Frequently Asked Questions about Zen

0. What’s in this FAQ?

1. What is Zen? (The historical question)

2. What is Zen? (The spiritual question)

3. Why do Zen writings seem like nonsense?

4. What is meditation? (Zazen)

5. How should a beginner begin their study of Zen Buddhism?

6. Introductory reading list

7. About this FAQ

1. What is Zen? (The historical question)

Historically, Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Around 500 B.C. he was born a Sakyan prince (Indo-Scythian) north of Benares at Kapliavastu. At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he renounced his privileged life, his wife and child, and went out among the Shramana (shaman) acetics to seek understanding. After 6 years of struggle he finally understood the meaning of enlightenment under the legendary Bo-tree. After this he was recognized as a Buddha (meaning “The Awakened One”). He taught for some forty years then died at Kusinagara in Oudh, India. According to the Mahayana tradition the Buddha did not actually die, because the Buddha is a spiritual entity called the Dharmakaya. Only the corpse of Siddhartha Gautama remained behind where it was given the burial of a Chakravartin (Wheel King).

The very first sermon was delivered by the Buddha in Benares on the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. He taught that proper religious practice consists in the avoidance of sensualism and physical austerities, called the Middle Way. In the Four Noble Truths, he declared the truth of suffering; its nature or cause; its ending, and the correct means to accomplish the end of suffering.

The school of Zen Buddhism begins with a Central Asian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma arriving in Southern China (470-475 C.E.) who belonged to the Lanka School which later became known as Zen (C. Ch’an). Based on the _Lankavatara Sutra_, the doctrine of the Lanka School mainly concerned itself with the study of Mind, both its absolute nature, and its evolved nature. It is believed by scholars that Bodhidharma lived and taught in Northern China for about fifty years. The original practitioners of the Lanka School were noted for the ascetic (C. t’ou-t’o) life, living faraway from human dwelling places.

Not until the ninth century did the name Ch’an (J. Zen) become adopted. Early Zen became associated with enlightenment rather than physical seated meditation. During the Sung period of China Zen was synonymous with Buddha Mind (C. fo-hsin), not seated meditation as it is comely believed by present day Japanese Zen teachers and their followers. Around 1200 A.D. Ch’an Buddhism spread from China to Japan where it is called (at least in translation) Zen Buddhism and known primarily in its Japanese form.

2. What is Zen? (The spiritual question)

This question basically asks “What is the fundamental nature of Mind?” It appears in various guises throughout Zen literature, from “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” to “The One hand clapping sound.” The question penetrates into the heart of the matter and can only be answered in a flash of intimate intuition in which the truth of Mind is seen to be the substratum of existence. As to the role of practice, or what the Chinese Zennists call “cultivation”, Zen is paradoxically the cultivation of non-cultivation, recognizing that we need only remove the illusion of non-enlightenment to become enlightened.

3. Why do Zen writings seem like nonsense?

One of the central points of Zen is intuitive comprehension. When we come to realize the fundamental nature of Mind, Zen becomes super-logical. On the other hand, when we attempt to examine the nature of Mind through emotions, ego-pain, mental pictures, and discursive ideas based on sense perception, Zen seems like nonsense. Because everything arises from Mind, Mind cannot be measured through its creations because the latter are not as perfect as Mind itself. On the other hand, directly oalescing with Mind everything makes perfect sense just as they are–as they arise from Mind. All things thus reveal the pure function of Buddha Mind. Just so, we see the natural world as a manifestation of the cosmic Buddha. When the Zen master Joshu wipes crumbs off his robe he is demonstrating the primordial power of Mind to move his body perfectly–although he is no longer attached to his body, now being Mind.

