Zen and Buddhism Basics Guide

Many of us today are over-stretched, trying to balance too many things. Spiritual practice is the quest to answer these questions. Zen Buddhism is a spiritual exploration that combines the principles of practice and religion. In this article, we will go through the key notions of Zen and Buddhism, and how they are connected.

What is Zen?

First and foremost, Zen is a practice. This practice goes back to the Awakening of Siddharta Gautama, more famously known as Buddha. Siddharta originated in India, 2500 years ago. Zen lies at the heart of Japanese culture. It is a school of Mahayana Buddhism.

Zen is not a moral teaching. Zen exists without dogma, and it does not require a person to believe in anything. Zen believers say that a true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in. Rather, Zen shows them how to think, what to think and what not to think. It’s also not a theory or a piece of knowledge. It’s not a belief or a religion.

What is Buddhism?

Unlike Zen, Buddhism is a religion. Central to Buddhism is the concept of dharma, which has multiple meanings in various Indian religions. Dharma is based on Buddha’s teachings and is a variety of beliefs, practices, and traditions.

Buddhism started in India sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE. From there, it spread throughout Asia. Two major branches of Buddhism flourished, and these are the Theravada (The School of the Elders) and the Mahayana (The Great Vehicle). Buddhism is a major world religion. About 500 million people or 7% of the global population are followers of Buddhism.

Key Notions of Zen and Buddhism

Although Zen and Buddhism are different, these became related to each other.

Mahayana Buddhism spread as far as Japan, and the Japanese embraced it. Zen Buddhism emphasizes the value of meditation and intuition, rather than rituals and studies.

Zazen is a key notion of Zen Buddhism. However, Zazen or Zen Buddhism cannot be fully defined. Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, through a book or blog is impossible. Doing it this way will only weaken its meaning.

Devout Zen Buddhists believe that there are no words to actually define Zazen. For them, it’s like trying to describe the taste of honey to someone who hasn’t tasted it before. As long as you have not experienced it, you are in the illusion of what Zazen is.

  • In short, Zen Buddhism is a practice that needs to be experienced. It’s not something that you can understand with your brain. Although Zen hard to fully understand, practicing it is a starting point. You can learn the basics from books and videos. But if you’re serious about learning it, you need to sit and practice it.

For people who believe in Zen and Buddhism, Zen involves silence and quietly sitting down. Zen is about not moving and letting go of one’s thoughts. Zazen meditation is a key notion and focuses on posture and breathing. One achieves Zen when he/she lets go of the ego, and let the unconscious mind merge with the universe. Also, each person experiences Zen in a unique way. Each one has his/her own personal and intimate journey.

The Connection between Zen and Buddhism

Zen Buddhists believe that the Buddha got enlightened through the practice of Zazen. It’s not with Buddhist rituals or practices. Siddharta Gautama realized Zazen, an attitude of spiritual awakening. From there, it became the source from which all daily actions flow.

Buddha is neither a god nor a legend. Buddha was a man who was first named Siddharta Gautama. He learned and appreciated meditation at a young age. From here, he also learned about reflection and self-growth. One evening, at the age of thirty-five, he sat in dhyana (a Sanskrit term with the same meaning as Zazen in Japanese) at the feet of a pipal tree. This tree would later be known as “The Bodhi Tree”. He then meditated, and was determined not to stop until he reaches Enlightenment.

  • Zen and Buddhism believers claim that Gautama attained Enlightenment after 49 days of meditation. It was at this time when he became “The Buddha” or the “Awakened One”. At this moment, he experienced a sublime intuitive understanding of his existence. He understood the cause of earthly suffering, and how it could be eliminated.

It was then that Buddha realized certain principles of Zen Buddhism. Buddha’s observations about suffering became known as the Four Noble Truths. In addition, he developed the Eightfold Path. This path is the answer to eradicating suffering. Both these teachings are central to Zen and Buddhism and are connected to each other.

Let’s talk about the principles of Zen Buddhism in detail.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha’s Enlightenment allowed him to see and understand why man suffers. He was able to do this the moment he gave his worldly life up. After realizing the cause of earthly suffering, he laid it down to be understood by other people. These teachings are now known as the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering (Samsara) – According to Buddha, suffering is endemic to life. Everybody suffers. Even if we meet our physical needs, we are not at peace. There’s a constant uneasy feeling. It’s like there is always something missing in our lives.
  2. Origination (Samudaya) – Suffering originates from clinging. We suffer because we attach ourselves to material objects or ideas. We become obsessed with things that are eventually transient.
  3. Stopping (Nirvana) – A state of not suffering or clinging. One attains nirvana if the cycle of samsara and samudaya are stopped. Note however that nirvana denies everything, even the desire to attain it. Nirvana is also referred to as the “emptiness of emptiness”. That’s because the desire for emptiness is also a form of clinging.
  4. Path (Marga) – Buddha says that there’s a certain path to escape the cycle of samsara. This is called the Eightfold Path. And it’s a separate story…

The Eightfold Path

Zen Buddhism followers believe that the Eightfold Path is the way to Zen. This is connected to the Four Noble Truths, and it was laid down so man could end suffering. The Eightfold Path helps us attain nirvana. It frees us from attachments and delusions. Only then can we understand the truth of things.

To follow the Eightfold Path, you must adhere to the following:

  1. Right View – This means seeing things in the right perspective. It’s about seeing things as they really are, without any delusions or pretenses.
  2. Right Thought – We are what we are because of what we think. Our thoughts determine our course of action.
  3. Right Speech – Speak only of truth. Avoid slander, lies, gossip and refrain from abusive language.
  4. Right Action – This is about behaving peacefully and harmoniously with yourself and others.
  5. Right Livelihood – Earn your living in a righteous manner. Do not resort to illegal activities. And do not exploit other human beings or animals.
  6. Right Effort – We have to train our mind to think in the right direction. We have to control our thoughts and replace the unpleasant ideas with positive ones.
  7. Right Mindfulness – This forms the basis of Buddhist meditation. Buddha suggests that we should focus mentally and stay away from earthly desires and distractions.
  8. Right Concentration – This goes along with right mindfulness, and is the most vital of all the aspects of the Eightfold Path. One needs to practice proper meditation to reach Zen.

Zen and Buddhism may be different but connected. Buddhism is a religion, but its practices relate to Zen. The key notions of Zen Buddhism involve meditation, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. All these principles are connected and lead the path to Zen.   

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