Zen Buddhism: origins and history

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This article does not want to be an exhaustive discussion on Zen but a simple and educational approach to show newcomers its origins, history and development. There is much talk of Zen in the Western world, often inappropriately. Being very fascinated, I decided to have an experience in a Soto Zen monastery in Shikoku, Japan, which you can read here. Because it’s not enough to read books, articles, watch videos, to understand you have to go to the source and experiment in person. But it is also true that in order to better enjoy what we are about to experience, it is good to know what we are dealing with, so as to grasp every single detail without missing anything.

Many nowadays talk about Zen. Most of them do not even know what they are talking about. Zen, first and foremost, is a Buddhist school that has origins in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, which then spread to Japan under the name Zen. But let’s look at the topic in more detail.


Zen Buddhism: history

“A special transmission outside the scriptures (教外別傳);
No dependence upon words and letters (不立文字);
Direct pointing at the soul of man (直指人心);
Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood. (見性成佛)”

Four sacred verses of Bodhidharma


First of all, it must be clarified that Zen is not a Japanese peculiarity, indeed, in the Land of the Rising Sun, it is recognized as a school in itself only in the thirteenth century. Before, it was limited to circulating within Buddhist schools as an extra teaching. Furthermore, there are forms of Zen in Vietnam (known as Thiền) and in Korea (called Sòn). But let’s go to his roots in China, where it has the name of Chan. The origin of this doctrine is traced back to the mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist monk (probably born in present-day Iran) who in the fifth century went to China to spread his discipline, especially in the Shaolin monastery.

We do not know much about this Bodhidharma, the sources about him are quite late; there are those who say he was a family Brahmin and that he embraced Mahayana Buddhism having been fascinated by it. Arrived in China to spread his knowledge, based mainly on dhyana (Sanskrit term for meditation, contemplation) in the form of biguan (“wall gazing”, or meditating with eyes open in front of a wall) and reciting the name of Buddha. It seems that initially he didn’t have much success and only a few disciples followed him, whose most famous is Huike, considered the second patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

Shaolin-si monastery

Bodhidharma is also associated, according to later sources, with the Shaolin monastery and considered the founder of the Shaolinquan martial style. Seeing the lazy and burdened monks from sedentary life that made them numb during meditation, he teaches them a whole series of gymnastic, breathing and fighting exercises so that their body is toned, strengthened, their vital energy is under their control and the mind becomes free of thoughts. Although it is clear by now that the figure of Bodhidharma has been superimposed on that of others, it is still considered to be the creator of the various traditional martial styles of the Shaolin monastery. Ultimately, although there is no certainty about the birth of Chan Buddhism, we can confidently say that it develops from the sixth century onwards based on the practice of meditation, be it biguan (wall gazing) or zhiguan (meditation with closed eyes and discernment) leaving out the scriptures (but not completely rejecting them).


Something on the meaning of the term Chan. It is simply an attempt to imitate the sound of the Sanskrit word dhyana with an ideogram. We know from my article on traditional yoga what dhyana is: contemplation, meditation. It is one of the 8 angas of Patanjali‘s classical yoga, the seventh before samadhi, which is the supreme ecstasy. With this term we want to emphasize the practice of meditation, which was already present both in Mahayana Buddhism (for example in the Tiantai school), to the detriment of the sutra recitation (which I repeat, are not rejected but simply acquire a minor role) but that we also find in Theravada Buddhism and Taoism.

In fact, Zen derives from Chan, which in turn derives from the Hindu dhyana. The term dhyana, in itself, does not indicate a precise school, but only the meditative practice. This term was already used in the Vedas and in the Upanishads with the meaning of contemplation, meditation, and taken up by the Jainists and Buddhists, only with the Bhagavad Gita first and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali then, does it acquire more defined technical characteristics. Thus Chan (and then Zen), referring to this term and to the practice it indicates, have made meditation their centre.


