Brief History of Zen

The origins of Zen are shrouded in the mists of time but it would be safe to say that the practice of one-pointed concentration and absorption are deeply rooted in ancient yogic practices. The first human in recorded history who used zazen to come to enlightenment is Siddhartha Gautama. Born in the noble warrior class of the Shakya people of the Terai region of what is now Nepal, young Siddharta was beset with the problems of old age, sickness, suffering and death.  At the age of 29, he left his wife, son and princely life to become a wandering ascetic in order to resolve his existential angst.  With his health almost wasted away by six years of severe asceticism, he turned to a more moderate way to find the answer to his quest.  He decided to meditate under a Bodhi tree and not to get up until he had realized the answer to his supreme koan.  At dawn, catching a glance of Venus twinkling in the early morning sky triggered Siddhartha’s great enlightenment.  He was one with the morning star!  He was one with the entire universe!  He saw that everything is imbued with this wondrous and ineffable nature but human beings did not realize this because of their delusive views about themselves and others.  This was the cause of their suffering. He also saw the means to free one’s self from the endless round of miserable existence.  From this point on, Siddhartha Gautama was referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha – the Awakened One, the World Honored One, the Sage of the Shakya Clan, the Tathagatha.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Zen?

This four-line stanza attributed to Bodhidharma reveals to us the classic definition of Zen:

- A special transmission outside the scriptures,
- Not relying on words or letters
- Pointing directly to the Mind
- Realizing one’s True Nature and attaining Buddahood

From this verse, we glean that the objective of Zen is the realization of one’s True Nature through practice and experience rather than intellectual study. This practice is a breath-centered meditation that silences the body and the mind in order to realize one’s True Nature.

The word Zen is short from the Japanese zenna which comes from the Chinese ch’an or ch’anna and the Sanskrit dhyana, all of which means meditation or contemplation.

What is the purpose of Zen?

Practitioners of Zen commit to its discipline in order to find their True Nature. Dedicated and regular practice leads to deepening concentration. This concentrated spiritual power is known as joriki. After a period of assiduous practice, one will experience kensho -- an event that opens or awakens a practitioner to the True Self. Through continued constant practice, the reality of the True Self becomes the overriding principle in one’s everyday life. There is a paradox in the practice of Zen. Yamada Koun Roshi, the co-founder of our sangha, declared that the purpose of Zen practice is the perfection of one’s character. Yet, even as we strive to attain perfection, we realize that our True Self is perfect and complete from the very beginning.

Is Zen a religion?

Zen is a practice and a way of life; it is not a religion. Zen is not a belief system; it does not promulgate any dogma. A religion is an organized system of beliefs and practices used to worship a transcendent being commonly referred to as god. Religion entails faith and exclusivity. Zen complements whatever religion one subscribes to and makes one a better practitioner of that religion because the sincere practice of Zen leads to a profound spiritual experience which is the core of every religion.

What is the philosophy of Zen?

A philosophy is a set of ideas about certain concepts and the nature and meaning of life. Zen is not so much about ideas and concepts as it is a practice to realize things as they are.

From where did Zen Originate?

The origins of Zen are shrouded in the mists of time but it would be safe to say that the practice of one-pointed concentration and absorption are deeply rooted in ancient yogic practices. The first human in recorded history who used zazen to come to Zen awakening is Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as Shakyamuni Buddha.

The way to attain enlightenment was passed on by the Buddha to his disciples and their awakening experiences were verified in a line of transmission from Shakyamuni Buddha down through 28th Indian Patriarchs. Bodhidharma, the 28th Indian Patriarch, brought Zen to China in the 6th Century. From China, where it flourished for many centuries, Zen was transmitted to Japan where, beginning the 12th Century, it became an important influence on all aspects of Japanese life andculture. Zen was also propagated to Korea from China in the seventh century. In the 20th century, the Western world learned Zen mostly from Japanese masters, and later from Western teachers trained by Japanese masters.

How are Zen and Buddhism related?

Zen is the practice of meditation to awaken to one’s True Nature. Siddhartha Gautama realized his Buddhahood through the practice of zazen. The Buddha shared his experience of enlightenment, his spiritual practice and his moral teachings with his disciples. These teachings were the basis of a movement that later on came to be called Buddhism, a religion with its own doctrine, rituals, and organization. Though Zen meditation was an essential factor in the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhism developed in many different ways and today not all Buddhist practice Zen.

Zen is a spiritual practice. One can practice Zen without being a Buddhist and one can be a Buddhist without practicing Zen.

How old must one be to practice Zen?

There is no age requirement or ideal age for the practice of Zen. The practice does require the physical ability for sustained periods of physical stillness and emotional maturity and stability.

Are Zen and yoga related? Must one practice yoga to be able to practice Zen?

Zen and yoga are related and Zen has influences from yoga, specifically the postures for meditation and the use of the breath in concentration. The practice of yoga helps the practice of Zen as yoga emphasizes and strengthens awareness of the body, posture, and flexibility of joints and limbs, all of which are needed for zazen.

Are Zen and martial arts related?

The martial arts, like yoga, have many things in common with Zen—body awareness, posture, balance. Although there is no direct connection between the two, meditation is often used by those who practice the martial arts to increase their concentration, spontaneity, and intuition.

What is the relationship between Zen and the fine arts?

Over time, Zen practitioners develop a heightened sense of clarity, simplicity, order, spontaneity, and harmony, all of which are important in expression and the arts. Although there is no Zen school of painting or calligraphy, many forms of art and many artists have been influenced by Zen.

