Zen is a form of Japanese Buddhism that developed from the Chinese Mahayana school of Buddhism known as Chan. The core of Zen practice involves using seated meditation to achieve enlightenment. In Zen, one sees and accepts the world just as it is and is aware of the impermanence of everything; one should fully focus on each moment, not what has been or what will be. The medieval Zen master Dogen developed a complex view of the stationary aspects of time to account for the apparently stable sequential order of the passage of moments. His theory substantiated his claim that the Buddhist ideal could be realized only through continuous practice. By focusing on and living fully in the moment, an individual can achieve satori, the intuitive understanding of the underlying unity of all existence.
Zen first emerged as a distinct school of Buddhism in China in the 7th century CE. From China, Zen spread southward to Vietnam and eastward to Korea and Japan by the 13th century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zen also established a distinct presence in North America and Europe. The two main sects of Zen were brought to Japan by Japanese monks who studied in China. The Buddhist monk Eisai (1141-1215) introduced Rinzai Zen in 1191, and the Buddhist monk Dogen (1200-1253) introduced Soto Zen in 1227. Both sects still flourish today, along with some smaller movements.
Because of a worldview that lives in the moment, Zen has had a strong influence on Far Eastern arts and crafts. Haiku poetry, ceremonial tea drinking, painting, calligraphy, gardening, and architecture were all influenced by the practice of Zen. Mountains, birds, plants, rocks, and other natural subjects were ideally suited to a point of view that reflects immediate direct vision (like a window) rather than an interpretation of a subject (like a mirror).
It is difficult to trace when the Western world became aware of Zen, but a Japanese Zen monk named Soyen Shaku did attend the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. In Europe, Expressionist and Dada movements in the art world of the early 20th century shared many themes with Zen. The British-American philosopher Alan Watts took a close interest in Zen Buddhism and lectured on it extensively through the 1950s. Jack Kerouac published a book in 1959 titled The Dharma Bums, illustrating how a fascination with Buddhism, and Zen in particular, was being absorbed into bohemian lifestyles, especially along the western coast of the United States. In the decades since that time, schools in the mainstream forms of Zen have been established around the world.
In other forms of Buddhism, an individual achieves enlightenment through a combination of training, meditation, and the study of religious texts. Zen, in contrast, focuses solely on seated meditation (zazen) as the means of gaining enlightenment. Meditation practices differ in Zen schools. Soto Zen teaches shikantaza, which is strictly sitting in a state of alert attention completely free of thought. In practicing shikantaza over time, insight is gradually achieved. Rinzai Zen uses koans during meditation to achieve enlightenment in a sudden flash. Koans are riddles with no solutions or paradoxical anecdotes or questions that demonstrate the uselessness of logical reasoning, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen tradition emphasizes direct communication over the study of scripture, so the Zen teacher plays an important role. The Zen teacher is a person ordained in any Zen school to teach the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and to guide students in meditation. Zen is a way of life that has paradoxically produced a large body of literature.
Time in Zen Buddhism
There have been many writings on time in the history of Buddhism, but Dogen of the Soto Zen school has gone farther than most in attempting to organize the experience of time into a system of thought. Dogen wrote an essay titled “Uji” in the year 1240 when he was 41 years old. Uji is the philosophy of time (U = existence, and ji = time). Basically, he wrote that time is existence and all existence is time. The word Uji refers to a specific time taken from an infinite continuity. Dogen says: “Uji arises, free from desire. It materializes now here, now there. Even the king of heaven and his retainers are not separated from uji manifested. Other beings on land and in water also arise from uji. All things in darkness and light arise from uji. These manifestations become the time process. Without time, nothing can arise.” Dogen’s view is that all existences are linked and ultimately become time. From one point of view, each moment of time is isolated and disconnected from the past and future. From another point of view, time manifests new time each moment, connecting the past and future. Dogen speaks both to the continuity and discontinuity of time.
Zen Buddhism emphasizes the transience of the phenomenal world. A great emphasis is placed on concrete events being intuitively understood through contemplation rather than the study of theory or scripture. Through meditation, one hopefully becomes enlightened, or achieves Buddhahood. Buddhahood is time. Dogen states that those who want to know Buddhahood may know it by knowing time as it is revealed to us. Because we are already immersed in time, Buddhahood is not something to achieve in the future but something that “is” now, and we just have to realize it.
See also Mahayana Buddhism; Theravada Buddhism
Heine, S., & Wright, D. S. (Eds.). (2006). Zen classics: Formative texts in the history of Zen Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kapleau, P. (1965). The three pillars of Zen. New York: Weatherhill.
Katagiri, D. (2007). Each moment is the universe: Zen and the way of being time. Boston: Shambhala.
Leighton, T. D. (2007). visions of awakening space and time: Dogen and the Lotus sutra. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Suzuki, D. T. (1996). Zen Buddhism. New York: Doubleday.