top of page
  • Writer's picturenigelwellings

Evolution of Mindfulness 6.


This is our last session. We will have a peek at Zen and its origins within Chinese Buddhism. I have found a strange paradox in Zen, on the one hand it is almost militaristic in its insistence on precise ritual forms and behaviours while on the other it is profoundly poetic to the point of incomprehensibility. Zen itself is a koan.

Brief History

Zen starts its long and complex history in China – where it is called Chán, from the Sanskrit dhyāna, ‘meditation’. Buddhism arrived in China, having travelled along the Silk Road, sometime during the first century CE. Somewhat later, Chán/Zen traces its origins to the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma, who arrived in China in the late fifth century. He is said to have brought with him a special non-verbal teaching originating from an exchange recorded in the ‘Flower Sermon’ between the Buddha and his disciple Mahākāśyapa. The Buddha held up a flower and Mahākāśyapa just smiled as he received the wisdom transmitted. Chán/Zen found its way into Vietnam from a very early period, some time in the first century, it reached Korea from the seventh century on, (where it is called Seon), and Japan from the twelfth century, becoming known as ‘Zen’. Zen has two principle Schools, Sōtō and Rinzai, there is also a third, smaller and comparatively unknown, Ōbaku. Sōtō, introduced by Dogen, emphasises ‘Just Sitting’ – shikantaza, and Rinzai, introduced by Myōan Eisai, emphasises, meditative ‘break throughs’, kensho, achieved through intentionally mind confounding koans. Zen is a sub-school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, based on a group of Mind Only and Buddha Nature Mahāyāna Sutras, there is also within it a good dash of Chinese Taoism.


In many ways Zen meditation practice is not particularly different from the practices of calm abiding and insight found in all other Buddhist traditions. However, if we look at Dogen’s instructions for ‘just sitting’ the posture is extremely important and must be maintained. Sitting cross legged, the centre of gravity falls in the centre of a triangle made by the base of the spine and the two knees. This is achieved by pushing the body slightly forward, straight back, neither slouching nor straining up and forward too much. The hands rest in the lap, right on left, palm up, thumbs touching, and the elbows are held a little away from the sides. This naturally creates a bearable tension and deepens belly breathing.

In just sitting we rest our attention on the breath, felt in the belly, the hara, and supported by counting from one to ten. This is then repeated many times so the mind settles. Some teachers also encourage a slower, deeper breathing that may achieve perhaps five or six breaths per. minute. At first this is approached by exhaling less and breathing in less than we ordinarily do. In this way breath is retained in the lungs and the period of in and out naturally extends. To encourage this we push the belly slightly forward when we inhale and let it sink back with the exhalation. We do not push down. Breathing this way becomes very subtle and pleasurable.

Breathing in this way, increasing our concentration creates samadhi, a deep, relaxed and stable concentration that is undistracted. Focused on the breath we become one with it. This is to forget and transcend ourselves. Here there are three stages of practices:

  • ‘Man is forgotten, man is empty’ – forgetting ourselves while practicing.

  • ‘Dharma is empty’ – the object of meditation is forgotten.

  • ‘Both man and dharma are empty’ – called ‘the great death’.

However this type samadhi is ‘static’, which I understand to be the traditional Buddhist criticism of all absorption states, and therefore it must be followed by the ‘Great Rebirth’ which is the dawning of wisdom that is the ultimate expression of insight.

This insight may come in a flash called a kensho – a break through, a moment of illuminating insight that experientially reveals the empty and interdependent nature of reality. However, though a non-dual experience, this is not yet enlightenment, realisation is still partial. We may have many kensho prior to full awakening.

There is also a variant on this practice called ‘Maintaining The One’. This essentially is to select each and every component of our mental and physical existence as an object of mindfulness until the emptiness or each and all has been realised. This requires a more open, less focused form of concentration, a form of practice that can be traced back all the way to the teaching of the historical Buddha. Again the aim of this is to rest in a non-dual, objectless meditation. A direct knowing that is not partitioned into knowing subject and ‘other’ objects. This ‘just sitting’, shikantaza, is particularly a signature practice for Dogen’s Sōtō school.