How do I practice Zen?

Over time, Zen practitioners develop a heightened sense of clarity, simplicity, order, spontaneity, and harmony, all of which are important in expression and the arts. Although there is no Zen school of painting or calligraphy, many forms of art and many artists have been influenced by Zen.

Do I have to be a vegetarian to practice Zen?

There are no permanent dietary restrictions in the practice of Zen. As the digestion of animal protein puts a strain on the body, a vegetarian diet is observed during a sesshin or Zen retreat in order not to divert energy that would be required to digest animal protein from rigorous hours of meditation. The practice does not require conversion to vegetarianism although many practitioners do prefer a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.


BUDDHA (Sanskrit) – one who has awakened to the true nature of existence. Historically, the Buddha refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama. The word can also refer to the ultimate fact of reality.

BUDDHA NATURE – a term that refers to the state of perfection inherent in all forms of creation. Buddha nature is one’s true nature and birthright.

DHARMA (Sanskrit) – a word that can mean any one of the following: the way (as in method), the teaching, the law, the ultimate truth. Dharma is the expression of true nature. In zen practice, it often means the practice of the Buddha’s way and his teaching.

DOJO (Japanese) – practice hall; gymnasium.

DOKUSAN (Japanese) – a private interview with the teacher in his/her room.

GASSHO (Japanese) – the gesture of raising the hands, palms together, to indicate respect, gratitude, humility, or all three. The fingertips should be level with the nostrils.

GODO (Japanese) – assistant of the jikido.

HANYA SHINGYO (Japanese) – The Heart Sutra. This Mahayana sutra expounds on the core truth of zen practice: Form is nothing but emptiness; emptiness is nothing but form.

INKIN (Japanese) – a small, high-pitched hand bell used in the zendo.

INO (Japanese) – in a temple or monastery, the monk in charge of leading chants and sutra recitation.

JIKIDO (Japanese) – the monitor in charge of the zendo. This person is in charge of the physical environment in the zendo. Only the jikido may turn lights, electric fans and other devices on and off.

KENSHO (Japanese) – the initial experience of enlightenment.

KINHIN (Japanese) – walking meditation done between periods of zazen to restore circulation in the lower extremities.

KOAN (Japanese) – the expression of a universal truth in conundrum form. Koan are riddles that cannot be solved using the discursive intellect.

KYOSAKU (Japanese) – the stick used to arouse dormant energy.

MAHAYANA (Sanskrit) – the stream of Buddhism known as “the Great Vehicle”. Zen Buddhism is one of the Mahayana sects.

MAKYO (Japanese) – illusory sensual (visual, auditory, olfactory) phenomena that could arise from deep sitting. One should not let makyo disturb his/her practice. The occurrence of makyo should be reported to the teacher.

ROSHI (Japanese) – a zen master; literally means venerable teacher.

SAMADHI (Sanskrit) – a state of intense yet effortless contemplation and awareness.

SAMU (Japanese) – a period of manual labor.

SANGHA (Sanskrit) – a community of practitioners.

SATORI (Japanese) – deep enlightenment, Self-realization.

SEIZA (Japanese) – the traditional Japanese way of sitting, with the back erect and the buttocks resting on one’s heels.

SENSEI (Japanese) – teacher.

SESSHIN (Japanese) – a zen retreat which involves complete silence and intensive sitting.

SHIKANTAZA (Japanese) – the highest form of zen practice, literally just one-pointed sitting in zazen with full awareness without the benefit of counting or watching the breath, working on a koan or concentrating on anything.

SHOKEN (Japanese) – very the first interview of the student with his/her teacher with the student having the purpose of formally starting zen practice. The bowing protocol is different between shoken and regular dokusan.

SUTRA (Sanskrit) – an ancient document, usually from the Indian subcontinent, written in a silk roll; literally “a thread on which jewels are strung”. In zen, almost all sutras are the recorded discourses of Shakyamuni Buddha.

TANTO (Japanese) – the most senior practitioner next to the teacher. In a monastery, the Tanto is usually the head monk.

TENZO (Japanese) – the person in charge of the meals and the kitchen.

TEISHO (Japanese) – a public teaching given by a zen master or a zen teacher. Unlike homilies and sermons, a teisho is a direct presentation of the truth aimed to catalyze an enlightenment experience.

THERAVADA (Sanskrit) – the stream of Buddhism known as “the Teaching of the Elders”. The Sanskrit term Hinayana, which means “the Little Vehicle”, refers to the same branch but has a derogatory connotation.

YAZA (Japanese) – zazen done after 9 p.m. (the normal bedtime for monks), usually lasting until dawn of the next day.

ZAFU (Japanese) – the black round cushion used for sitting.

ZABUTON (Japanese) – the square black cushion used for sitting.

ZAZEN (Japanese) – sitting zen meditation. For zen practitioners, the term sitting is synonymous with zazen.

ZAZENZAI (Japanese) – a gathering, usually lasting one day, for zazen, teisho and dokusan.

ZEN (Japanese) – an abbreviated form of the word zenna which is a transliteration of the Chinese word ch’an which in turn comes from the Sanskrit dhayna. Zen is a process of concentration and absorption by which the mind is brought to equanimity and then to awakening. The classic definition of zen attributed to Bodhidharma is “ a special transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent on words and letters, pointing to the nature of mind, seeing directly into one’s true nature, and attaining enlightenment.” Son is the Korean word for zen.

ZENDO (Japanese) – zen meditation hall.

ZENJI (Japanese) – an honorific term referring to a great or renowned zen master.

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