One of the things that made the Buddha’s teachings so radical is that he emphasized personal experience. Since he did not teach belief in a Supreme Deity, he urged his followers to rely on themselves for their salvation — in his words, to “be your own refuge.”
Building on the meditation practices that he learned from the yogis and ascetics with whom he had come in contact, the Buddha developed techniques that anyone with sufficient desire and commitment could learn. Without the intercession of priests, average men and women could achieve enlightenment by seeing through to the reality of their “true nature.” Monks might assist the seeker, but priestly ritual was insignificant compared to the radical process of self-observation and ethical living.
Yet as time progressed, layers of commentary on his teachings and increasingly complex rituals were perceived by some as obscuring the power of the Buddha’s original message. And so, from time to time, certain followers set out to clarify the religion and recover its essential energy and purity. (Others, meanwhile, particularly in northern India, proceeded with the development of sophisticated practices for generating compassion and wisdom; the two lines of development are not necessarily incompatible.)
About a millennium after the Buddha’s death, in the 6th century C.E., Bodhidharma carried his teaching of Buddhism from India to China, where it became known as Ch’an — a shortened transliteration of the Sanskrit word for meditation. This teaching is now known by its Japanese name of Zen. Over a century after Bodhidharma, the Chinese master Hui-neng gave this new teaching a distinctly Chinese flavor, assimilating aspects of Taoism, and he is considered by some to be the real founder of Zen. Buddhist monks had been infiltrating China along a trade route known as the Silk Road for hundreds of years before Bodhidharma or Hui-neng, subtly interacting with the philosophy of Taoism. Perhaps the fact that the Chinese mind was in many ways more practical and earth-centered than the Indian mind set the stage for the development and acceptance of Ch’an Buddhism. In any case, Zen is traditionally described in the classic saying of Bodhidharma: “A special transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent on words and letters. Direct pointing to the mind of humanity lets one see one’s own true nature.” It is an attempt to return to the essence of the Buddha’s approach: sitting meditation leading to enlightenment.