The 28th Indian Patriarch in line of descent from the Buddha, and often referred to as the First Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma (c. 470-543) was an extreme character. Possibly disgusted with the corruption of Buddhism in India, he left for China without naming a successor, effectively ending the Indian lineage. But after his new teachings met with a cool reception in the south of China, he set up shop at Shaolin Monastery in Northern China. (In the same monastery, according to tradition, Buddhist monks developed kung fu, a form of Chinese qigong exercises aimed at regulating body, mind, and breath. Although kung fu began as a system of spiritual exercises, it is now widely practiced as a martial art form. On the television series Kung Fu, David “Little Grasshopper” Carradine did his internship at Shaolin Temple.)
Once again, myth and legend are inextricably mingled with historical and spiritual truth. At Shaolin, Bodhidharma began an extended period of sitting meditation. For nine years, according to legend, he sat facing a wall and refused to move, waiting for someone to take his new teachings to heart. (His austerity actually seems mild compared to the Christian saint Symeon Stylites, who in the previous century in Syria sat atop a pillar 60 feet high and six feet wide for 37 years.) Bodhidharma was sitting zazen, a form of meditation done with the eyes half-closed and the attention focused on the breath, emptying the mind of all thoughts — or rather letting them pass harmlessly by, like clouds passing before a mirror.
After nine years of this sitting, Bodhidharma was approached by a would-be disciple named Hui-K’e, who pestered him with a nagging problem. Hui-K’e had no peace of mind and desperately sought a way to achieve it. The Master kept putting him off, telling him that to get peace of mind required arduous discipline and work, probably more than the upstart was willing to do, and to go away. After standing in the snow and pleading for hours without getting a real answer, Hui-K’e in desperation hacked off his own hand and tossed it in front of Bodhidharma. This got his attention. “You’re the one I’ve been waiting for,” he said, and agreed to take Hui-K’e as a disciple.
By 1100, Buddhism was virtually extinct in India proper. But meanwhile, Zen spread through China to Korea and Japan. Beginning near the turn of this century, it was brought to America by Japanese Zen masters and has taken root here alongside other forms of Buddhism, including several schools of Tibetan and Pure Land Buddhism. Apart from daily sitting meditation, Zen emphasizes living in the present moment, without fear of the future or regret for the past. This attitude, which in practice requires moment-to-moment awareness, has been oversimplified and distorted in popular culture. The real flavor of Zen lives in classic stories like those attributed to the Buddha himself.
One of the favorite teaching tools of Zen masters is the koan, a question or riddle that can’t be solved by reason but which points to a deeper truth. Perhaps the most familiar example, thanks to J. D. Salinger’s use of it, asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Koans originated in China as questions between monks, often working side by side in the rice fields, and were later perfected as a teaching art by Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163). Their purpose is not so much to produce the right answer as to force the student to abandon the process of rational thought altogether, much like the goal of zazen. A variation on the koan is the mondo (“question and answer”), in which the student and master engage in a dialogue to the same end of eliciting the intuitive aspect of the student’s mind. Here’s a great example of a mondo quoted by Thomas Merton:
A Zen Master said to his disciple: “Go get my rhinoceros-horn fan.”
Disciple: “Sorry, Master, it is broken.”
Master: “Okay, then get me the rhinoceros.”*
* Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New York: New Directions, 1968.
The Zen that survives in Japan today is divided into two major schools, Soto and Rinzai, which developed between the 9th and 11th centuries in China as the Ts’ao-tung and Lin-chi schools, respectively. Lin-chi emphasized a rapid or short path to enlightenment that made use of koans, shouts, and compassionate whacks with a stick called a kyosaku (“wake-up stick”) to startle the student into sudden awareness. Its founder was Lin-chi I Hsuan (d. 867), also known as Rinzai, and with him, the school of Ch’an that was to become Zen in Japan coalesced around the basic elements of training that would conclusively distinguish Zen from the other schools of Buddhism. Known for his straightforward language, Lin-chi derogated the practices that had developed of worshiping the Buddha and striving to become a bodhisattva. Speaking of the Buddha as just another bald-headed monk, he is reputed to have said, “If you meet Gautama, kill him,” a classic restatement of the Buddha’s teaching to work out one’s own salvation. The Lin-chi school was introduced to Japan by Eisai (1141-1215).
Tsao-tung or Soto was founded by Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-69) and his disciple Ts’ao-shan Pen-chi, and was transplanted to Japan by the great Zen master Dogen Zenji (1200-33) in the 13th century. Soto stresses silent practice (mokusho), the highest form of which Dogen called shikantaza — a state in which no aids to zazen, such as counting the breath or meditating on koans, are used, reverting to the way it was presumably practiced by the Buddha and his immediate disciples. Soto practitioners, paradoxically, are likely to use images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas in a worshipful way (as do Rinzai, for that matter, in the temple practices common among the Japanese masses). However, today koans also play a role in Soto, just as silent meditation does in Rinzai; the difference is one of emphasis.
In Japan, Zen spread among the Samurai, where it eventually led to the cult of Bushido, or the “Way of the Warrior.” Zen was applied to the martial arts, especially archery (kempo) and swordsmanship (kendo), as well as to the more domestic arts of calligraphy, flower arrangement (ikebana), and the tea ceremony (cha no ya). The goal of these practices is the same as that of zazen or koan study: an opening of the mind’s eye, known as kensho (“seeing into one’s own nature”) or satori.
Technically, kensho and satori both mean enlightenment, but because satori is the word traditionally used to describe the enlightenment of the Buddha and the early patriarchs, according to Buddhist scholars it implies a deeper experience of enlightenment. Does that mean there can be different levels of enlightenment? Why, yes, there can — just as there are four stages in the development of nirvana.
The term samadhi, for instance, which in Hindu parlance means a blissful state of meditative union with the Absolute, in Zen refers to a state of intensely effortless concentration, but not necessarily of enlightenment, unless the person experiencing samadhi is already enlightened. And neither state should be confused with nirvana, the ultimate release from all striving and desire realized by the Buddha.