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What Is “ZEN”? Is it an Experience or Religion?

what is zen

This is an academic work that discusses what Zen is, and the approaches one can take to better understand this recently adopted term that our culture seems to misuse a lot. (essay below)

What is Zen?

Is “experience” or history a better path to understanding Zen?

I think it depends on your definition of what Zen is. Is it an experience? Or is it a doctrine/philosophy? Or… is it both? Some believe it’s the entry point for understanding the mind-body connection.

I believe it’s both to lesser and greater degrees, and because this implies that there are two fundamentally opposed approaches to understanding Zen (i.e. objective and subjective), there will naturally be conflict amongst their respective experts. In this essay I will tease out what Zen is and discuss the consequences if we use only one approach to understanding Zen.

I will also make the case that if you had to choose only one approach, why experiencing/practicing Zen trumps the research method using academic discipline. I will conclude by making the case that there is a place for a “Middle Path” approach, which is the optimal approach.

Let’s look at the history of the word itself.

The word “Zen” is Japanese for a style of Buddhism that came to fruition in China. When Buddhism arrived in China, the Chinese had to find a way to talk about these new ideas for which there were no Chinese words, so they imported the words along with the ideas. As the story goes, in the 5th century, an Indian monk named Bodhidharma came to China. Bodhidharma stressed meditation so much that he supposedly cut off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep when meditating.

His style of Buddhism came to be known as the Meditation School, or “Chan” for short. Many Chinese intellectuals, poets, and artists were attracted to Chan’s simplicity and spontaneity, perhaps because it reminded them of their own Taoist tradition. Chan became a great influence in Chinese culture. Since China was the dominant nation of the day, many of its neighbors borrowed and learned from it. Many Japanese went to study in China, and eventually, Chan Buddhism was brought to Japan by a monk named Eisai in the 13th century.

The Japanese, who had already imported Chinese characters into their own language, learned the character for “Chan” and pronounced it “Zen.” Zen became very influential in Japan, perhaps even more influential than it had been in China. In fact, it became so well-known that many people in the West think of it as a Japanese concept. Just as the Japanese borrowed the word from the Chinese, who borrowed it from the Indians, we have borrowed it from the Japanese, and now Zen is an English word.That is the meaning of the word “Zen.”

As for the concept that this word is trying to convey, let’s turn to Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Shih. According to Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and his disciples, “Zen is illogical, irrational, and, therefore, beyond our intellectual understanding.”Hu Shih takes offense to this claim and believes that Ch’an (Zen) “can only be understood only in its historical setting.”If Zen is an experience, then Suzuki is closer to the truth. If Zen is a philosophy and a doctrine, then Hu Shih would seemingly be correct.

So what is Zen? Is it an experience? Or is it a doctrine?

Zen is the transmission of the Buddha’s enlightenment itself, and is transmitted outside of words, direct from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student. This means that Zen is ultimately an experience. However, there’s more to the story…

Zen is an experience, that is invoked and cultivated by the daily practice of Zazen (seated-meditation), which is directed, in part, by doctrine.

Overtime, Zazen produces self-mastery with regard to composure and tranquility of mind, but these are by-products of Zazen rather than its goals. The goal is the experience of enlightenment. This means that Suzuki is correct in his claim that the experience of Zen itself, especially enlightenment, is beyond our intellectual understanding.

However, I think much can be gained by looking at the historical context of Zen and in what ways the doctrine drives the practice of Zazen, which is critical for the occurrence of the experience of Zen in the first place.

What are the consequences if we use only one approach to understanding Zen?

Generally speaking, we are at risk of rigid and egotistic thinking. Suzuki and Hu Shih are great examples of people who represent this kind of thinking. They rigidly hold on to the perceived superiority of their respective approaches in the name of human ego. To claim that you KNOW something is an especially limiting way of being in this world.

This is the number one consequence of adopting one approach (either experience or academic), and could hold you back from discovering new “truths.” To say that you have an understanding of Zen and that you are open to new ways of thinking about Zen allows for the opportunity of deeper comprehension and appreciation.

One problem that may arise from an academic only approach would be insensitive conclusions made about Zen as a result of the reductionistic nature of the scientific method. Reducing Zen to names, places, and dates could easily miss the qualitative aspects of Zen—its “soul” if you will. It’s the qualitative aspects are what hold belief systems like Zen together.

It’s what keeps practitioners coming back for more. Additionally, there is an animate connection/bond that comes to life when a group of people experience the same kind of experience as one another. The only genuine way to gain access to understanding this connection is to experience it for yourself.

On the other hand, if you’re a practitioner of Zen and choose to neglect the historical aspects you may be subject to any shortcomings or misleadings that your particular sect/temple expresses. You also may miss out on the cultural richness of what Zen has to offer.

