Zen Buddhism

By Rev. Paul Seiler


In recent year there has been an incredible growth in Buddhism in the Western world including in Australia. Zen is among the more popular Buddhist sects operating in the West. It has seen quite considerable growth in the United States of America in the last few decades of this century.263 Many thousands of Australians have embraced Zen Buddhism. Its popularity no doubt can be found in its experience centredness. It teaches that man through meditation can experience the ultimate experience - satori.


Zen Buddhism is among one of the larger sects of Buddhism. According to the tradition of the Zen school it had its origin in China, where it was known as Ch'an. It was first introduced there by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who arrived in Canton in A.D. 520. 264 He first presented his school of Buddhism to the Chinese emperor Wu Liang, who while an enthusiastic Buddhist rejected it. So Bodhidharma withdrew to a monastery in Wei, where he eventually gathered some disciples. When Zen Buddhism began to wane in China in the thirteenth century, it caught on in Japan, where it split into two sects - the Rinzai and the Soto sect. The Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism was first introduced into Japan by Esai in A.D. 1191.265 Shortly afterwards in A.D.1227 Dogen introduced the Soto sect of Zen into Japan.266


The most fundamental characteric of Zen Buddhism is its unique system of meditation. Unlike other Buddhist sects, Zen Buddhist are not interested in the Buddhist Scriptures. They have no creeds or verbalised codes, they are a "wordless sect."267 They believe that experience is the ultimate vindication of the truth of their religion. Zen Buddhism is about the ultimate experience - it is about satori. It is this approach that distinguishes it from other types of Buddhism. The word zen derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation.268 There are two different approaches to meditation in Zen and these two approaches gave rise to the two different schools in Japanese Zen. Both approaches are meant to be the means of gaining satori without the intention of doing so. Satori is a sudden experience in which the person becomes aware of what life is all about. It may be likened to a flash of light in which the person has the realisation of Buddhahood. Alan Watts describes this way:

"Satori really designates the sudden and intuitive way of seeing into anything, whether it be remembering a forgotten name or seeing into the deepest principles of Buddhism. One seeks and seeks, but cannot find. One then gives up, and the answer comes by itself."269

When this experience happens one understands on an experiential level what life is all about. Zen Buddhism is primarily interested in experience not in knowledge. The Zen Buddhist would argue that if you have lived in the desert all your life and have never seen water, the best thing to do is not to read what an encyclopedia says about water, but rather to jump in the ocean and experience it for yourself.270


The particular characteristic of the Rinzai school of Zen is its favoured technique of meditation known as koan (which is a form of meditating on riddles) in order to achieve sudden enlightenment. A koan is a problem, sometimes paradoxical, which cannot be answered logically. One of the famous koans is the question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The student of Zen goes away and thinks about this paradox which will aid him in gaining the right frame of mind for satori to take place.271 The koan system as it exists today is largely the work of Hakuin (1685-1768); he was responsible for systematising the study of Zen in the Rinzai School. He devised five groups of koan:

1. Hosshin, or Dharmakaya koan, whereby one enters into the frontier gate of Zen.

2. Kilkan, or 'cunning barrier' koan having to do with the active expression of the state realised in the first group.

3. Gonzen or 'investigation of words' koan, this has to do with understanding of speech.

4. Nanto, or hard to penetrate koan.

5. Goi or 'Five Rank' koan based on the five relationships of 'lord' and 'servant' or of 'principle' (li) and 'the thing-event' (shih) wherein Zen is related to the Hua-yen of Avatamsaka.272

The preliminary hosshin type koan is aimed at sending the student off in the wrong direction. For example, the student might be told to find his 'original face' ie his basic nature. He is encouraged to seek it with his whole energy. When he discovers the answer to this koan he is to return and explain the riddle to his master (roshi). The student finds that no matter what answer he comes up with the master is not satisfied. Finally he is brought to his wits end and discovers that he doesn't know. Such was the objective of this koan. He is then given other koans upon which to meditate all of which are designed to help him put him in a position whereby he can experience satori. The highest form of koan is the 'Five Rank' which is designed to help the student to distinguish between relative and absolute knowledge.273 Usually this training takes up to thirty years to ccomplete, and most Zen monks do not complete the whole training or rise to the level of master.


