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A Short History of Zen

Zen is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The word Zen comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word chán, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as “meditation” or “meditative state”. If you mention Zen to many people in the West (well, at least outside of California), they almost always think about fruits and nuts, and not the breakfast cereal variety. (“What kind of craziness are those pot-smoking, surfing yoga instructors up to now, dude?”). But to a large part of the rest of the world, particularly in Asia, Zen is a way of life: a simple, non-materialistic, human-centric existence.

The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century CE. From China,Zen spread south to Vietnam, and east to Korea and Japan. As a matter of tradition, the establishment of Zen is credited to the South Indian Pallava prince-turned-monk, Bodhidharma, who came to China during the rise of Tamil Buddhism in Tamilakam to teach a “special transmission outside scriptures, not founded on words or letters.”

Thus, Zen developed as a way to concentrate on direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Wisdom was passed, not through words or concepts, but through a lineage of one-to-one direct transmission of experience from teacher to student. It is commonly taught that such lineage continued all the way from the Buddha’s time to the present.

Although it is difficult to trace when the West first became aware of Zen as a distinct form of Buddhism, the visit of Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen monk, to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 is often pointed to as an event that enhanced its profile in the Western world. It was during the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the number of Westerners, other than the descendants of Asian immigrants, pursuing a serious interest in Zen reached a significant level. The first Chinese master to teach Westerners in North America was Hsuan Hua, who taught Chán and other traditions of Chinese Buddhism in San Francisco during the early 1960s.

Although it is a form of Buddhism, Zen does not have to conflict with other organized religions, and many Jews and Christians practice components of Zen. Even those who subscribe to a higher power find it worthwhile to look inside and truly understand themselves. For example, in 1989, the Vatican released a position paper that supported the use of Zen concepts in Christian prayer. Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest, once said, “Without Buddhism I could not be a Christian.”