. Yet only recently has he become read and studied in the West, perhaps because that great popularizer of Zen in the West, D. T. Suzuki, followed the Rinzai school and managed to essentially ignore Dogen throughout his voluminous writings.

But it was Dogen who first insisted on intensive meditation, who produced the first Japanese writings explaining Zen practice, and who constructed the first real Zen monastery in Japan, establishing a set of monastic rules still observed. Moreover, the strength of his character has inspired many Zen masters to follow.


RInzai Zen is said to be founded by Linji (J. Rinzai). Linji is known for his dramatic and iconoclastic style which is recorded in The Record of Linji.

Although Eisai is credited with bringing Rinzai to Japan, it was Hakuin Zenji who reformed and gave Rinzai Zen its impetus, formulating Japanese Rinzai koan practice and reviving Rinzai Zen in Japan. Endowed with enormous personal force and spirit, Hakuin was a rarity among Zen Masters and a lion among men. He was an accomplished artist and calligrapher and a voluminous author—he left a written legacy that is arguably the most extensive of the masters of the Chan or Zen, traditions. His caustic tongue and pen were legendary, and his words still breathe fire today. Yet his compassion was equal to his fire, and he was beloved by the common folk of his time and remains a favorite among lay practitioners of Zen. Hakuin single-handedly transformed the moribund Rinzai school into a tradition focused on arduous meditation and koan practice. Essentially all modern practitioners of Rinzai Zen use practices directly derived from the teachings of Hakuin.

Although hybrids schools like the Harada-Yasutani line of Zen are not part of the Rinzai lineage, these lines comprise the greater part of Western Zen; and, some of these teachers were, in fact, Rinzai Dharma heirs. Teachers, like Roshi Robert Aitken were at one time students of Rinzai Teachers.

How different?

Shitou jousted with Mazu, and they often swapped students, Mazu sent his pupils on their way with a wink and the advice that Shitou was "slippery."

Much has been made about the differences between Rinzai and Soto Zen. Writers and teachers often emphasize Rinzai's emphasis on kensho (seeing into one's self nature) and Soto's emphasis on zazen, but this has lead to the misconception taht Soto rejects the concept of enlightenment and Rinzai practitioners don't practice zazen. There also seems to be misinformation regarding koan practice or study. Koans are examples drawn from the awakening of past practitioners and often seem to be illogical or intuitive. But they are not puzzles to be solved or intuited. They are expressions of awakening.

Both Rinzai and Soto Zen Buddhists study koans and practice zazen. The differences are of a more subtle nature. To even say Rinzai "stresses" koans over zazen would be inaccurate. It is accurate to say that Soto Zen continues to consider the practice of zazen to be the sole means of realization. But Soto Zen has never discarded the koan. Soto teachers lecture on koans and their students study koans outside the practice of zazen. Soto Zen practices zazen as awakening itself to the already realized koan. In Rinzai Zen practice, a koan is examined while sitting in order to deepen insight.

Isshu Miura says that the difference of the Rinzai Zen school from Soto is that "zazen is, first of all, the preliminary practice by means of which mind and body are forged into a single instrument for realization. Only the student who has achieved some competency in zazen practice is, or should be, permitted to undertake the study of a koan. Proficiency in zazen is the basic ground for koan study. During the practice of zazen the koan is handled. To state that it is used as the subject of meditation is to state the fact incorrectly. The koan is taken over by the prepared instrument, and, when a fusion of instrument and device takes place, the state of consciousness is achieved which it is the intent of the koan to illumine and in this instant the koan is resolved." He also writes: "When the koan is resolved it is realized to be a simple and clear statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken."


Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer
Norman Fischer

See the Study section for Zen learning resources.