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What Is Zen?

Before we speak more specifically about the commentaries, or meditations, we should consider briefly what Zen means as it is used here. The word Zen is the Japanese form of the Chinese word Ch'an, which is the Chinese form of the Indian Dhyana, meaning a particular kind of meditation. The Buddha, 2,500 years ago in India, taught the importance of this kind of meditation in achieving enlightenment. A thousand years later, we are told, Bodhidharma, an Indian missionary, took this message to China. There, followers of Lao Tzu assimilated it to their way of life, called Taoism. Their attitude of going along with the nature of things, the Tao, harmonized with the non-self-assertive, noncraving acceptance of life as taught originally in India by the Buddha and then in China by Bodhidharma. The Dhyana meditation being at the heart of Bodhidharma's Buddhism, this school of Buddhism was called Ch'an. Ch'an Buddhism was tremendously influential in Chinese culture. The great arts of the Sung dynasty in China ( 960-1280) were created primarily by Ch'an-trained people.

When monks brought Ch'an to Japan in the twelfth century, it developed even more rapidly and influenced the culture even more profoundly than it had in China. Called Zen by its Japanese converts, it shaped not only the religion of the people but also the orientation of the creative workers in sculpture, painting, architecture, landscape gardening, house furnishing, the theater—even bushido, the code of the warrior, and the "arts" of swordsmanship and archery. Its selfless respect for the nature of things--like wood, rocks, clay, moss, streams, pools—as being, equally with human beings, aspects of Bud dha-nature, produced a great tradition characterized by distinguished lives and distinguished works of art.

This seedbed of unselfconscious felicity and creativity is still available to us through the works of art and the tradition of meditation created by the Zen masters.

Since Zen looks beyond the symbol to the thing, the stereotypes that most of us have constructed concerning color, sex, and age, as well as the dogmas of ethnic-bound cultures, are seen to be manmade, not part of the nature of things. Each person is structured, or "coded," to live best in his particular transaction with the Great Tao; he has his private Tao. As each of us opens himself to the operation of his secret code, he progressively functions more harmoniously. Sitting erect, quietly and strongly, in a suitable environment, facilitates this opening. The same inner coding or wisdom that heals a cut or mends a broken bone can heal the psychic wounds that each of us suffers.