Fr. AMA answers questions about Zen
The word zen is transliteration of the Sanskrit Dhyana, Pali Jhana, which can be translated as meditation. Zen is first of all a Mahayana Buddhist sect, which came about in the 6th century in China. The word zen can refer to this Buddhist sect, or to the meditation method practiced by this sect, or to the experience coming from this practice, or enlightenment which is the fruit of zen practice, or to the way of life flowing from all of the above.
What is the particularity of Zen?
"A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose!" Zen is just zen, just practice. It is difficult to talk about its particularity. Yet we can say that zen is unique and special. Zazen, the sitting meditation practice of zen, may seem the same as in other ways, yet the way Zazen is done is different. Zen also has the koan meditation practice, which is unique to zen. It is to meditate on some paradoxical questions given by the teacher and bring an answer to the teacher. This is like Ramana Maharishi’s Who Am I? self-inquiry. Yet, this is done differently in zen, for example, one has to bring an answer to the teacher, the whole process is dynamic and interpersonal. The whole way of zen life is simple and yet paradoxical: mystical and pragmatic, this-worldly and transcendent, joyful and compassionate. Freedom and compassion are zen’s hallmark. Zen has elements of all other ways yet it is unique flowering of the human spirit.
Are yoga and Zen similar or different?
Yoga is of many kinds—hatha, jnana, kundalini, etc; and the name is used in a generalized sense — karma yoga, bhakti yoga, etc. Even zen has been called by some as Japanese yoga! If we take yoga in the restricted sense of Hatha yoga and Patanjali yoga, in spite of many commonalities between them like the emphasis on body, breath and sitting meditation and on self-realization, the world of zen and that of yoga are different worlds.
Is Zen same as vipassana meditation?
Yes and no. Zen and vipassana come from Buddhism, vipassana belongs to the Theravada tradition, zen to the Mahayana one, so both are closely related to each other. Vipassana mindfulness is also basic to zen. However, beyond that they differ very much from each other. See Heart Sutra, and Mumon’s Zen Warning, usually attached to the end of Mumonkan, for some radical differences.
Who needs Zen?
Anyone who is seeking and willing. Zen can lead anyone who practices it to peace, freedom and joy. It is above all uniquely fitted for the deep seeker, seekers for the meaning of life, for liberation, and seekers after enlightenment and awakening. However, though zen is most beautiful, still it may not be the right way for everyone. Each of us is unique and must find one’s own way.
What is the place of the practice of Buddhist Precepts in zen? Further, is zen divorced from ethics and morality? Is it amoral?
Traditionally, the precepts were not emphasized in zen. For, in China and Japan, the Confucian morality and ethic were taken for granted. But the Precepts are part of zen practice. However, there is a difference which has to be seen: when one comes to enlightenment, it is beyond morality and rules. But one has to enter the market-place of the world in compassionate freedom and here ethics and morality are central. Ethics and morality are the manifestations of compassion. Enlightenment and compassion are the two legs of zen; or rather, two dimensions of one realization. The danger is that zen and zen language can be misused and abused to justify one’s egoistic seeking and individualism in the name of zen freedom. During World War II, many of the Japanese zen masters were blinded by self-seeking nationalism and used zen language to justify aggression and war. One needs to awaken to nondual wisdom as well as be alive to discriminative wisdom.
What is the place of the practice of Buddhist Precepts in zen? Is zen divorced from ethics and morality?
Traditionally, the precepts were not emphasized in zen. For, in China and Japan, the Confucian morality and ethic were taken for granted. But the Precepts are part of zen practice. However, there is a difference which has to be seen: when one comes to enlightenment, it is beyond morality and rules. But one has to enter the market-place of the world in compassionate freedom and here ethics and morality are central. Ethics and morality are the manifestations of compassion. Enlightenment and compassion are the two legs of zen; or rather, two dimensions of one realization. The danger is that zen and zen language can be misused and abused to justify one’s egoistic seeking and individualism in the name of zen freedom. During World War II, many of the Japanese zen masters were blinded by selfseeking nationalism and used zen language to justify aggression and war. One needs to awaken to nondual wisdom as well as be alive to discriminative wisdom.
Is Zen Buddhist? Can Christians, Hindus, Muslims or atheists practice Zen?
Zen is rooted in Buddhism, particularly in Mahayana Buddhism. But zen meditation, zen experience and zen awakening are not confined to Buddhism and to Buddhists. Any person of good will and willingness can practice zen. Zen master Yamada Ko’un used to say that zen was like tasting tea, there was no Christian tea or Buddhist tea, tea is tea, and that Christians doing zen should become better Christians. However, zen is religious or better spiritual; and it should not be uprooted from its grounding in Buddhism. Particularly those who teach zen should be knowledgeable in Buddhism, should have reverence and intimacy with the Buddha and zen Buddhist tradition. Above all, zen experience and awakening are not apart from zen Buddhist language. There are two ways of practicing zen for non- Buddhists: one is to practice zen in order to deepen their own religious experience and faith; however, if one is fanatical about one’s beliefs and practices, zen may not be suitable. The other and the better way is to practice zen just as zen. This means in a sense ‘dying’ to one’s own religion and tradition, and ‘passing over’ into zen and zen tradition. Such ‘passing over’ can be deeply liberating and one can then ‘come back’ to one’s own religion and tradition transformed and liberated.
