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Modern Zen 101:
The History and Evolution of Zen Buddhism

By Scott Shaw

Zen, the word conjures up images of robed individuals, with the heads shaved, walking placidly through a garden like environment, consciously communing with nature.

Zen, the term depicts a Master seated in lotus posture with his mind unswayable from the deep realms of meditation.

Zen, the expression brings images to the mind of the simple, yet extremely beautiful paintings of ancient artists who portrayed the Asian landscape with the exacting detail, using only simple brush strokes.

Zen describes meditation and solitude.

Zen defines a road to Nirvana that has been portrayed as a distant plateau, obtainable only by the most holy.

But, Zen is much more than all of this.

The foundations of Zen were laid centuries ago. The roots of Zen can be traced to the teaching of Siddhartha Guatama, the Sakyamuni Buddha, who lived and taught in India beginning in the fifth century B.C.E.

The essence of what was later to become known as Zen did not begin to become formalized, however, until the great Buddhist Sage, Bodhidharma, traveled from his native India and became the abbot of the Shoshang (Shaolin) Monastery in China, in the fifth century C.E. Though certainly not the first Buddhist sage to make this journey, he set in motion a pattern of understanding that would effect the patterns of Buddhist thought forever.

Bodhidharma taught the Dharma (universal law). He emphasized the need for the Guru disciple relationship and the absolute necessity of meditation. From Bodhidharma was born a lineage of patriarchs who held the keys to enlightenment and passed this knowledge forward through exacting methods of formalized transmission.

As the centuries progressed, the evolution of Zen was not always a placid pathway. By the seventh century C.E., the Chinese schools of Zen, known as Chan, began to split. This was optimized by the rift which occurred between the fifth patriarch, Hung-jen and his disciple, Hui-neng. Legend states that Hui-neng defeated his master in a spiritual stanza-writing contest. Having demonstrated his superior enlightenment, he was named the sixth patriarch but had to flee the countryside in fear of his teacher's reprisals. From this, two distinct schools of Chan were born, the Northern and the Southern.

From the ramifications of this division, new schools, with unique understandings of Buddhism, begin to come into existence in China - particularly among the Southern teachings of Chan. As time progressed, Chan was forced to overcome many obstacles, particularly political, as the dominated Chinese philosophic mindsets of Taoism and Confucianism were challenged by this evolving philosophy. By the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), however, Chan had established itself as a viable pathway to cosmic consciousness and was accepted into the mainstream of Chinese philosophic and artistic thought.

From China, Buddhism was transmitted to the Korean peninsula, during the 4th century C.E. From Korea it expanded to the island nation of Japan during the 5th century. As Buddhism came to be embraced and extend over Japan, its evolution was no more tranquil than it had been in China. Powerful Buddhist temples were substantiated. These temples held possession over large amount of farmland. The temple patriarchs, known as Gakusho, would lease the land and collect large taxes for its usage. To enforce their land holdings, as well as to engage in expansionistic battles against other Monasteries, they employed, Sohei, who were Buddhist based Samurai warriors.

As time progressed, the Sohei gave birth to the Ronin. The Ronin were a spiritually based wandering Samurai, not completely different from the Sadhu of India, except for the fact that they were extensively trained in the arts of warfare.

It wasn't until 1180 of the Common Era, when the Minamoto family took control over Japan in the Gempei War, that the warring factors gave way to the Kamakura Shogunate. Thus, Royalty was displaced and the first wholly military government came to power. This power structure ruled Japan until 1868. From this unification, political Buddhism was put to rest and the spiritual side of the philosophy was again allowed to flourish.

During this time period, two individuals, who would later become defining elements in the evolution of Zen Buddhism traveled from their native Japan to China in order to study Chan. The first was Eisai (1141-1215). The second was Dogen (1200-1253). Eisai studied the Linji tradition, which came to be known as the Rinzai School in Japan and Dogen studied from the Zaodong sect that became the Soto School. Upon retuning to their native Japan, these two teachers laid the foundations for what has become modern Zen.

Whereas the Soto school of Dogen focused primarily upon meditation as the primary pathway to enlightenment, the Rinzai school of Eisai taught that one may also experience enlightenment by way of the Koan. The Koan is an abstract statement of words that causes the mind to be altered from the normal pattern of thought. Once the mind has shifted away from ordinary thinking, it is able to obtain a glimpse of absolute consciousness or enlightenment.

As the centuries have progressed, Japan has moved to the forefront of Zen. Though various schools have splintered off from the original Soto and Rinzai traditions, the techniques of formalized Zen Buddhism have remained fairly constant, with meditation, a monastic lifestyle, and the practice of Koan contemplation at the heart of the teachings.

Though these pathways have become what are accepted at the traditional depiction of Zen. Zen, itself, is much more than simply a tradition based in formalized contemplation and meditation.

Beginning in the 1940's and more demonstratively during the 1950's and 1960's, Zen began to impact the shores of the Western World. This occurred, hand-in-hand, with the counter-culture revolution that was taking place. The simplicity and cosmic understanding of enlightenment, inherent to Zen, became one of the key mindsets that was embraced by this generation.

At this juncture, again, Zen evolved from its formalized foundations, just as it had done an untold number of times in the past. With this, Zen moved to its next plateau—where it was no longer required that the practitioner live a celibate, meditative lifestyle, locked within the wall of a monastery. Instead, it came to be understood that enlightenment could be touched by everyone.

As this new evolution of Zen took place, there were critics who have claimed that only the established, formalized understanding of Zen, is the true pathway to Buddhahood. But, these critical individuals forget the evolution of this philosophy and how with each passing age it has moved onto new realms of understanding, with new enlightened beings transcending the constrains of human limitations all the time.

Today, Zen has stepped beyond the formalities which has come to define this philosophy and has become more than its established techniques. At its root, Zen is a pathway to instantaneous enlightenment, known in Japanese as, Satori.

Enlightenment is available to anyone who wishes to remove his or her mind from the controlling hands of the known and consciously move to a new level of abstract understanding. To this end, in the pages of this book, modern Zen based ideology, techniques, and experiences will be discussed in a method which can hopefully be appreciated and employed by the everyday individual, who has a job, a family to take care of, and bills to pay.

No longer is Nirvana only available to the monk sitting in a monastery. Nirvana is Here. Nirvana is Now. And, it can be experienced by anyone who has the mind to embrace this cosmic understanding.
 

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