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12 November, 2012


Zen Introduction

       In about 520 CE a man called Bodhidharma travelled from India to China.  He was well-versed not only in the ancient writings, but also in a newer work, the Diamond Sutra, which was said to 'cut through ignorance like a diamond.'  He attempted to win over the emperor, but was disgusted by the emperor's arrogance.  So he settled far away from the imperial palace, and waited for people to seek him out.  In this he was successful; a large number came, and he taught them both the Diamond Sutra and his interpretation of it.
       Disciple of Bodhidharma formed schools of their own; and by this means his teaching gradually spread across the entire Chinese empire.  It became known as Ch'an, which means 'meditation'.
       Buddhists ideas probably first reached Japan in the sixty century CE; but they were soon integrated within the native religion, Shintoism.  It was not until the twelfth century that disciples of Bodhidharma arrived in Japan - and Ch'an became known as ZEN.  As in China, schools were founded, where people could study for whatever period they wished.
       Buddhist influences came to Tibet both from India and china from the eighth century onwards.  The first great Tibetan teacher, Marpa, studied the The Diamond Sutra in India in the tenth century; and through his disciple Milarepa Buddhism reached the entire country.


       Enlightenment, in Zen teaching, is to know without any objects of knowledge.  Objects of knowledge, while they seem to be external, are, according to Zen, figments of the mind; thus they entangle the mind and disturb the soul.  By learning to know without object, the mind becomes free and the soul becomes calm.
       There are four main techniques for attaining enlightenment
       The first is the koan.  This is a nonsensical phrase, an insoluble question, or an absurd situation that defeats the normal workings of the mind.  The pupil is required to focus attention on the koan, so that it becomes the mind's sole object.  Ultimately the paradoxical nature of the koan makes this impossible - and the mind rejects all objects.
      The second technique is the mondo.  This is a rapid dialogue between the teacher and pupil, which aims to accelerate the process of thought beyond what the mind can handle.  The tacher may conclude the mondo with a sudden act of violence or a shriek, which shocks the pupil.
       The third  technique is for the teacher to undertake some pointless activity or suffer some needless discomfort.  Thus the mind's normal method of ascribing value and making choices is defied.
       And the fourth is for the teacher to create a situation in which the inner reality of enlightenment is made externally manifest.


       By its nature Zen is indifferent to the external aspects of religion - temples and shrines, rituals and festivals.  Zen teaches have usually treated them with respect, as mental props on which many people depend; but as they are objects of the mind, and so must ultimately be abandoned.
       Nonetheless Zen has held many sports, especially archery and fencing, in high esteem.  Through enlightenment the arrow or the blade ceases to be regarded as an object outside the mind, but becomes part of the mind.  Thus the individual can shoot an arrow or aim a sword with the same precision as thinking a thought.
       The greatest expression of ZEN has been in art.  As with the arrow and the blade, plants and trees, animals and birds, are regarded as part of the mind.  Thus the mind of the artist becomes the tree, and the tree, becomes the artist.  And the person looking at a work of art is invited to enter this union.  Zen drawings and paintings are astonishing in their sensitivity; and Zen sculpture is flowing and free, as if the subject of the scripture were alive.
       In all sports and arts Zen aims at wabi - which is finding unity within multiplicity, simplicity within complexity.  It is a quality of mind and spirit from which the necessary technical skills flow naturally.  Indeed, wabi should infuse every activity, even eating a meal or taking a stroll.


        Human civilization depends on reason and on the accumulation of knowledge.  Thus the primary purpose of our education has been to train the intellect and the memory.  Zen, however, urges us to transcend these mental abilities, an reach a higher spiritual plane. 
       Yet at the heart of Zen is a paradox.  Zen pupils are not required to be irrational or dim-witted; on the contrary, in the koan or the mondo, they are required to push the intellect to its limit.  Thus Zen does not treat education with contempt, but uses education to defy its own fruits.  the resolution to the paradox is that Zen encourages us to live at two levels, the rational and the spiritual - and to move freely between the two.  Thus by sharpening the faculty of reason, we are better able to rise above it; and by rising above reason, our practical skills are enhanced.
       While the koan and the mondo are peculiar to Zen, the experience induced by them is in some degree common to everyone; all people have sudden flashes of insight, which break through the confines of logic.  Zen urges us to take those flashes seriously.
Source:  Excerpts from the book on "366 Readings from World Religions" by Robert Van De  Weyer.

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