4. What is meditation? (Zazen)


Meditation refers to contemplation, generally, the contemplation of both the corporeal body within, and the Buddha-nature. The Buddhist Sanskrit term for meditation is BHAVANA which literally means the action of promoting, or the same, attending (Mindfulness). Because we are potentially pure Mind, mentally attending to the body calms it down and makes it peaceful and less violent. In this meditation, we neither cling to thought forms and emotions,nor reject them. This is called Shamatha (C. chih) meditation. In Vipashyana (C. kuan), or insight meditation, Mind is directed to recollecting itself because it suffers from spiritual amnesia, having in the past followed its generations, forgetting its native whereabouts. Through Visashyana meditation we come to uncover the nature of Mind itself, namely, our Buddha-nature. As a result, we observe that all phenomena are changing, momentary, and finite; that in fact they arise from Buddha Mind itself and return to it moment to moment. Thus we begin to see that all things are like a dream, a sudden flash of lightning, or bubbles in a body of water. In seeing this way, we reside in the fixed immovable source of things free from further samsaric conditioning. Both forms of meditation are vital in Zen Buddhism. However, Shamatha meditation, which is generally done in a seated position, cannot alone restore the nature of Mind which we are unable to remember. The Zen adept also needs to meditate on just what the nature of Mind exactly is. Insight meditation as well, becomes impossible if the body is not relaxed and clammed. If we are attached to violent thoughts and emotions, unable to control our desires, Vipashyana meditation becomes difficult to maintain.

The cross legged positions provide greatest stability. To sit in full lotus position, place the right foot on the left thigh and then the left foot on the right thigh. To sit in half lotus place your left foot on your right thigh. Try to cross the legs firmly so that a stable tripod of support is provided by the knees and the base of the spine. The order of the crossing of the legs may be reversed. It is also possible to simply sit on the floor with one foreleg in front of the other or kneeling using a bench or a cushion. To sit in a chair, place the feet flat on the floor and place your buttocks on the edge of the chair so the upper thighs are not touching the chair. Follow the rest of the instructions.

Rest the knees firmly on the matt, for cross legged positions, straighten the lower back, push the buttocks outward and the hips forward, and straighten your spine. Pull in your chin and extend the neck as though to support the ceiling. The ears and shoulders should be in the same plane with the nose directly above the navel. Straighten the back and relax shoulders, back, and abdomen without changing posture. Keep the mouth closed placing the tongue with the tip just behind the front teeth and the rest of the tongue as close to the roof of the mouth as comfortable. Keep the eyes at least slightly open cast downward at a 45 degree angle without focusing on anything. If closed you may slip into drowsiness or daydreaming. Rest the hands palm up on the knees and take 2 or 3 deep abdominal breaths. Exhale smoothly and slowly with the mouth slightly open by pulling in on the abdominal wall until all air has been expelled and inhale by closing the mouth and breathing naturally. Hands still on the knees sway the upper half of the body left to right a few times without moving the hips. Sway forward and back. These swayings are at first larger and then smaller enabling you to find the point of balance of your posture. Next, place your hands next to your abdomen, palms up with the left hand resting in the right hand with the thumbs slightly touching.

Cross legged Sitting may incur pain to the knees, do not force your legs into positions that causes extreme pain. Stretch out before sitting helps in prolong sitting and will in time, enable one to sit cross legged style.

While sitting, observe your breathing, but do not try to manipulate the rhythm or depth of the breath. Breathe gently and silently through the nose without attempting to control or manipulate the breathing. Let the breath come and go naturally so that you forget all about it. Simply let long breaths be long and short ones short without clinging or controlling. Remember, that your fundamental nature is not inhalation or exhalation, although it moves both. Keeping this in mind, great freedom is soon realized as the body accepts the power of Mind to govern it. On inhalation the abdomen just expands naturally like a balloon inflating, while on exhalation simply let it deflate. It is recommended that one feel a sense of strength in the abdomen in breathing, that the exhalation be done in a very slow smooth and gradual way or a very slight contraction of the anus on exhalation (this should be so slight it may be more felt as an intention than as a physical contraction) be performed.

