Zen and Buddhism: The Basics

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05 Mar 2008 22:13 #12106 by
What is Zen?

Zen is a school of Buddhism that developed in China as the result of a merging of Indian Mahayana Buddhism with the native Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confucianism. This sinified Buddhism abandoned some of the more pessimistic or world- rejecting elements of Indian Buddhism and adopted in their place a number of the more optimistic or world-accepting elements of Chinese. Among the Buddhist teachings that were affected by this sinification were the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and the Three Marks of Existence.

Four Noble Truths and Zen. In early Buddhism the Buddha’s teachings are said to be summed up into a simple formula called then Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is that life is mostly characterized by various forms of dissatisfaction or sufferings. The Second Truth is that this suffering has as cause, and this cause is either having desires that can never really be satisfied or by believing in a real soul or self. The Third Truth is that there is a way out of this misery. The Fourth Truth declares that there is a way out of this misery. This way out is called the Middle Path, and this is most commonly identified with the Eight-Fold Path.

Many Mahayana sutras regard these Four Noble Truths as merely provincial truths taught to monks whose spiritual development was not mature enough to comprehend the truths later associated with Mahayana Buddhism. This, however, seem to be a very unproductive sectarian approach to the matter. Instead, a more positive approach is to see how these truths can be harmonized with Mahayana teachings, which for our purpose means Zen.

Zen teaches that as human beings we suffer and suffer profoundly. In Zen what makes us human is our dual consciousness, which is to say we have a mind split between subject and object consciousness. We can know ourselves as objects, but never as subjects. Thus we are inherently existential self-alienated and suffering beings. In this regard, Zen is in agreement with the First Noble Truth. Zen, however, does not see the origin of our suffering as due to our desires so much as it does to our failure to be aware of our already present, though unmanifested, Buddhahood which in Zen this means no separate or independent soul or self (anatman).

From this perspective, merely renouncing human desires, as in earlier Buddhism, can not free us from our self-alienation, and in fact may even increase that alienation. Nonetheless, there are ways of liberating ourselves from this misery. The first way is to let go of our identity as a little isolated self and replace this with the greater identity of universal beingness. This allows us to counter suffering with compassion. The second way is to get in touch with our Buddha-nature. This means accessing that aspect of our consciousness that is non-dual, non-judgmental to self and other; and hence non-alienating; and above all having absolute faith in our unconditional Buddha-nature worthiness. The third way is to learn to live fully the Middle Path that Zen defines as living in Here and the Now. This involves getting in touch with our authentic beingness or the beingness that does not live in the extremes of self-alienating past guilt or the equally self-alienating fears of the future, most especially of death. This, in turn, may even lead to being unconcerned about the metaphysics of rebirth, which can easily alienates one from any authentic satisfaction in this life.

Ultimately all three of these ways are a unified path. Indeed it is through this unity that Zen deals with the early Buddhist issue of insatiable desires or wants. When we are able to identify with the fullness of the universe, we eliminate the empty feeling that results from our ego-centric perception of narrowly defined self and its accompanying desires for things to fill our personal void. When we obtain access to our Buddha nature or Buddha mind we automatically have the most valuable possession possible and the desire for everything of lesser consequence is weakened. Finally, by living in the Now we become aware that most of our wants are related to attachments to the past or attempts to build security for the future. In the Now all wants are minimized to easily obtained needs. In this sense it may be said that Zen uses the Here and the Now as a kind of asceticism of time. In an indirect manner Zen, therefore, acknowledges the relationship between our suffering and desires. A link is thus maintained with the early Buddhist advocacy of ascetic abandonment of desire to gain freedom from the existential problem of self.

Eight-fold Path (Early Buddhist). In early Buddhism this path is identified with the last of the Four Noble Truths. It must be understood that this was originally a path meant exclusively for monastics, not the laity. It was only much later on that parts of it were modified to make it of some use to lay persons. The original eight elements of the path are as follows. (1) Right views included understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of existence. (2) Right resolve was the determination to become a monk or nun. (3) Right speech was the avoidance of lying, slandering and gossiping. (4) Right conduct meant avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and taking intoxicants. (5) Right livelihood restricted monks from a number of activities that would bring them into excessive involvement with the lives of the laity. Among these were agriculture, practicing medicine, divination activities, and many more. (6) Right effort was the requirement to avoid impure thoughts while cultivating pure thoughts. (7) Right mindfulness probably originally meant being acutely aware at all times of ones actions. Later it came to be closely associated with a meditation on the impermanence of selfhood. (8) Right concentration was the practice of meditation leading to a profound state of detachment.

Eight-fold Path (Mahayana). In Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Zen, suffering was said to be entirely due to ignorance of the emptiness of all things. This required a major alteration in the nature of the eight components of the path. These became (1) Insight into the cosmic nature of Buddhahood. (2) The cessation of mental projections. (3) The understanding that silence may be the best expression of the truth. (4) Withdrawal from all actions that have karmic consequences. (5) Living in a way that expresses the fact that in emptiness there is no real arising or ceasing of phenomena. (6) Abandoning all intentionality in one’s actions. (7) The abandoning of any reflection on unprofitable (metaphysical) questions. (8) Not holding on to personal opinions that cause ego attachments.

Three Marks of Existence. Standard Buddhism teaches that life is characterized by impermanence dissatisfaction and no separate or independent soul or self. There is absolutely no problem in Zen with the first and third of these marks. But unlike the more pessimistic Indian view, the more optimistic Chinese view of Zen at times has problems with perceiving life as more dominated by dissatisfaction than by satisfaction. Rather than seeing dissatisfaction as innate to life Zen tends to see it as something learned as we grow up, and hence which can be unlearned. Seeking for awakening is just such an attempt at unlearning or letting go of our paradoxical attachment to our dissatisfaction.

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