The Zen in Japan

“If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”



Chan meditation practices, called zuochan in Chinese, entered Japan thanks to Tendai Buddhist monks who, during their travels in China, learned these disciplines and incorporated them into their everyday life, more or less in the 9th century. However, this is a process that has relegated the practise of zazen (translation of zuochan) into the Tendai school. In the 12th century, the monk Eisai went to China with the intention of continuing to India and rediscovering the ancient teachings of Buddha but was blocked by the Chinese authorities due to unstable borders. Once he found a teacher, he learnt the Chan doctrine obtaining the complete ordination and the enlightenment certificate.

He returned to Japan and founded the Kennin-ji monastery in Kyoto. He was prevented, however, from teaching only the Zen which would have to accompany the Tendai doctrine and the esoteric one. He is still considered the father of the Rinzai Zen school. Only in the thirteenth century were the first Zen monasteries founded, under the pressure of Chinese missionary monks. At the same time, Dogen, a Japanese monk disciple of Eisai, after having been in China and received the certificate of illumination and transmission lineage, moved to the Anyo-in monastery on the outskirts of Kyoto, teaching Zen exclusively. Thus was born the Soto Zen school.

Zen schools

Zen is divided into various schools that derive from as many Chinese schools. In fact, Zen is initially a copy of Chinese Chan in every way, especially with regard to lineage and transmission. Even in Chan Buddhism, as in Zen, the acknowledgement of enlightenment by a monk with an official certificate is recognized. Stuff that makes smile a lot to Westerners.

Zen Rinzai

As we have seen, Rinzai is brought to Japan by Eisai and derives from the Chinese Linji denomination founded by Linji in the 9th century. Only with Chinese missionary monks did it acquire its autonomy from the Tendai school: Lánxī Dàolóng, founder, in 1253, of the Kenchō-ji monastery in Kamakura; Wùān Pǔníng, abbot of Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto; Dàxiū Zhèngniàn who founded the Kinpōzan Jōchi-ji monastery in Kamakura; finally Wúxué Zǔyuán who was the abbot of the Engaku-ji monastery in Kamakura. The Rinzai school has 19 sub-schools named after the temple in which they are practised. The peculiarity of this school, in addition to the practice of zazen, is the use of koans, which are paradoxical phrases that help to reach the intellectual shock necessary to achieve satori (enlighting or awakening).

Awakening is immediate and sudden. The absurdity of the koans (a classic example is: how is the sound of one-handed applause?) mirrors that of life, which is insoluble and inexplicable and it is only a waste of time trying to understand it rationally. The Rinzai school is adopted in medieval Japan by the samurai (and therefore by the shoguns) while the Soto remains at a popular level. This led to the development of the martial arts practice that led to the development of bushido, the famous code of conduct, similar to the European chivalrous one.

Zen Soto

Founded by Dogen in the 13th century, it is the direct transmission of the teachings of the Chinese Chan Caodong school. It is by far the most widespread school, with almost 15,000 monasteries active. It is based only on the practice of zazen as a tool to reach the satori. This is done without “support”, that is without focusing on a particular object (a point, the breath or a mantra) but follows the concept of shikantaza, or just sitting, cultivating a generic awareness, opening the senses and letting the thoughts flow without intervening or being carried away. This simplicity of doctrine and practise has meant that it spread easily between the people and the less wealthy castes.

Other Zen schools

There are other Zen schools, but less known and widespread. One, the Fuke, was closed by imperial decree in 1871. Born from a movement of former itinerant samurai called komuso, from the Rinzai school, they begged for their living playing the flute with the head covered by a hat made of reeds. This practice was called suizen and was their way of making zazen.

The other school, still existing, is called Obaku, founded by the Chinese monk of the Linji school, Yǐnyuán Lóngqí, in 1654. In fact it is very similar to the Rinzai, with the addition of some peculiarities of the Chinese school of origin brought by the founder, like the practice of nenbutsu (the repetition of the name of Buddha Amitabha) typical of the Buddhist school of the Pure Land and a use of a greater number of sutras.


This brief and simple examination ends here. I wrote it mainly to give basic information to those interested in Zen, which can then be analyzed in other ways, and above all for those who read the article on my experience in the Zen monastery in Shikoku, Japan, which you can find here.

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