Terebess Asia Online (TAO)


Zen in the East & West,
a term paper by Jim Gibbs
of W.P., NY

This paper may be copied freely, and is public domain, however,
it must be copied with this notice, and my name.


A Short Introduction to Buddism and Zen

Buddhism is based on the teachings of a man who was born in
what is now India during the sixth century B.C. He was called by
many names, but the most famous of them are Siddhartha(the one who
has reached the goal), Sakyamuni(sage of the Sakyas), and
Buddha(the enlightened). His was an "ideal" childhood, both
priveleged and protected. His father told the servants not to let
him outside the palace compound where they lived, but the legends
say that he once got away long enough to witness old age and
sickness. These things bothered him, and he set out to find an
answer through religion. He gave up his position and wealth, and
for six years he searched for answers to his questions. After
spending another six years in meditation, he gave up on traditional
religion. He then went to beg for rice, and had his first full
meal since he had left the palace. He then went to meditate under
the Bodhi tree, where he achieved enlightenment. The Buddha then
traveled around India, teaching his beliefs.
Ten years after the Buddha died, a council was assembled to
write down the things that the Buddha had felt and said. This was
necessary because the Buddha had not left any written instructions
regarding his beliefs. At this first council, the people produced
a group of sutras, now held to be the religious tenets of Buddism.
Since the beginnings of Buddhism, many different sects have
been formed within the religion. One of the major sects is called
Zen. Zen is not a religion; there is no God to worship in Zen, and
there are no ceremonial rites to be carried out by the followers of
Zen. The afterlife is not descibed or even mentioned in a positive
way. Many Zen monks feel that there is no afterlife, and that the
purpose of Zen is to achieve happiness by realizing that material
goods don't matter. It is felt by these monks that all unhappiness
comes from material goods and circumstances in the world. It is
also their belief that through Zen, a person can see how
meaningless these things are and be truly happy. Zen has no sacred
books or tenets. It has no set of doctrines that are imposed on
followers, and it has no intellectual analysis to teach. Zen is
against all religious conventionalism. It is also above
conventional meditation. It's purpose is to discipline the mind,
and make it the master of its surroundings.


The Ways of Zen

One of the basic needs of a system like Zen is a leader, and
the leaders of Zen were called Patriarchs. The Patriarch would be
(extremely) roughly analogous to The Pope. There have been a total
of twenty-eight of these men. To give an idea of what life for
early Zen monks was like, and how a Patriarch was chosen, the
following story is given:
The Fifth Patriarch, who ruled in the seventh century A.D.,
decided that he would choose the Sixth Patriarch by means of a sort
of contest: Whichever of his disciples could compose a stanza
showing true understanding of the mind would be made Sixth
Patriarch. The monks assumed that the leading scholar of the
monastery, Shen-hsiu, would win, so they decided not to write
anything at all. Shen-hsiu worked for four days and then
anonymously wrote a stanza on the corridor wall. It ran:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight. [1]

1. Hoover, Thomas. Zen Culture, pg. 47

This verse did not please the Fifth Patriarch, who advised
Shen-hsiu to write another. Before Shen-hsiu had composed
another, an illiterate disciple, named Hui-neng, had the verse
read to him. After hearing it, he dictated a verse to be written
next to it. Hui-neng's verse ran:

The Bodhi (True Wisdom) is not like the tree;
The mirror bright is nowhere shining:
As there is nothing from the first,
Where does the dust itself collect? [2]