This then takes us to probably the most well known and also confusing aspect of Zen Buddhism, the koans. Koan practice is usually associated with Master Eisai’s Rinzai Zen, however this is not entirely true as Dogen and the Sōtō school also utilise them – perhaps the difference is in the emphasis placed on the importance of the kensho. Koan literally translates as ‘public case’, meaning case histories that recall exchanges between Zen masters and their students. These exchanges illustrate and hopefully evoke moments of awakening insight. Used as objects of meditation they can be contemplated in their entirety or as a single word taken to represent the whole – Mu, being the most well known. Over time these accounts, koans, were compiled in books such as the ‘Gateless Gate’, and students of Rinzai Zen would work their way through the list until they were all ‘passed’ – that is realised. Knowing whether one had passed or not is dependent on the response of ones Zen master. Regular meetings with him, dokusan, perhaps two a day during periods of intensive retreat, entail presenting ones understanding of the koan to the master and him responding in such a way to either confirm ones realisation or help one to continue. If we have realised our koan, perhaps accompanied by a kensho, the next koan is set.

Today I imagine these enlightening exchanges are fairly kind but the accounts collected in the books of koans are often violent and bizarre. Here are several examples, the first is a ‘starter’, the Mu koan:

A monk asked Jōshū “Has a dog Buddha-Nature?” Jōshū answered “Mu”.

One explanation of this Koan is: “The koan is not about whether a dog does or does not have a Buddha Nature because everything is Buddha Nature, and either a positive or negative answer is absurd because there is no particular thing called Buddha Nature.” But this perhaps is not as obvious as it sounds because the word ‘Mu’ can mean “no” but it can also mean “emptiness”, a synonym for Buddha Nature. It can also mean a “transcendental negation”. Knowing all this the conceptual meaning begins to slide about a bit.

Here is another:

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

– a koan very close to;

“Show me your original face.”

And lastly the famous “One Finger Zen”:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.

When Gutei was about to pass from this world he gathered his monks around him. “I attained my finger-Zen,” he said, “from my teacher Tenryū, and in my whole life I could not exhaust it.” Then he passed away.

Mumon’s comment: Enlightenment, which Gutei and the boy attained, has nothing to do with a finger. If anyone clings to a finger, Tenryū will be so disappointed that he will annihilate Gutei, the boy and the clinger all together.

Gutei cheapens the teaching of Tenryū,

Emancipating the boy with a knife.

Compared to the Chinese god who pushed aside a mountain with one hand

Old Gutei is a poor imitator.

So work it out for yourself!

If we wish to incorporate koans into our practice one method is to start each session with breathing meditation and then once the mind settles and is calm to hold the koan in awareness. Mu. This is quite different from worrying at it intellectually. Actually intellectual understandings do exist, there are books that contain them believe it or not, but this is to entirely miss the point. A cognitive answer will never facilitate a kensho.

Finally the most important thing of all to understand with Zen practice, particularly Dogen’s ‘just sitting’, is that we do this not to achieve Buddha Nature but to express Buddha Nature. Buddha Nature is already here, it is everything, there is nothing to change or improve. Looking for it in meditation is to obscure it further. All the koans are saying just this – not in words that give an intellectual understanding, but in a gesture, a weird comment, that enlightens us with an insight into the immanence of awakened mind. In non-dual awareness, in this very moment.

Because of this a visit to a Face Book Zen group can be confusing or even distressing. Members can sound narcissistically inflated, (as indeed they may be), seemingly pretending to be spiritual when just doing stuff that everyone else does anyway. The Zen description of practice, “Chopping wood and drawing water”, translated into the present, does sound mad. So doing ordinary everyday jobs is the practice. Nothing more than this. Loading the dish washer and hoovering the dog? But we also need to remember another Zen saying, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is”. The chopping and drawing, or the loading and hoovering, are not at the level of the initial ordinary perception but at the third once their emptiness – there is no mountain – has been recognised. Looks ordinary but isn’t. Likewise with the issue of a break through, a kensho. Dogen is not anti kensho as some seem to suggest but rather assumes that the student has already had (or will have) a break through. This then makes sense of just sitting. Having glimpsed Buddha Nature one deeply knows that as one sits all that sits is Buddha Nature – not a concept but a felt experience.

