Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ch’an (Zen): The sound of one hand

You’ve no doubt read about the Zen masters who whacked their disciples with a stick or bellowed instructions at the tops of their lungs. But you may not realize that Zen is a unique blend of Mahayana Buddhism (which is egalitarian) and the native Chinese tradition known as Taoism (which emphasizes the seamless and undivided nature of life, known as the Tao). (Although Indian monks began transporting Buddhism to China in the early centuries A.D., Zen did not emerge as a separate current until the seventh or eighth century.) Zen departed radically from traditional Buddhism by emphasizing direct, wordless transmission of the enlightened state from master to disciple — sometimes through behavior that, by ordinary standards, would be considered eccentric or even bizarre. While the other traditions of Buddhism increasingly focused on scriptural study, Zen cut through the metaphysical underbrush and said: Just sit! Meditation became the primary means for dismantling a lifetime of attachment to the material world and realizing what the Zen masters call Buddha nature, the innate wisdom that exists within each of us. Zen also introduced those seemingly unsolvable riddles known as koans —for example, “What is the sound of one hand?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” By totally immersing himself in the koan, the monk could ultimately see into the nature of existence — what the Zen masters called satori.

In Japan, Zen developed some of its notorious samurai intensity and gave rise to the austere, pristine aesthetic that has made rock gardens and brush paintings so typical of Japanese culture. From Japan, of course, Zen made its way to North America, encountered the Beat generation of the 1950s, and set the stage for the recent explosion of interest in meditation.

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