Bodhidharma was an Indian sage who lived sometime in the fifth or sixth century AD. He is the undisputed founder of Zen Buddhism.

Zen as Buddhism

How ordinary Buddhism shines through in Zen practice

Katinka Hesselink 2006, 2015

Zen Buddhism (derived from Chan Buddhism in China) is one of the most famous types of Buddhism in the West. It has similarities with Taoism as well.

Zen has become famous in the west for it's short stories, it's koan's, it's tea ceremony and it's calm way of life. Zen has come to stand for a particular mindset, a certain aesthetic as for instance the CSS Zen Garden, which has nothing to do with Buddhism exemplifies. Zen as in Zen Buddhism on the other hand, has been relatively neglected.


The more informed may know that zazen (sitting meditation) has something to do with it. And yes, koan's do come into the story somewhere. But Zen is short of Zen Buddhism. What does all of the above have to do with Buddhism, other than the fact that meditation plays a dominant part in all of Western Buddhism?

Explaining Zen Meditation - or Zazen - Meditation as a religious practice

The precise posture of Zen meditation: either full lotus or half lotus. The postures are explained and shown, which is very useful of course. After the posture is explained, the video goes into the next most important thing: breathing. Only after you have learned the breathing correctly can you consciously train your mind through meditation.

Zen's has a reputation of being anti-tradition, but it does in fact have a lot to do with the Buddhist tradition. Historically Zen (Chinese Chan) came out of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. This shows in the practice of Zen Buddhists. They, like all Mahayana Buddhists, give a central role to the Bodhisattva Vow. This is the vow that means the practitioner will postpone enlightenment until all sentient beings are enlightened or saved as well. 

To be an actual Zen Buddhist, one has to take refuge in the Three Jewels, like any other Buddhist. This means formally declaring to take refuge in Buddha (teacher and lineage), Dharma (teachings) and sangha (the community of Buddhist monks or more widely: the community of Buddhists). 

Then there are the Ten Grave Precepts:

  1. Affirm life; do not kill.
  2. Be giving; do not steal.
  3. Honor the body; do not misuse sexual energy.
  4. Manifest truth; do not lie.
  5. Proceed clearly; do not cloud the mind.
  6. See the perfection; do not speak of others' errors and faults.
  7. Realize self and other as one; do not elevate the self and blame others.
  8. Give generously; do not be stingy.
  9. Actualize harmony; do not give vent to anger.
  10. Experience the intimacy of things; do not defile the Three Treasures.

These can be taken literally, and should be taken literally (at first). Later they should also be realized on a deeper level. There is self elevation in cloths, speech etc. There is also self-elevation as subtle pride. 

Enlightenment is reached by meditation. And the famous insight, so hard to actually realize, is that one merely has to discover one's own enlightenment or one's own Buddha-mind. Sure, the end is relatively well known, but the way there is not just about meditation. Sure, meditation is said to help you overcome greed, anger, fear and the difference between self and other. Still, we usually need a grounding in what that means on a practical level, even before those are actually starting to disappear. That grounding is in the Bodhisattva Vow, the three jewels and the 10 grave precepts.

Introduction to the Zen concept of interdependence & independence (aka emptiness)

How are the sun and the cloud dependent? How independent are they?
Become One with nature, without clinging or attachment - living in This Moment.
Learn to see yourself as part of Nature. As part of humanity. Selfishness, jealousy etc. To become awake to this opposition to everything around is, is to practice Zen.

Yasutani Roshi
The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.

The daily life in a Zen Monastery: the Kitchen & meditation

Daily tasks - like cleaning the floor and cooking - are given the same importance as Zazen itself. This video includes an explanation of the object of Zazen meditation

More Zen Buddhism

Reader responses

(from a previous version of this page):

I had the chance to stay at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY a while back. It was much more intense than I expected. Everything was so focused. Not at all what I expected, in a good way. I'm going up soon to do a weekend sesshin.

I highly respect Zen Buddhism. I feel it is interconnected to all living things and keeps us rooted in balance and in touch with our current reality. The mind can get so cluttered with 'things' that really do not matter. Thank you for such a lovely overview. Take good care, Rose