2. Suzuki, Daisetz T. The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, pg. 29

The legend says that all of the monks were amazed, and the Fifth
Patriarch rubbed out the verse to protect Hui-neng from the other
jealous monks. Later, he summoned Hui-neng in the middle of the
night and pronounced him the Sixth Patriarch. He gave him the
robe and begging bowl of Bodhidharma (the First Patriarch). He
also presented him with the Diamond Sutra, which Hui-neng later
established as the primary scripture of Zen. The Fifth Patriarch
advised Hui-neng to flee to the south, because he felt that it
would be unsafe for him to stay in the area.
Zen went through some radical changes close to this time, the
most signifigant of which was the addition of the koan system of
attaining enlightenment. A koan is a statement made by an old
Zen master, or an answer of his. The uninitiated are expected to
study the koan without attempting to figure them out with logic.
He is expected to try to feel the meaning of the koan. Often,
this goes on for years. During this entire period, the monk is
supposed to be keeping the koan first and foremost in his mind.
It is said that eventually, if the circumstances are right he
will finally realize what it means, and he will have attained
enlightenment. The most famous koan tells that when asked, "Is
there Buddha-nature in a dog?" Joshu (a famous Zen master)
replied, "Mu!" (pronounced Wu). Mu literally means "not" or
"none", but when in reference to the question of the dog, it is
"Mu", pure and simple.[3] This representative koan shows the
difficulty a person might have in attempting to understand what
the master was talking about. The koan were absolutely
necessary for the survival of Zen. There are still Zen masters
who claim that they are "contrived," and not a viable way of
attaining enlightenment. However, without the koan system, Zen
very probably would have died out. Before their use, Zen was
thought of as mysticism, and many monks became frustrated and
skeptical. Without the koan, there is a good chance that Zen
wouldn't have withstood the onslaught of Christan missionaries to
the Orient.

3. Suzuki, Daisetz T. The Essentials of zen Buddhism, pg. 291


Modern Zen Life

A modern Zen monk pursues the same goals and ideals that the
monks of two thousand years ago did. However, in day to day
life, much is different. The most signifigant changes to the
lives of Zen pupils are those made to the monasteries where they
lived. Before the Zen had a system of learning for themselves,
most lived in monasteries of the Vinaya sect. The principles
that the Vinaya believe in have much in common with the
principles of the Zen, but there are some differences. These
differences made it hard for struggling Zen monks of the time.
The modern Zen system of education is unique to the Zen
monasteries. It uses a combination of lectures and learning
through living, to show the monks the pathway to Zen. The man
who devised this system was called Hyakujo. He wrote a book on
how a Zen monasterey should be established and kept running. The
book contained detailed regulations on the forming of meditation
halls. Meditation halls are a part of a Zen monastery that no
other sect uses. Although the original book was lost, the monks
of today still use set of rules based on the practices of
monasteries known to have been established in accordance with the
original book.
The monasteries of the Chinese Zen are much larger and
grander than the monasteries of the Japanese Zen. The Japanese
felt that luxury was not necessary to the practice of Zen. They
also didn't have the money to spare, as Zen was not "government
subsidized" in Japan the way it was in China. Besides the work
on meditation halls, Hyakujo is best known for his guiding
principle of life. He expressed this simply as, "no work, no
eating." This represents a much broader philosophical viewpoint
than it appears to. The Zen feel that no labor is too demeaning,
and that there is no distinction of respectability or honor
between lighting holy candles and such tasks as sweeping. In a
typical Zen monastery, the older, more experienced monks are
given the most menial tasks. This stresses the idea expressed
by, "no work, no eating." Hyakujo felt that there was no honor
in eating undeserved bread. When Hyakujo became old and weak,
his monks hid all of his gardening tools so that he would not
have to do the garden work. He refused to eat until the monks
returned his tools and let him go on working. This idea was not
simply a principle to Hyakujo; he did not hold by it merely
because he thought it was right. He knew that men who fall into
the trap of exercising the mind without working with the body
become thoughtless. I say, "thoughtless," in a literal sense,
Hyakujo did not want the Zen monks to get caught in the trap that
ruined many other sects of Buddhism. He was saving them from
mental inactivity and an unbalanced mind with his simple, "no
work, no eating."
In the Zen meditation halls of today, life is difficult for
uninitiated monks. Part of the training of Zen involves
humility, and all new Zen monks taken into a monastery are
refused at first. They are expected to wait near the front of
the building all day. When the time to eat comes, they request
food. The Zen masters go along with this, as they do not refuse
food or board to a traveler. At night, the new monk must ask for
a place to sleep. He is usually shown into an unfurnished room
for the night. The next morning he goes to wait outside again.
This will go on until the new monk gives up, or until the masters
are impressed with the monk's patience and let him into the
brotherhood. This often goes on for weeks.
Life is not easy for the accepted monks in any monastery
either. Each monk is allowed an area of floor to live on. This
area is no larger than a three by six foot rectangle. In this
space, each monk must sit, meditate, sleep, and exercise. He can
never use more than one quilt throughout the seasons, and can
have no pillow. His belongings are kept in a box one foot
square. These belongings usually consist of nothing more than a
few books, a razor (to be used for the head), a set of different-
sized bowls, and some clothes. The monks are summoned to eat by
the sound of a gong, and they proceed to the food hall. Zen
monks get very little in the way of food, but do not seem to
suffer from it. Early in the morning, near six a.m., the monks
are summoned to the food hall to be given rice gruel. They carry
a bowl to the hall, where they can eat as much gruel as they
like, as well as any vegetables they have picked. At around ten
a.m., they are given rice, vegetable soup, and pickles. Four
p.m. is the monks' last chance to eat in the day unless they are
lucky enough to be invited for dinner to a generous host's house.
They do not waste food, and the four p.m. "meal" consists only of
leftover rice and rice gruel. The monks always eat in silence,
and fold their hands as a way of requesting more food. When the
monk-waiter comes around, they wipe off their bowl to, "rid it of
impurities introduced by them." These acts are representative of
the peace that these monks feel. Being a Zen monk is not easy,
but there aren't many dissatisfied monks either.


