The Japanese form of Buddhism known as Zen is a system of MEDITATION and sustained self-discipline aimed at transforming completely the everyday experience of its adherents through teachings of insight and self-awareness.
Buddhism began in India in the 6th century BC, from where it was taken to China in AD 520 by a monk named Bodhidharma. The type of meditation he taught became known in China as ch’an. In the 12th century it was introduced into Japan, where it has flourished ever since as Zen.
In Buddhism, the sense of a fixed personal identity is seen as the strongest illusion standing in the way of enlightenment. Every-one wants to believe that the ‘self or personality with which they identify is a permanent one, but Buddhism holds that everything has to change – including this. Teaching Centre son helping you to see yourself as part of a never-ending process of change, and of loosening your attachment to a particular self-image.
Who it can help
Zen meditation and training aims to help anyone who feels the need for a deeper level of insight and self-awareness in their daily life, or is dissatisfied with the materialistic ‘I-centered’ way of life that dominates Western society. The new perspective taught by Zen and the effects of practicing techniques such as meditation may also help with problems such as STRESS, ANXIETY and DEPRESSION that are aspects of daily life for many Westerners.
Seeing a Zen teacher
Zen aims at developing kind of direct understanding based on intuition and going beyond normal thought and reason. Three main techniques are used: daily life practice, meditation, and special anecdotes, riddles and puzzles which are designed to carry thought beyond the limits of the intellect.
Seeing a teacher Zen aims at developing kind of direct understanding based on intuition and going beyond normal thought and reason. Three main techniques are used: daily life practice, meditation, and special anecdotes, riddles and puzzles which are designed to carry thought beyond the limits of the intellect.
Daily life practices
The aim is to apply the Buddhist principle of ‘Mind Emptiness‘ in every waking moment. This means being continually aware of your own responses, and devoting yourself fully to each activity as you perform it, rather than wishing you were doing something else or saying, ‘I want…’or, ‘If only…
The difficulty here lies in overcoming the common desire to hang onto your illusions and desires – even though they can cause anger, frustration and disappointment.
Zen teaches that by seeing these negative feelings for what they really are, by accepting and ‘suffering through’ them, the willful, demanding side of the personality can be tamed. In this state happiness and good fortune are gratefully accepted when they come, but the student does not become attached to them, since he knows that, like everything else, they will pass.
Meditation known as za-zen (literally, sitting meditation’), this is really a special kind of daily life practice. Meditators sit cross legged on cushions, with weight balanced equally on buttocks and knees, the spine erect and the head balanced upright.
At first, they learn to meditate by silently counting their breaths from one to ten. When other thoughts arise, the meditator must set them aside without dwelling on them, and start the count again.
Za-zen is often both physically and mentally uncomfortable. Maintaining the same posture for long periods can be painful, and meditation forces students to confront the turmoil of their own restless thoughts.
With practice, however, meditators learn to let thoughts come and go without making judgments about them. Eventually, a state is reached where the sitter is aware without there being a personal ‘I’ who is aware.
Za-zen is practiced daily, either privately or in a group. Occasionally, there are longer periods of meditation known as sesshin, which can go on for hours or even days.
Anecdotes, riddles and puzzles Zen abounds with stories, conundrums, parables and paradoxes intended to trap’ or jolt the rational mind, freeing the student for new ways of thinking. For example, one story tells of two monks looking at a flag flapping in the breeze and arguing. One says: ‘The flag is moving. The other insists: ‘No, the wind is moving.’ A passing master rebukes them, saying: ‘It is your minds that are moving. ‘Even this, teachers say, is not the last word.
More advanced Zen students are some-times given a koan to meditate on by their teacher. These are puzzles that cannot be understood or solved by reason. Two examples are: “What is the sound of hand clapping?’ and ‘Show me your original face before you were born.
The effect is to confront the intellect with a barrier which no amount of logical thinking can penetrate. Instead, insight may burst in with a response born of the immediate moment- a smile, a shout, the sight of raindrops trickling down a windowpane, for example. The answer is to ‘un-ask the question; the problem lies in calling it a problem.
