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Major Mahayana Groups: Zen: (Ch’an)


Historical Background

Buddhism in China developed in a unique way. Influenced by the  Chinese emphasis on the Tao (the "way"), Buddhism in China began to focus on intuition and direct experience more than on the scriptures and bodhisattvas. The individual who is often credited with being the founder of this unique form of Buddhism is Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma is said to have arrived in China from India during the fifth century C.E. By this time, Buddhism was well-established in China. Bodhidharma's teachings were apparently meant to counter the popular conception of Buddhism as simply a means for acquiring merit in order to obtain a favorable rebirth. For Bodhidharma, the purpose of Buddhism was enlightenment, and enlightenment could only be realized through direct experience - especially direct experience of emptiness through meditation.

The idea evolved that all persons have a Buddha nature - an enlightened self.  One needs to find a way to realize this nature and to experience directly. In other words, Zen Buddhism emphasized experience over concepts. Concepts are bound by our limited logic and language. The concept is not the experience – just as the menu is not the food! To experience the Buddha nature two practices are employed.  Some schools of Zen believe that enlightenment can happen immediately; others believe it is a more gradual process.

Main Characteristics

Two of the unique features of Zen Buddhism are "sitting meditation" and the use of the koan.

Zazen  (" sitting meditation")  is a type of meditation that is meant to calm mind until enlightenment comes with realization of the nature of reality (emptiness or "unconditioned reality") and the realization of the unity of all existence – nothing is separate from one’s self.

Combined with meditation is the use of koan A koan is a riddle that cannot be solved through rational thought.  Its purpose is to shatter the logical thought processes  and thus move to direct intuition of nature of reality.   “What is your face before your parents’ birth?”

 The enlightenment or insight that is attained through these practices is known as satori. The experience of the unity of all things, the "All aspects of life become at the same time utterly precious, and utterly empty."  This cannot be grasped intellectually.


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