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Sakyamuni, Maitreya and the ensō symbol, Zen calligraphy by Bankei Yōtaku (1622–1693). The ensō circle is a Zen symbol hand-drawn in one or two brush strokes, representing enlightenment, the universe, or the void.

The history of Zen Buddhism begins with the coming of Bodhidharma from India to China in about 520 A.D. Tradition says that Bodhidharma brought a special message from India to China, which encapsulates Zen philosophy:

  • A special transmission outside the scriptures.
  • No dependence upon words and letters.
  • Direct pointing at the mind of man.
  • Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.[1]

Bodhidharma’s message is that we cannot realize ultimate truth or attain our own Buddhahood by means of words and letters. We must discover for ourselves our real nature—the Buddha-nature.

Bodhidharma, founder of Zen Buddhism, by Kano Naonobu (1607–1650)


According to tradition, the origin of Zen actually goes back to Lord Gautama Buddha. Buddhist author Christmas Humphreys writes:

It is said that once, when the Buddha was seated with his Bhikkhus [his monks], a Brahma-Raja came to him and, offering him a golden flower, asked him to preach the Dharma. The Enlightened One accepted the flower, and holding it aloft, gazed at it in silence. After a while the Venerable Mahakasyapa smiled. Such is the origin of Zen Buddhism, for it is said that this smile was handed down by twenty-eight successive Patriarchs, the last being the Indian philosopher Bodhidharma.[2]

The word Zen is Japanese for the Chinese Ch’an, which comes from the Sanskrit Dhyana. Dhyana is commonly translated as “meditation.” The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion says it refers to collectedness of mind or meditative absorption.[3]

The meaning of the word Zen, according to Bodhidharma, cannot be understood even by those possessed of wisdom—it implies a mystery which can only be revealed to those who have achieved it.


Scholar Kenneth Ch’en describes Zen as “an intuitive method of spiritual training aimed at the discovery of a reality in the innermost recesses of the soul.” Ch’en says:

This reality is the fundamental unity which pervades all the differences and particulars of the world. This reality is called the mind, or the Buddha-nature, that is present in all sentient beings.

Zen teaches that this reality is sunya, meaning empty or void, inexpressible in words and inconceivable in thought. To illustrate this, the Zen masters often resorted to silence or negation to express the truth.

Being inexpressible and inconceivable, this reality or the Buddha-nature can only be apprehended by intuition directly, completely and instantly. Intellectual analysis can only divide and describe and scratch the surface.

Ch’en says:

In order to apprehend the Buddha-nature, one must calm the mind. When the Zen follower apprehends the Buddha-nature within himself, he experiences an awakening or enlightenment called wu in Chinese, satori in Japanese.

This is an awareness of the undifferentiated unity of all existence.

He is now one with the whole universe. He sees all particulars and differences merged into one fundamental unity, and he is no longer troubled by problems and incidents. This apprehension does not mean the acquisition of something new. It means only the realization of something that is always present in him. The only trouble is that he is not aware of this because of his ignorance and folly.

In the state of awakening, when the mind is calm and tranquil, when the conscious self is eliminated, the mysterious inner mind takes over, and the actor performs his action automatically and spontaneously. Such a state of awakening can be repeated many times.[4]

Author Edward Rice says the goal of Zen is “to induce the direct mystical experience of Reality—that is, to reveal the Buddha within—through a nurturing of the inner experience.”[5]

Christmas Humphreys describes Zen as “the act of discovering oneself.”[6]

D. T. Suzuki says that while Zen professes to be the spirit of Buddhism, “in fact, it is the spirit of all religions and philosophies.”[7]

How do we awaken to our inner reality and discover our Real Self? Zen teaches that we have to “pass beyond the intellect,” writes Humphreys. “The process of Zen is a leap from thinking to knowing, from second-hand to direct experience.”[8]


Dr. David C. Yü explains that “suspicion of words was characteristic of Zen. Ma-chu, an eighth-century master, stressed non-verbal communication in order to help students gain the insight that leads to enlightenment. Once a disciple asked him about the essence of Buddhism. Ma-chu responded by giving him a box on the ear. The non-verbal method is a reminder that logical or philosophical scrutiny, which emphasizes the use of words, is an obstacle to reality.”[9]

One of the methods Zen uses to enable the student to get beyond the human, reasoning mind is the koan. Rice says the koan is a verbal jolt, “an enigma or puzzle that forces the student’s mind outside normal thought processes in order to gain instant enlightenment.”[10]