Do not concentrate on any particular object or attempt to control thoughts, emotions, or any modifications of sensory consciousness. By simply maintaining proper posture and breathing the mind settles by itself without effort. When thoughts, feelings, etc. arise, do not get caught up by them or fight them. Simply permit any object of mind to come and go freely. The essential point is to always strive to wake up from distraction (thoughts, emotions, images, etc.) or dullness and drowsiness. Letting go of any thought is itself is a form of liberation; and over time, it will seem easier to let go of more difficult and deeper seated problems. Finally, when meditation becomes peaceful, one is able to contemplate the more profound principles of Buddhism.

The art of right awareness, of maintaining spiritual wakefulness, may seem difficult and the description given above is somewhat abstract. If you are finding difficulties in your progress towards achieving calmness and centeredness, talk about it with others. In Zazen our fears and doubts are constantly brought up; we may panic; get angry; cry, or even laugh. Yet, we may return to Zazen again and again to face these terrors that haunt us in our every day life until their root cause is ended. As we do face the seeming horrors of our self, we eventually see them for what they are. Eventually, these matters are seen to be empty and impotent. Moreover, we begin to sense something which is free from difficulties–something which is pure and ineffable. Over time, as we sit, we find it easy to let go of thoughts and mental-pictures. We come to see how we have attached ourselves, in the past, to thoughts and feelings which have conditioned the present, and harboring over the future, causing us to suffer right now. We also see, that living a pure life that attaches less to emotional thoughts and ideas created by our imagination, lays the foundation for a future life of happiness. After much practice, we learn to extend Zazen into our daily lives. Whether or not we are standing, lying down, or working in the garden, we find in easier to let go of our deluded thoughts being less likely to obey their commands, thus to do harm to other beings.

5. How should a beginner begin their study of Zen Buddhism?

First, it is always necessary to become familiar with the language of Buddhism, remembering that the goal of Zen is enlightenment, not just Zazen, in which case there is much to learn. If you are not familiar with the language of Buddhism how can your friends help you and teach you about the mysterious nature of Mind? If, for example, you don’t know what gold looks like, how can you begin your search? You need, for instance, to learn the Four Noble Truths (Chatvari ariya-sachchani), understanding what they mean. You need to know that the Four Noble Truths pertain to the nature of Mind, that when Mind blindly clings to its manifestations it comes to experience suffering, or the same, disharmony (dukkha). Beginners should be familiar with the canonical works of Buddhism called the Tripitakas. In addition they should read Mahayana scriptures of the Mahaprajnaparamita class, most important the _Heart Sutra_ and the _Diamond Cutter of Doubts_. In addition, students should read the foundational Sutra of Zen Buddhism which is the _Lankavatara Sutra_. Other Sutras such as the _Shurangama_, the _Vimalakirit Nirdesha_, and the _Shrimaladevi Sutra_, are also extremely important to read.

As for Zen texts in particular, it is important to read orthodox material such as the _The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma_; _The Platform Scripture_ by Hui Neng the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism; _The Zen Teaching of Huang Po_ and _The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai_. Beginners should avoid modern books on Zen if they do not teach Mind doctrine. Beginners should first ground themselves in orthodox Zen classics and traditional Buddhist literature avoiding non-Mind doctrine publications. In so doing they will be able to reach the fruit of the path sooner and come to know the joy of breaking the bonds of rebirth. In reading proper and accepted books on Zen Buddhism there will be no error created either, and thus no future cause for regret. Historically, in China, Zen literature was by far the most widely published and read. Traditional Zen masters studied all the major Sutras and were very skilled in commenting on the arcane principles contained in the various Sutras. Beginners should understand that Zen Buddhism is the most direct teaching in Buddhism, and to become a members one must be want to be a member. Just like an University, Zen is only looking for a good people whom are intelligent, free from religious pride, non-hating, and compassionate, and above all are willing to learn the sublime doctrine of the Buddhas.


