In the West we hear often about Zen Buddhism. This is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, as a means of attaining enlightenment.
The history of Zen Buddhism spans over a thousand year period and encompassing a diverse range of cultural and historical contexts. Zen, also known as Chan in China and Thien in Vietnam,
Zen Buddhism originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), when it was known as Chan Buddhism. Chan was influenced by Daoism and Confucianism, as well as earlier forms of Buddhism that had been brought to China from India and Central Asia.
The founder of Chan Buddhism is traditionally considered to be Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who is said to have traveled from India to China in the 5th or 6th century A.D.. According to legend, Bodhidharma sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years in a cave near the Shaolin Temple, where he eventually became the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism.
Chan Buddhism emphasized the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, as a means of attaining enlightenment. This practice involved sitting in a lotus posture, with the spine straight and the eyes half-closed, and focusing the mind on the breath or a koan, or paradoxical riddle, in order to develop mindfulness, concentration, and insight into the nature of reality.
Chan Buddhism also emphasized the importance of direct experience, rather than relying solely on scriptures or intellectual understanding. It taught that enlightenment could be attained through the direct experience of one’s true nature, which was often described as “emptiness” or “no-self.”
During the Tang dynasty, Chan Buddhism flourished in China, attracting many followers and developing into a distinct form of Mahayana Buddhism. Chan was particularly popular among the educated elite, who were attracted to its emphasis on direct experience and its rejection of traditional Confucian values.
One of the most famous Chan masters of the Tang dynasty was Huineng, who is considered to be the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism. Huineng emphasized the importance of sudden enlightenment, or the idea that enlightenment could be attained in a single moment of insight, rather than through gradual practice over time.
After the Tang dynasty, Chan Buddhism continued to flourish in China, but it also spread to other parts of East Asia, including Korea and Japan. In Korea, Chan Buddhism became known as Son Buddhism, while in Japan, it became known as Zen Buddhism.
Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 12th century CE by the monk Eisai, who had studied Chan Buddhism in China. Eisai established the Rinzai school of Zen, which emphasized the use of koans, or paradoxical riddles, as a means of breaking through conceptual thinking and attaining direct insight into reality.
Another influential figure in the development of Zen Buddhism in Japan was the monk Dogen, who founded the Soto school of Zen. Dogen emphasized the practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” which involved sitting in meditation without any particular object of focus, in order to develop a clear and open awareness of the present moment.
Zen Buddhism had a significant impact on Japanese culture, influencing the development of art, literature, and philosophy. Zen gardens, tea ceremonies, and calligraphy are just a few examples of the ways in which Zen aesthetics and values have been incorporated into Japanese culture.
In the 20th century, Zen Buddhism began to spread to the West, where it attracted many followers and influenced the development of new forms of spirituality and personal growth. Zen meditation practices, in particular, became popular among Westerners seeking a way to develop mindfulness, reduce stress, and cultivate a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Today, Zen Buddhism continues to be practiced and studied around the world, with many different schools and traditions emphasizing different aspects of Zen practice and philosophy. While the history of Zen Buddhism is complex with many perspectives and influences, it is clear that this school of Buddhism has had a meaningful impact on the development of Asian culture and spirituality, as well as on the wider world of philosophy and spirituality.
Although in the West, Buddhist imagery is increasingly appropriated by modern pop culture and also for commercial use, there are not that many serious adherents. Over 60% of Buddhists in America profess to be certain or fairly certain in the belief in God. This does not fit into Buddhist core philosophy.As of 2022, approximately 1.2% of the U.S. population identified as Buddhist.