An example of a koan is, What is the sound of one hand clapping? Ch’en says the koan “is meant to stimulate the student to the realization that logic, reason and conceptualization are stumbling blocks to his awakening and to induce him to resort to resources other than logic and reason.”[11]

Zen’s encouragement to bypass the intellect does not, however, exclude an initial study of the scriptures. Thich Thien-An explains that for Zen, the scriptures “are not the truth but only guides to the truth. But once we know the direction, we have to leave the scriptures behind and experience the truth for ourselves. The scriptures are no substitute for our own experience. They are of value insofar they give us a notion, insofar as they give us a notion of what the truth is like and of where it is to be found. In Zen Buddhism experience counts for everything.”[12]

Zen garden at the Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The garden dates to the 15th century, in its current form to the 18th century. Such gardens are intended to be aids to meditation, portraying the inner essence of the natural world, beyond the outer form.

Zen in daily life

Another method Zen uses to help us awaken to our inner reality is concentration on daily acts of living. Sokei-An says:

To Bodhidharma every act from morning to evening was religion—swallowing water, eating food, sleeping, tending shop, talking to one’s neighbors. Action was his way of practice. He who truly attains awakening knows that deliverance is to be found right where he is. There is no need to retire to the mountain cave. If he is a fisherman, he becomes a real fisherman. If he is a butcher, he becomes a real butcher. The farmer becomes a real farmer and the merchant a real merchant. He lives his daily life in awakened awareness. His every act from morning to evening is his religion.”[13]

Zen masters teach that whatever we do, we should do it with full concentration—unencumbered by distractions, misconceptions, worries, daydreams and all other extracurricular mental activities.

The Zen master Yün-men encapsulates this view in a simple maxim, “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”[14]

The Zen master Taisen Deshimaru expressed the Zen ideal of living every moment and every movement fully when he said, “You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.”[15]

“Get up and do something useful,” the Zen master Hakiun enjoined, “the work is part of the koan!”[16] In other words, the puzzle of life is solved by living.

“In the spirit of Zen,” wrote Deshimaru, “everyday life becomes the contest. There must be awareness at every moment—getting up in the morning, working, eating, going to bed. That is the place for mastery of the self.”[17]

The joy of Zen is to daily internalize eternal life, the infinite nature of being and the Buddha Mind.

The essence of Zen

For those with an exoteric understanding, the term Zen must always remain simply a word conveying the thought of the discovery of Self and the contemplation of that reality which is the foundation of every illusionary nature. However, we don’t find Zen through study. We achieve Zen through the process of becoming it. Zen is not a teaching to be understood; it is communicated as a state from those who possess it to those who are capable of receiving it.

In the practice of Zen there is the perfect balance of cosmic forces. The teacher becomes the polarity of Alpha. As Alpha gives of himself to Omega, so the teacher of Zen gives to his disciple. In the process of the giving of Alpha, as it is passed over the figure-eight pattern through the nexus of the mind of God, the Zen becomes the Omega in the disciple.

See also



Elizabeth Clare Prophet, July 3, 1977.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet, August 21, 1994.

  1. Thich Thien-An, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice (Emeryville, Calif.: Dharma Publishing, 1975), p. 17.
  2. Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide (London: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 181.
  3. Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (Boston: Shambhala, 1994), s.v. “Zen.”
  4. Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 357–59.
  5. Edward Rice, Eastern Definitions (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), p. 418.
  6. Christmas Humphreys, A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism (London: Curzon Press, 1984). p. 222.
  7. D. T. Suzuki, quoted in Laurence G. Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. xix.
  8. Humphreys, A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism, pp. 180, 182–83.
  9. Ronald J. Wilkins, Religions of the World (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1974), p. 593.
  10. Edward Rice, Eastern Definitions (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), p. 418.
  11. Ch’en, Buddhism in China, p. 359.
  12. Thich Thien-An, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice (Emeryville, Calif.: Dharma Publishing, 1975), p. 22.
  13. Sokei-An, quoted in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology (Vintage Books, 1964), p. 35.
  14. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 135.
  15. David Schiller, The Little Zen Companion (New York: Workman Publishing, 1994), p. 365.
  16. Schiller, The Little Zen Companion, p. 294.
  17. Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts (New York: Arkana), p. 38.