As it has been explained in this essay, there are two distinctly different ways to “know” about Zen. I’m going to argue that the kind of knowing that gives someone the most direct and deepest form of understanding is kind that is only gained by experience.

The practitioner knows what it’s like to have the experience of practicing Zen, whereas the academic knows about the practitioner who has the actual experience. It’s not the same thing. Observing a thing is not experiencing it. Hi Shuh’s takes this a step further and claims that the experience of Zen is beyond intellectual inference, I tend to agree:

If we are to judge Zen from our common-sense view of things, we shall find the ground sinking away under our feet. Our so-called rationalistic way of thinking has apparently no use in evaluating the truth or untruth of Zen. It is altogether beyond the ken of human understanding. All that we can therefore state about Zen is that its uniqueness lies in its irrationality or its passing beyond our logical comprehension.

The primary goal of Zen is to attain enlightenment.

It is not to write a dissertation on how Zen spread throughout the East and arrived in the United States, or to understand it from any other academic standpoint. Can someone attain enlightenment and achieve the ultimate goal/experience of Zen without pursuing the religion from an academic approach. Yes, they can.

Can someone attain enlightenment (according to Zen doctrine) without having the “Zen” experience? No, they can not. Even though academic study of Zen may deepen a practitioner’s understanding of the religion from a historical and cultural standpoint, it is not a necessity to have the unique experience of enlightenment that Zen reaches for.

Practitioners simply don’t have to be concerned with the academic discipline. Academics on the other hand have things laid out in the opposite direction. They don’t have to experience Zen or attain enlightenment to write their academic papers and acquire their academic degrees.

Why? Because they have a different objective than the practitioner. In fact, in academic inquiry there is little room for subjective expressions of knowledge and so there is little to no incentive for the academic to experience Zen for themselves other than to observe the religion, even if participating, from an objective distance. For instance, this very paper that I’m writing had instructions to not include any personal thoughts, experiences, opinions, etc. because it’s an “academic” paper.

That’s too bad because I have some interesting experiences to share regarding my own meditation practice that would be relevant to the subject of Zen practice. I would argue that I know much more about meditation, which is the focal point of Zen practice, than the academic who reads about other’s experience with meditation. The experiential form of understanding (i.e. experience) gains access to a direct knowing about something that is intimate, practical, and most advantageous.

If you wanted to sail across the world would you prefer to go with someone who has experienced this kind of voyage several times, or a UM grad who has a degree in sailing with no actual experience? This to me illustrates why experiencing Zen trumps learning about it in class.

I have to admit that when read the intro on page 3 of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China Its History and Method, it gave me the impression that the academic and the practitioner have such fundamentally opposed approaches to the study of Zen that there was no place for the reconciliation of the two.

The view points of Suzuki and Hu Shih are rigid and inflexible, and I don’t believe understanding Zen is a black and white matter. I prefer a more nuanced “Middle Path” approach. Academic knowledge and experiential knowledge are two sides of the same coin. They are just two different methods/variations of knowing about something.

Both are correct.

You gain the most when you integrate both approaches. The academic perception gets a good look at beginnings, the evolution, and multiple expressions of Zen. The practitioner wouldn’t have access to this kind of information and knowing, by meditation, ritual, and doctrine alone.

Academic study of a religion in a specific place and time is a good reflection of what that society was going through at that time. This may not affect your practice specifically, but it may deepen your understanding of Zen from a cultural standpoint. Also, in an age where it is more acceptable to question you faith and its historical motivations and traditions, academic research can provide invaluable perspective.

For the academic, experiencing Zen for yourself allows you know about the qualitative aspects of Zen. It allows you enter a realm of experience that has been celebrated for thousands of years. You get a glimpse of the soul of Zen, which cannot be put in words.

In this essay I discussed two fundamentally opposed approaches to understanding Zen (i.e. objective and subjective), and teased out what Zen is. There are obvious consequences if we use only one approach to understanding Zen and I made and argument that if you had to choose only one approach, why experiencing/practicing Zen trumps the research method using academic discipline. My conclusion calls for a “Middle Path” approach, which integrates the two approaches and provides the deepest understanding of what Zen is.

Zen Overview Video

Works Cited

As you can see, I didn’t follow any formal format of citation, but for what it’s worth, my essay used the following sources:

  1. Class notes (Zen Buddhism @ The University of Michigan, December 2010)
  2. Hu Shih and D.T. Suzuki debate (debate on Ch’an and Zen Buddhism in Philosophy East and West, vol. 3, p. 3 an p. 25, April 1953)
  3. Sharf’s article of Zen and Japanese Nationalism (Robert H. Sharf History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 1., Aug., 1993)