Dogen was critical of the Rinzai sect, with its particular approach to meditation (koan). He feared that monks who meditated on koan would become so engrossed in intellectual reflection on the koan that they would become deluded into thinking about enlightenment. For Dogan, the attainment of enlightenment was not a rational process or a solution to an intellectual puzzle. Enlightenment was more likely to be achieved by the total realisation of the whole person rather than by intellectual activity. So Dogen emphasised a particular form of meditation known as zazen.

This is the practice of sitting in a particular position and meditating.274 It is not concentration in the usual sense of restricting the attention to a single sense object, such as a point of light or the tip of one's nose. It is simply a quiet awareness, without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now.275A person who meditates in the proper fashion realises that the practice of meditation and enlightenment are the same. In zazen the body and mind disappear. According to tradition Dogen was enlightened when he heard Ju-ching scolding a monk for sleeping. Ju-ching said that instead of sleeping, the monk should "drop off the body and the mind."276 When the Soto monk experiences enlightenment through zazen he becomes aware that the entire world is filled with the Buddha-nature.

According to Dogen only the moment of enlightenment has reality.277 It is important to understand that the Soto monk who practices za-zen is not striving for the attainment of satori. If such were his objective then he would be missing the whole point,which is aimlessness. Alan Watts explains, that there is a saying in Zen that "original realisation is marvellous practice" (Japanese, honosho myshua). The meaning is that no distinction is to be made between the realisation of awakening (satori) and the cultivation of Zen in meditation and action. Satori is reached only when the monk has achieved aimlessness.

The practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view. It is only when the monk practicing za-zen has achieved aimlessness that he can possible attain satori. The last thing he should be doing is trying to achieve it - it will just happen.278 The secret of success if one can call it that is detachment, a complete absences of striving of any sort.


Zen Buddhist do not believe in the existence of the personal God. Their God is impersonal - the "ultimate reality." Like other Easter religions Zen Buddhism is pantheistic. It sees mankind as basically an extension of this impersonal ultimate reality. Lit-Sen Chang a Christian convert from Zen, wrote the following about Zen:

"While however, Zen gains plausibility from some of its teachings, it is nevertheless objectionable because of its serious inadequacy and sheer futility. It supersedes the doctrine of a real Creator. Zen is a peculiar and subtle form of atheism. By identifying deity with nature, it denies the infinity and transcendence of a living personal God. All visible objects thus become but modifications of self-existence, of an unconscious and impersonal essence which is called God. Nature, the Absolute, Oneness, Suchness or Tathagata, and so on. This robs God of sovereignty by denuding Him of His power of self determination in relation to the world. God is reduced to the hidden ground. Since Zen does not affirm the existence of the living God, it is not only absolutely destitute of the special revelation of God in His Word, but is wholly alien to the God of revelation." 279

It is clearly evident from this statement that Zen Buddhism is really atheistic, in that it denies the existence of the living personal God.


The Zen Buddhist does not believe that man was created by God, rather every individual is an extension of this impersonal god. Note the following quotes made by Zen Buddhist:

"I see much common ground in Zen and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart, as he wrote, 'The eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same - one in seeing, one in knowing and one in loving' When I have shut the doors of my five senses, earnestly desiring God, I find him in my soul as clearly and as joyful as he is in eternity."280

"To quote Meister Eckhart again, 'Simple people conceive that we are to see God as if He stood on that side and we on this. It is not so; God and I are one in the act of perceiving Him.' In this absolute oneness of things, Zen establishes the foundations of its philosophy"281

It is plainly evident from these quotes that Zen Buddhists regard themselves as part of the impersonal cosmic reality. They believe that man is simply an extension of the impersonal god and that his ultimate purpose is to be absorbed back into this impersonal god.