Zen teaches that with each moment of insight, the stranglehold of the personal ‘I’ on the student’s way of thinking is loosened and a new, deeper understanding grows. With this understanding comes an ability to live comfortably in the present – whatever the circumstances – and a feeling of travelling light’, without strong attachments, in the everyday world.
Zen: An orthodox view
There is a danger that the very unfamiliarity of Zen could make it attractive to some people damaged by or out of touch with everyday life. However, Zen is not a form of psychotherapy and it cannot provide easy relief from mental or emotional troubles. The amount of self-confrontation involved may even make it dangerous for some people with weak psychological defenses. Zen encompasses an approach to life and living founded on an oriental view of the universe. Many of the methods practiced by Zen monks have been introduced into Western stress-reduction programs, but learning them through Zen itself involves embracing the underlying Buddhist philosophy as well.
ZEN GARDEN: Meditating amid beauty and peace
The main purpose of a Zen garden is to provide an ideal outdoor setting for MEDITATION – which Zen Buddhists regard as the basis of their religion and their chief way of reaching spiritual enlightenment. To this end the garden’s traditional focal point is a rock, or small group of rocks, which are meant to take those who view them out of the immediate, everyday world and into a state of mind in which thought can flourish freely.
The rocks are framed in a setting – such as a small backyard, or a corner of a back garden – which separates and distinguishes them from their wider surroundings. The size and nature of the setting, however, is immaterial. The important thing is that the spectator’s eye is led up towards the ‘shrine’ by the layout of the area.
At its simplest, a Zen garden can consist of three or four strategically placed stones, with a foreground of smoothly raked gravel or closely cropped grass. If you already have a garden which is well-planted and secluded, all you need to do is put your ‘shrine’ in place and possibly put down some gravel or a short stretch of grass.
If you have the space, however, you can create a more elaborate garden with converging lines of flowerbeds rising to form a mound behind the rocks. A backdrop of plants can be chosen to match and enhance the shape and size of the rocks. The picture can be ‘framed’ by an overhanging tree. Finally, the setting should be enclosed by a wall, fence, or dense, evergreen bushes which will cut it off from the outside world. This sense of privacy is essential for the setting to be free of everyday associations.
But no two Zen gardens are exactly alike, and a well-designed garden should reflect its creator’s artistic and aesthetic tastes. To achieve this, careful thought should be given to the proportions of the various elements which make up the garden.
The size of the ‘shrine’ must fit in with the total size of the garden. It must not be so large that it dominates the scene, or so small that it may be overlooked at first sight. Consideration must also be given to the amount of earth used for the mound and flanking flowerbeds; to the right amount of open space needed in the foreground (again not too much or too little); and to the height and bulk of the plants used to give the garden its privacy.
The exact balance between these various elements is up to you. If you wish, the arrangement can be a mixture of interwoven shapes, colors and textures – simple overall, but rich in complex and stimulating detail. On the other hand, it can be basic and uncontrived.
However, two important aspects must be borne in mind. Firstly, the rocks should be setoff-center so that they do not merely blend in with the symmetry of the walls behind and on either side of them. Secondly, to achieve the maximum, concentrated effect, the rocks should be arranged as simply and naturally as possible – their different shapes and sizes creating a pleasing but uneven pattern. (Rocks which are too ‘perfectly’ arranged leave little to the onlooker’s imagination.)
The power of such simplicity is graphically shown in the gardens of the Zen Buddhist temples of Daitoku-ji and Ryoan-ji, on the outskirts of the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto. Laid out in the late 15th century, the Ryoan-ji garden consists of 15 large stones set in an expanse of grey-white gravel, which is raked daily. Apart from a few mosses, there are no plants. Even so, the bare beauty of the rocks and their surroundings inspire people throughout the world.
But whichever form of garden is chosen -the complex or the simple – it should provide the perfect setting to encourage and nurture deep and contemplative thought.
The Zen garden at the working temple of Daitoku-ji, in Kyoto, is among the most celebrated of those found in Japan. Simplicity is the keynote, and the ‘shrine’ of grey rocks is fronted by well-raked gravel and backed by shrubs and conifers. The garden is revered by the temple monks and admired by visitors.