Zen Buddhism: What You Need to Know

Zen Buddhism: What You Need to Know

Oct 04
Zen Buddhism: What You Need to Know

 

In the Buddhist faith, Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family that ruled a region of India about five centuries before Christ. As a young prince, Gautama became aware that he had been born into privilege and had it all; however, life for the people who lived outside the palace gates was very different. The suffering of those not born into royalty bothered him, and he left the safety of royal family life in search of spiritual truth.

 

Gautama studied the diverse religious beliefs of his time, which featured a cycle of rebirth that he thought to be fundamentally unfair since it perpetuated suffering. Frustrated, he turned to asceticism and renounced all earthly pleasures. Just as he expected, austerity made him suffer even more; he then turned to solitude and practiced meditation as a last ditch effort to understand life. At this point in his life, Gautama was living in the woods and suffering from starvation; one legend tells the story that a young girl from a nearby village took pity on him and approached him with food, water and the purity of a child’s soul reaching out to someone who needed comfort. It was at this point that Gautama became enlightened; the noble gesture and goodness of a child awakened him to understand the struggles of humanity and how we can free ourselves from them. Through meditation and revelation, Gautama became the holy Buddha, and his mission became to teach the Dharma so that others could achieve enlightenment.

 

Buddhism spread across Asia upon the death and rebirth of Buddha at the age of 80, a very long life at the time. Schools of Buddhism developed in the centuries following Gautama’s life, and one of them was Zen, which may date back to the 5th century Chan period in China. Over time, the practice of Chinese Buddhism became rigorously academic and deeply philosophical. By the time Buddhism took hold in Japan during the 13th century, the concept of liberation as a way of life that can be achieved through learning, concentration and meditation grew popular across all segments of feudal society.

 

Although Zen Buddhism is grounded in rational thought, the Eastern philosophical undercurrents of this religion and way of life may appear paradoxical to Western minds. There is a goal to attain, satori, but the path to enlightenment may not be as straightforward as many of us would hope for. Philosophical challenges are expressed through koans, which may test the faith of even the strongest believers.

 

In the United States, Zen Buddhism arrived after World War II and achieved popularity in California during the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. Many Americans were attracted to the philosophical and meditative qualities of Zen, which is a religion that treats the faithful as eternal students who must also become teachers in the quest towards enlightenment. As with all other religions, the principles of morality, kindness, selflessness, respect, humanity and overall goodness are lauded and idealized in Zen Buddhism; there is an understanding that we have a tendency to stray from the way of Zen, but we must strive to stay on the path towards enlightenment.