Does one need faith in order to practice Zen?
Zen talks about three prerequisites for entering zen: Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Effort or Questioning. This Great Faith is basically a trusting and willing heart. Trust in the zen way—that the zen way can lead you surely to liberation and awakening; trust in the teacher—that the teacher who comes in the line of teachers and the tradition can be a guide; trust in yourself—that there are resources and strengths in you and in the universe to lead you to the goal. It also means that you believe or intuit that there is a suprasensible dimension of reality, that there is promise and possibility of awakening and liberation, that you are already Buddha. That you are already Buddha is called Patriarchal Faith, in contrast to Tathagata Faith, which is to believe that you can become Buddha. Faith involves trusting, believing and willing. Of course, it does not mean that you have to come with full and complete faith; a modicum of faith is enough to begin with; which means, above all, willingness to question and seek, willingness to listen and to follow. Faith comes from “hearing’, that is, from listening to the Sutras and the Teachings, which involves listening to your own heart-mind in depth. Faith is more than believing; belief is believing that; faith is openness of your heart-mind to the beyond, and willingness to affirm life and world, self and others; willingness and courage to follow the call of your heart. To be human is already to live in faith and trust. To enter zen practice is to let your heart-mind be opened further and deeper into faith and trust, in willingness and courage. Such faith blossoms into awakening and realization. (See also the note on shinjin in the article Awakening and Compassion in Zen).
Does Zen practice help in healing of body and mind?
Zen is no panacea for life’s every problem and illness. Zen is primarily and basically the healing of the root causes of human illness: greed, hatred and illusion. Such a healing and transformation reaches into all the realms of human existence. Zen can be very therapeutic as regards the physical and mental healing of our ordinary neuroses and pains. Zazen is a practice of lettingbe, befriending one’s emotions and body, accepting oneself and life, letting the other be the other; it is practice of compassion as well of freedom. However, it must be said that zen is no cure for serious mental or physical illness. There is a danger of people imagining that zen enlightenment will set right and heal all of life’s illnesses and problems. Often people are unwilling to face the messy emotions, the entangling desires and pervasive fears of their own hearts and they try to escape into the calm of zen meditation. This is called“ spiritual bypassing” and is destructive. Come to zen for meaning of life and for enlightenment; most often, a lack of meaning in life can lead to illnesses; but for serious physical and mental problems, go to the appropriate helpers.
Does Zen produce siddhis, powers, or energies, synchronicities and the like?
Be wary of all such claims. The whole universe is one and somehow you will be guided and helped on the way. At times there can happen events which may look miraculous. But take all such things in your stride, don’t get hung up on them; or better, forget them, or they will lead you astray. The same applies to experiences, don’t hanker after them. Remember, in zen you have to awaken to the marvel and miracle of your ordinary life: “Wondrous miracle, marvelous activity: I draw water and split firewood.”
Do we need a master to practice Zen?
Yes and no! First in any field of science and art, one needs to learn from experts; one needs to become an apprentice and follow models and mentors. If you want to go deep into zen, particularly koan zen, you have to become disciple of an awakened master and learn to listen and follow. Following and listening is vital in the spiritual way; sadly, many are allergic to such commitment. Discipleship and following of an awakened and trustworthy master or teacher is the blessed door to awakening and realization. However, for ordinary zen practice, you do not need to become disciple of a master, it is enough to belong to a sangha. For people who have had a dysfunctional family or sexual abuse, or have the so-called codependent tendencies, relating to a master will be problem and even destructive; better for such people to avoid getting involved with a master. Even for healthy people, it is said that relating to the master should be like sitting by a fire—not too distant and not too close! Further, good, genuine teachers and masters are rare to find. Again, one may be a good and wonderful teacher or master, but he or she may not be fit for you. What is needed is finding a sangha, a community, and practice with the fellowship. Practicing alone is not impossible, but it is not easy and may not help much. Fellowship and community is not only support and encouragement, but also challenge and testing field in service of self-transformation. When you are part of a sangha, learn to care and to dialogue, and help the sangha to be open to the world. To be a disciple is a blessing, to belong to a sangha is a blessing; and a task of liberation.
What about karma and transmigration (reincarnation/rebirth), have we to believe in them in order to practise Zen?