Zen and The Western World

In a dialogue that took place in New York, at the Rochester
Zen Center, Students from Rochester College spoke with a Zen
monk. A Japanese student asked about wall hangings and said they
were strange to him and that in Japan he never saw them. A
Chinese student heard this and told the Japanese student that Zen
was originally Chinese and had been taken to Japan. He said that
the Japanese way was not necassarily the right way. An Indian
student responded by saying that Buddha was Indian and that they
should remember that always. The Zen monk then stopped them to
explain that the American way of Zen was a mixture of all of
these ways. He said:

The three of you need to be reminded that our
American tradition is to use all traditions
freely. Each of your countries has poured the
waters of its own Buddhist culture into the
ocean of Buddhism. These waters are now
quenching the spiritual thirst of many Americans.
The Buddha's Way is universal, transcending all
cultures. The Buddha isn't found just in India
or China or Japan but wherever men and women
revere him and live according to his teachings.[4]

4. Kapleau, Roshi Philip. Zen Dawn In the West, pg. 7

This quote is representative of the feelings of many
Americans towards Zen. The monk's response shows the melting pot
spirit of America all over again. He has taken the ideals of the
founders of America to heart and applied then to the study of,
"Americanized Zen." This form of Zen holds great possibilities
for the future of America. On the whole, Americans are extremely
frustrated and dissatisfied because of material wealth. These
are exactly the kinds of problems that Zen deals with, showing
how unimportant they really are.
Frequently, American owners and managers of large
corporations attend group meeting with Zen monks to find out
about Zen. They ask questions about how Zen could help their
company if they provided free study for their employees.
Corporations could use Zen to keep employee morale up. When a
person is enlightened through Zen, he sees work in a new light,
and doesn't mind menial tasks. Like the great Zen masters of
Japan sweeping the porches, the people of a company would be
working for themselves as well as for the group.
Zen is also approved and suggested by a growing number of
psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in America. Zen has shown good
results in many situations where the analyst recommends it. Most
American monasteries and Zen Centers will take in mildly anxious,
depressed, and disturbed people. If they feel that a person is
showing true interest in Zen, they will take in that person and
try to help him through Zen. The meditation, or zazen, part of
Zen is very relaxing, and can help nervous people. Zen also
allows people to see the world and its problems in perspective,
thus helping depressed and disturbed individuals. When asked to
clarify what he used Zen for, a psychoanalyst said, "I feel that
my job is to clear up the confusion and mental instability of my
patients so that they can one day be ready for Zen."[5]

