What Is Zen Buddhism and What Is Its Primary Goal?

by Jennifer Spirko
The simplicity of the Otani Gardens evokes the spirit of "mu," or emptiness, of Zen Buddhism.

The simplicity of the Otani Gardens evokes the spirit of "mu," or emptiness, of Zen Buddhism.

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Zen is a form of Buddhism that relies heavily on the practice of meditation. In fact, the word itself is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term “Chan,” deriving from a Sanskrit word for meditation. This linguistic basis reveals not only the key practice at the heart of Zen, but also its long cultural history, dating back to the early years of Indian Buddhism. Like most Buddhists, Zen practitioners aim for enlightenment, called “satori,” but in the case of Zen, that enlightenment takes a uniquely pragmatic approach.

Za-Zen

The key to Zen practice is za-zen, which Shigenori Nagatomo in the "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy," translates as “sitting meditation.” The practice of za-zen is crucial, because Zen is an experiential approach; it is, in other words, not something one believes in, but something one does. Meditation typically takes either of two forms, Nagatomo explains: koan meditation or shikan taza, translated as “just sitting.” “Koan” does not easily translate into English, although some writers call them “Zen riddles.” Koan forces the Buddhist to solve an intellectual puzzle without relying on intellect. The seeming paradox forces the meditator into “breaking through ego-consciousness,” according to Nagatomo.

Satori

The goal of Zen practice is satori, Japanese for enlightenment. Every person has the capacity to attain this state, meaning that each of us is, potentially, a Buddha. Nagatomo calls this state the “perfection of personhood.” While enlightenment is, generally speaking, the goal of all branches of Buddhism, Zen differs in its focus on the practice. Achieving satori, in other words, doesn’t make the practitioner a morally better person. Dale S. Wright of Occidental College makes this case, arguing that the extent to which Zen masters were ethical people relies upon the extent to which they developed a morality from sources other than Zen. Satori is a pure state, beyond culture or morality.

Mu

The Japanese term mu connotes “no” or “not,” and it often appears in Zen writing to express the negation of ego or intellect. Zen master Keido Fukushima, abbot of Tofuku-ji Temple, explained the concept in Kateigaho magazine, noting that humans tend to become “wrapped up in layers of ego,” both that of our own consciousnesses and those of our societies and cultures. Like koan, the concept of mu is intuitive rather than intellectual. Indeed, according to Nagatomo, some thinkers argue that this striving to empty the intellect makes Zen an anti-philosophy rather than a true philosophy, since the latter should rely heavily on the use of reason.

Duality

The opposite of mu, in a sense, is duality, and duality is what a Zen practitioner strives to eliminate. Dualities can take many forms: self versus other, real versus unreal, love versus hate, and so on. Among the dualities is good versus evil, which leads, Wright contends, to an ethical void. Elimination of dualities yields not one, however, according to Nagatomo, but “not-two,” a uniquely Zen construction that avoids the inherent duality of one versus two.

About the Author

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.

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