Karma is a complex religious teaching in Hinduism and Buddhism. It can mean ritual action, mental/physical action, the consequences of the action, the universal law of causation, the chain of cause and effect in the moral realm, and so on. The entire universe is under the law of karma. That is, every action has its reaction, consequences. Hinduism and Buddhism see karma as flowing from previous births affecting this birth: what you are now is due to your previous incarnations. The Buddhist doctrine of anatta teaches that there is no eternal self, only the causes and conditions generated by one's life and actions which transmigrate from birth to birth; but this teaching is more complex and deeper than the surface meaning. Transmigration or reincarnation is the doctrine that one is born many times on this earth, in various forms of sentient beings, according to the merits of one's karma. One has to go on being born again and again till all of one's karma is burnt out, so to say. The theory of karma came about in order to explain the problem of the disparities, injustices and inequalities of your livess, and transmigration or reincarnation came as a sort of solution to this problem. Before the Buddha, karma was understood rather in mechanical terms, that is, in terms of deeds and actions without any reference to the intentions of the doer. The Buddha injected will and intention into karma: it is one's good or evil intentions that brings about good or bad karma. Hence, one has also the freedom to undo karma by good will and virtuous actions. For Hindus and Buddhists transmigration is burden and misery, one seeks to be liberated from karma and repeated births. In the West, they are seen in evolutionary terms, as the opportunity for one to progress in spirit and mind.
But one must realize that karma and reincarnation are only doctrines and hypotheses. There is the danger that these can lead people to fatalism and resignation, and to justification of the present social order of oppression and injustices. However, in their better aspects, reincarnation can be accepted as pointing to the interconnection and inter relationship of all beings and all of reality. The great Hindu advaitic sage Sankara commenting on the Upanishads proclaims: "Verily, there is no other transmigrant but the Lord." Karma can be understood as our generational past genes and social and other conditioning equipping us with a particular bodymind; it has to be seen not as determinism but as a call to learn to be creative with these our given building blocks, so to say. Hear the awakening story of the Fourth Ch'an Patriarch in China in Master Keizan's Denko-roku:
Daoxin said to the Zen master Sengcan, "I beg your compassion – please give me a way of liberation." Sengcan said, "Who is binding you?" Daoxin said, "No one is binding me." Sengcan Said, "Then why seek liberation?" At these words Daoxin was greatly enlightened.
Zen Buddhism accepts karma and transmigration and uses them as the context for our longing and effort towards liberation and awakening. But one does not need these doctrines in order to practise Zen meditation. Our suffering and longing for awakening are irrespective of such theories. And in awakening, one cuts through all of karma and rebirth, or better, one throws away all such theories and concepts. Karma and rebirth are empty, the self is No-Self. One awakens from the dream of karma and rebirth. Eternal life is in this very moment. Heaven and hell are not somewhere else or in some future. As Hakuin sings in his Song of Zazen, this very earth is the Paradise of Pure Land, this very body, the body of Buddha. One accepts this very life here and now and lives it in joyous freedom and compassion. This calls us at the same time to be creators and players in the drama of life.
How to understand the titles of Roshi, Sensei, Master, Teacher and so on?
The zen titles vary according to the schools, so one has to check what and how the school designates its teachers and their grades. The Japanese system is very complicated, let us not get into all that except for this: Sensei is an honorary name for any teacher. Roshi, ‘old teacher/ master’, is simply a term of respect for a cleric in Soto school. In Rinzai tradition, it refers to one who has completed his/her koan training; only a roshi can teach koan zen and become the chief priest of a head temple. One has to find out what each school means by a title; and a title by itself is no guarantee of the depth or the maturity of the teacher, it only shows legitimacy. Many roshis, masters and teachers are not that deep or mature. At the same time, avoid self-made and self-proclaimed masters and teachers.
We hear of different schools of Zen. Which would you recommend?
There are a variety of schools and kinds of zen, and even in the same school, one teacher’s approach and teaching may differ much from that of another teacher of the same school. There are Japanese zen, Korean zen, Chinese zen, Vietnamese zen and so on. The Japanese and the Korean are the major ones. In the Japanese zen, Soto and Rinzai are major schools, the Obaku school is a minor one. Rinzai teaches koan zen, Soto shikanataza or just sitting. Many of the Western teachers of Rinzai tradition often combine both approaches. The Sanbo Kyodan school of zen, founded by Yasutani Haku’un with Yamada Ko’un, primarily as a lay zen school, combines both koan and just sitting approach; so also the Plum Sangha in the USA, founded by Taizan Maezumi. The Western forms of zen are a new evolution and transformation of the original Asian forms, as the Western Buddhism also is a new form and evolution of the Asian Buddhism. As mentioned earlier, the Western teachers each has his or her unique way of teaching, may not follow exactly their school, may not be up to the mark; you have to find out what is best for your heart and spirit. Bodhi Sangha is the zen school founded by me. I am disciple of Yamada Ko’un, authorized by him to teach. I left Sanbo Kyodan after the death of Yamada Ko’un. My way and teaching are deep and unique and at the same time I stand in creative fidelity to my teacher and to the Dharma.
What are the key ideas of Zen?
Throw away all ideas! You are the universe, the universe is yourself! Live Thus: a free and compassionate life.
Source: Partly taken from the book "Zen. Awakening to your original face" by AMA Samy, Cre-A: Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai, India 2005