The Zen Buddhist does not believe that man is fallen in sin and that his biggest problem is that He is separated from God on account of his sinful state. Lit-Sen-Change, a Christian convert of Zen says,

"Zen thus distorts the Biblical truth by ignoring the gravest factor in the history of mankind, namely the fall of Adam, by which the ground is cursed and our sorrows are multiplied. (cf. Genesis 3:16-19) It is true, Adam's spiritual life was originally united and bound to his Maker, but his estrangement and his revolt against God perverted the whole order of nature in heaven and earth and deteriorated his race. Zen masters, like other philosophers, only tell us to live in harmony with nature, but the Bible enjoins us to regulate our lives with a view of God to whom nature belongs."282

Adherents of Zen have an intense dislike for the Christian doctrine of sin. Rather than seeing the human race as fallen in sin and estranged from a righteous God, they see mankind's ultimate problem as being his dualistic way of perceiving things. The Zen Buddhist believes that man's problem is that he sees things in terms of black and white and of right and wrong. He must get beyond this to see that everything is essentially one. This Eastern conception of good and evil is well expressed in the film Star Wars, where the Force has both a good and a bad side. These are not opposites but simply different sides of the same thing. According to Zen Buddhist reality transcends duality - all is one. So in Zen Buddhism there is no sin, there is no real evil, there is no real good. Zen Buddhist would do well to consider what the apostle John wrote,

If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:10)

The Zen Buddhist, in denying the existence of sin, makes God out to be a liar and therefore he demonstrates his hatred toward God and His word. This religion is a lie and it appeal to the sinful man because it flatters him.


Since the Zen Buddhist does not believe in the existence of sin or in the existence of a personal God, then it follows that his understanding of salvation is vastly different from that of the Christian. The Zen Buddhist does not need to be saved from sin, but from a wrong conception of reality. The way to escape from this wrong conception of reality is by sitting in the lotus position and letting the mind "drop off"or by meditating on some riddle until your mind is thoroughly confused and you are set free from a wrong conception of reality. It is perfectly evident that the Zen Buddhist believes in a salvation by human effort. In Zen Buddhism there is no need for a Saviour who will set you free from sin. Man is understood to have the capability of setting himself free.


One can understand why this form of Buddhism has taken on in the experience centred Western world. It has much appeal to the existentialism so prominent in the thinking of Western people today. It should be a concern to us that many of our fellow Australian have embraced this false and deceptive religion. It is a very selfish and introverted religion, for it is centred on the individual and his or her attainment of the ultimate experience of satori. It is wholly self centred and as a religion it does nothing to seek to alleviate the suffering of people in the world. You do not find Zen Buddhist doing anything to help the needy of the world. It is a religion devoid of love for one's fellow man. It is also devoid of any love or devotion toward the one true God, who is revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the New and Old Testaments.


263 Walter Martin The Kingdom of the Cults op cit p.234

264 Alan Watts The Way of Zen Penguin Books 1957, p.104

265 ibid.234

266 ibid p.234

267 William Petersen op cit p.153

268 H Byron Earhart Japanese Religion - Unity and Diversity Wadsworth Publishing Co, Belmont California, 1982, p.98

269 Alan Watts op cit p.180

270 William Petersen op cit p.153

27 1William Petersen Those Curious New Cults Keats Publishing Co, New Canaan Conneticut, 1973, p.152

272 Alan Watts op cit p.180

273 Alan Watts op cit p.187

274 H Byron Earhart Japanese Religion - Unity and Diversity Wadsworth Publishing Co, Belmont California, 1982, p.98

275 Alan Watts op cit p.175

276 H Byron Earhart ibid p.100

277 H Byron Earhart ibid p.101

278 Alan Watts op cit p.174

279 Walter Martin The Kingdom of the Cults op cit p.239

280 ibid p.237

281 ibid p.237

282 ibid p. 240