A good example of this misunderstanding is found with the Zen Roshi and Psychoanalyst Barry Magid saying that when we die we are just dead. This initially sounds like he is saying nothing different from the average atheist. There is nothing after life, the body just rots. However this can’t be true. As a Zen Roshi Magid will have all sorts of understandings about the illusion of a discretely existing self and the misperception of the external world. Looked at through these lenses the whole notion of death radically changes. So then why does he say what he does? I don’t actually know but my guess is for the effect it has on the hearer. He is shocking us out of a position that has all its premises wrong. There may be something after death but who is the person who ‘experiences’ it? And if we are attached to ‘our’ continuation what does it feel like when this is taken away? Mu.

“Baso said to a monk, “If I see you have a staff, I will give it to you. If I see you have no staff, I will take it away.”

Zen in Action

Here in the West Zen is largely a lay practice but in Japan it is principally pursued within the monastery (and nunnery?). Japanese culture is highly ritualistic and has an extremely strong aestheticism. Because of this Zen practice in both traditional monastic settings and in lay centres is both beautiful – the rows of black robes against polished wood, the stark interiors, the stone gardens – and very strict – being hit with a stick when dozing. Zen practice extends into all aspects of life, along with walking meditation, kinhin, there is also bowing, chanting sutras, ‘kitchen practice’ – chopping wood, drawing water, formalised eating rituals, oryoki, and sleeping. It also extends into the decorative arts: painting, calligraphy, poetry, gardening, flower arrangement and the tea ceremony. And the martial arts: the ways of sword, bow, other weapons and hand to hand combat. Rinzai Zen was particularly valued by Japan’s officer caste, samurai, and influenced deeply their code of behaviour Bushidō, ‘the way of warrior’ – codes of honour and ideals that dictated the samurai way of life. However all this comes down to the same thing, all of these ‘Zen activities’ are the expression of Buddha Nature. Bow, chant, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit walk, chant, bow, eat, chant, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit walk, chant ……. sleep and do it again. This is not the arena for self expression – which is just as well as there is no self to express!

And lastly ….

I have very much enjoyed putting together these notes. There is something really mischievous about the Zen stories that I find captivating and infuriating in equal measure. I am also attracted to the simplicity of Dogen’s just sitting. One thing we have not broached is the issue of ‘sudden enlightenment’. Chán/Zen has frequently been associated with this idea because – I think – that a break through – kensho, satori – happens suddenly. However this, though true, misrepresents the situation. For a break through to occur there must be much preparation before, they seldom simply come out of the blue. There is also something here about the omni-present Buddha Nature – we cannot recognise it by stages, we either ‘see’ it or we don’t. But then, yet again, whether we see it or not is dependent on the merit, good karma, we have previously accumulated. Further more, though a break through comes suddenly, further breakthroughs do not necessarily quickly follow. In fact, some Zen teachers question the whole notion of someone becoming enlightened – achieving a stable state – and instead speak of enlightened actions – placing the focus on the transitory and the process. This explanation may go someway to explaining the historical occasions when Zen masters have toppled spectacularly off their pedestals. Lastly I remain puzzled by the comparison between the Dzogchen and Zen notions of the non-dual. Are they talking about the same thing? Plainly the backgrounds that they arise from, sutra and tantra respectively, are different, as is the cultural context as a whole, but what about the experience? Sadly this must remain forever unknown but it is interesting that while Dzogchen retains an element of dualism in its language – the difference between ‘mind’ and ‘mind essence’ – Zen does not even do this. There is nothing outside of Buddha Nature, Buddha Nature is everything, already, right now! The last great expression of Buddhist thought is exquisitely beautiful.


Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman, 2002, On Zen Practice, Body, breath and Mind, Wisdom Publications, Boston.

Shunryu Suzuki, 1970, 2011, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page