5. Kapleau, Roshi Philip. Zen Dawn in The West, pg. 14

Another question that American Zen monks are often asked is
how well they think other methods work for attaining
enlightenment, and if other methods can be used in conjunction
with Zen. The other methods of relaxation and attaining
enlightenment include such practices as est, TM, Hare Krishna,
and even biofeedback and bioenergetics. In response, most Zen
monks will say that these other methods work well for relaxation
and, "mind expansion," but not for true enlightenment. They seem
to feel that to simply improve your concentration, relaxation
abilities, and body, these other disciplines are more than
enough. But they feel that Zen involves much more, and that it
is the true path to happiness. In Zen, one breaks through both
the conscious and the unconscious, whereas in the other methods
of spiritual awakening, one only attains mind expansion or
heightened awareness. The monks do not feel that these things
mix well with Zen, and do not suggest that they be used in
conjunction with it. They do say that both hatha yoga and tai
chi can be used with Zen, as long as the person using them
separates them from their philosophic theories. Biofeedback is
not at all suitable to be used with or in place of Zen, despite
the fact that it has been called, "electric Zen." The monks
feels that the uses of biofeedback do not extend beyond simple
relaxation and helping high blood pressure and such problems.


American Zen

Americans have taken Zen and changed it to fit their
lifestyles. The largest change they have made is the almost
complete removal of the Buddhist beliefs. There are very few Zen
priests in America because most Americans are searching to gain
from the practice of Zen without giving up the religions that
they hold. When a Zen master feels that a student is ready to
become a priest, the student is offered the robe of the Buddha.
Zen masters generally look upon people who accept Zen and refuse
to accept the Buddhism that it is based on as somewhat akin to
parasites. A person can hardly blame them. In recent years,
however, these students have been seen by many masters in a
kinder light. Many masters have recognized the need for
something in between laymen and priest. American Zen "laymen"
are said to belong to the new Maitreya Zen Buddhism. They do
have a robe like the robe of the Buddha, which they are given
when their teachers feel they are ready. It is often purple, and
it is almost always made of patched cotton to show the makeshift
nature of American Zen. New American Zen practices are being
developed at most of the American monasteries, too. The
following is an excerpt that shows the feeling of the American
Zen and its robes.(dharma are the traditional Japanese robes)

Come Buddha, please sit for a while under this
shadowless tree and meditate on my ragged, hand-
me-down Zen dharma. I have patched it together
from scraps of material gathered from the garbage
dumps of my Zen enviroment. This patchwork dharma
may look like a raggle-taggle affair, full of
intellectual holes, but I think you will find it
soft, of good texture, well made and comfortable. [6]

6. Mountain, Marian. The Zen Enviroment, pg. 227



All in all, Zen could be very beneficial to America. It has
been shown that it can help large corporations become more
productive, while at the same time increasing employee
satisfaction levels. Since this can be done without infringing
on the workers rights in any way, and at little expense to the
employer, it is an ideal way to improve a business. It has also
been shown that Zen can be very useful in helping disturbed
people when it is coupled with psychanalysis. This would be
extremely good for America, as we have one of the highest suicide
and depression rate of major countries. If a great number of
people would try to use Zen, it might also lower the drug problem
in the U.S., for the same reasons it would help the suicide
problem. Zen also encourages the giving up of impure substances.
It does not require it, but Zen monks say that if a person
practices for long enough they will want to give up drugs and
refined foods. Zen could help America with most of its major
problems, and is just now (after centuries) becoming
differentiated from cults in the average Anerican's mind.