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Zen Buddhism shares with other philosophies and faiths that stress intuition and awareness the ironic condition of desiring to communicate what cannot be communicated. Like the theologies of the Middle Ages, it urges an understanding of true being by a kind of direct insight into one’s own being, but it disdains any intellectual or formalistic methods of achieving that insight. The profession of conviction, then, is largely negative; the emphasis, insofar as discourse is concerned, is not on what can be said but on that on which we must be silent. Zen masters are not lecturers; they are directors who turn the attention of disciples to some natural fact that, properly apprehended, reveals everything. Of those who have made the effort to explain Zen Buddhism, few have been more successful than the Japanese philosopher and professor, D. T. Suzuki, whose Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927, 1933, 1934), The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (1949), and Studies in Zen (1955) provide the selections collected and edited by William Barrett under the title Zen Buddhism. This volume provides a good introduction to Suzuki’s work and to Zen Buddhism; it deals with the meaning of Zen Buddhism, its historical background, its techniques, its philosophy, and its relation to Japanese culture.

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The Origin of Zen

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According to the legendary account of Zen, given by Suzuki, Zen originated in India, and the first to practice the Zen method was Skyamuni, the Buddha. He is reputed to have held a bouquet of flowers before his disciples without saying a word. Only the venerable Mahakasyapa understood the “silent but eloquent teaching on the part of the Enlightened One.” Consequently, Mahakasyapa inherited the spiritual treasure of Buddhism.

According to historical accounts, however, Zen Buddhism originated in China in 520 c.e. with the arrival of Bodhi-Dharma from India (the twenty-eighth in the line of patriarchs of Zen, according to the orthodox followers). The message brought by Bodhi-Dharma became the four-phrase summation of the Zen principles: “A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence upon words and letters; Direct pointing at the soul of man; Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.” These are not the words of Bodhi-Dharma, but of later disciples who formulated his teachings. The method of “direct pointing,” of referring to some natural thing or event as the focal point of meditation, preparatory to an instantaneous enlightenment, continues to be the most characteristic method of Zen Buddhism.

Dharma came to be known as the biguan Brahman, or the “Wall-contemplating Brahman,” because of his practice of contemplating a monastery wall—reputedly for nine years. One of the most familiar stories of his teaching has to do with the persistent seeker after truth, the monk Shen Guang, described in legend as having stood in the snow until he was buried to his knees and as having cut off his arm in order to show the sincerity of his desire to learn. Finally, gaining audience with Dharma, he said, “My soul is not yet pacified. Pray, master, pacify it.” Dharma replied, “Bring your soul here, and I will have it pacified.” Suzuki finishes the story: Guang hesitated for a moment but finally said, “I have sought it these many years and am still unable to get hold of it!” “There! It is pacified once for all.” This was Dharma’s sentence.

The Chinese founder of Zen, Suzuki reports, was Huineng (638-713), who was so deeply touched by a recitation of the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikasutra) that he made a monthlong journey to beg the patriarch Hongren to allow him to study under him. Hongren recognized Huineng’s spiritual quality and transferred the patriarchal robes to him. (The account may not be accurate, having been composed by the followers of Huineng.)

It was Huineng who taught that Zen is...

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