The following short list of books is meant to help the beginner gain, not only a philosophical understanding of Zen, but also, at least, an intellectual understanding of law of Buddha. There are many other books available, so many that space on this FAQ does not permit anything close to a comprehensive list. Instead we give this short list which covers most fundamental aspects of Zen and the Mind doctrine. There are also many other wonderful writers and books on this subject, this list is INTRODUCTORY ONLY. You are encouraged to use your own judgement when selecting material to read. In short, find something that seems readable to you at first. In addition, you will find that traditional Zen books will be revisited many times as you come to know the depth of Zen!

May these books be the Point of departure of your path to Awakening.

*Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind* by Shunryu Suzuki:(New York : Weatherhill Inc, 1970, c1970) Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice, this should be the first book anyone who wants to kow more about Zen should read. Suzuki is the father of Buddhism in America. This book is about how to practice Zen as a workable disciplione and religion, about posture and breathing, about the basic attitudes and understanding that make Zen practice possible, about non-duality, emptiness, and enlightenment.

*A Buddhist Bible* Edited by Dwight Goddard:(Boston : Beacon Press,1970, c1938) This book has translations of the Diamond Sutra, Dao De King (more popularly known as Tao Te Ching), the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch (See NOTE) the Awakening of Faith Shastra, solid fundamental discussions of the historical Buddha and his teachings. NOTE: This particular translation of the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra is worded in a way which might be easier understood by reading other translations. Goddard’s _Buddhist Bible_, it should be underscored, contains the orthodox Sutras of Zen Buddhism.

*Questions to a Zen Master* By Taisen Deshimaru: Except for the excellent chapter on Zazen (Soto style) this book shows many basic religious and philosophical implications of Zen. With a heavy taste of the “just sitting” Soto Zen style, Master Deshimaru covers frontiers of the mind in an easy reading style that maintains the integrity of Truth.

*Zen letters : teachings of Yuanwu*, trans. & ed. J.C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary. (Boston : Shambhala,1994)

*The Zen teachings of Master Lin-chi*, trans. Burton Watson (Boston : Shambhala Publications, 1993)

*Meditating with koans*, trans. J. C. Cleary (Berkeley, Calif: Asian Humanities Press, 1992)

*The transmission of the lamp : early masters* trans. Sohaku Ogata (Wolfeboro, N.H. : Longwood Academic, 1990)

*The Zen teaching of Bodhidharma*, trans. Red Pine (San Francisco : North Point Press, 1987)

*The record of Tung-shan*, trans. William F. Powell (Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1986)

*A Zen forest, sayings of the masters*, trans. Soiku Shigematsu (New York : Weatherhill, 1981)

*Zen : poems, prayers, sermons, anecdotes, interviews*, trans. Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto (Athens, Ohio : Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, 1981)

*The recorded sayings of Ch’an master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen prefecture*, trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki (Kyoto : Institute for Zen Studies, 1975)

*The Zen teaching of Hui Hai on sudden illumination*, trans. John Blofeld (London : Rider,1969, c1962)

*The Zen teaching of Huang Po on the transmission of mind*, trans. John Blofeld (Chu Ch’an) (London : The Buddhist Society,1968, c1958)

Hui-neng, *The Platform Scripture*, trans. Chan, Wing-tsit (New York : St. John’s University Press, 1963)

*The iron flute; 100 Zen koan*, trans. Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Strout McCandless (Tokyo, Rutland Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co., 1961)

*Ch’an and Zen teaching*, ed. & trans. Lu K`uan Yu (Charles Luk). (London : Rider,1960)

Paul Reps, *Zen flesh, Zen bones* (Tokyo, Rutland, Vt. : C.E. Tuttle Co., 1957)

D.T. Suzuki, *Manual of Zen Buddhism*, (London, New York : Published for the Buddhist Society, by Rider,1956)

7. About this FAQ

You are free and encourage to post this FAQ in any and all areas that may help others. This document has an limited copyright. You may print, distribute this document in any format as long as the document is not altered without permission.

Revised and edited by:(Mark Vetanen) and (Ardent Hollingsworth) 4/26 (c)1995
Revised and edited by:(Shannon Moon) shan @ 11/11/96