PRINCIPLES OF ZEN AND BUDDHISM
After the Buddha passed away not too long, about a couple of centuries - I can not tell the number of years exactly - his teachings were interpreted in many different ways which depended on each individual understanding of his disciples. Then it formed in two greatest systems: Theravada or it's often called Hinayana: the Small Vehicle, i.e. the small car only can carries one person to nirvana, it's ideal person is an Arahat (a perfect saint) and Mahayana or the Great Vehicle i.e., the big car that can carries many people at the same time to enlightenment, the ideal person is a Bodhisattva, a person who is on the way to the Supreme Enlightenment of the Buddha. Then about the first century of A. D., Nagarjuna, one of the greatest Buddhist masters of all times, his position is just after the Buddha himself, founded the Madhyamika (Middle Path) School with his Doctrine of Sunyata (Emptiness) and almost the aftermath Buddhist shools' teachings based on his Doctrine, including Zen school. And after him about 200 years, another of the greatest schools was founded by Maitreya then established by Ansanga and Vasubandhu: Vijnanavada (Mind-only) School. These two greatest Indian Buddhist schools have been remained and developed in many other countries such as China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam... and now everywhere in the world, along with them is the Theravada system.
So far, there are at least ten great sects in Mahayana Buddhism such as Pureland school with its main practice is praying the name of the Amida (i.e. Infinite Light or Infinite Longevity) Buddha who lives in the Western Paradise. Another school is San-lun (Three Treatises) school, or the Madhyamika school in China, Japan , Korea, and Tibet. This school actually no longer exists in China... but still exists in the Tibetan Buddhists and now is spreading strongly in the West, especially in America through many Tibetan Buddhist masters. (The present Dalai Lama actually does not belong to this school, he belong to the Yogachara school, Gelupa in Tibetan. The third one is Tien-ts'ai (Tendai, in Japanese) school which was founded by Chi-i, one of the greatest Chinese Buddhist masters, its doctrine was based on the Lotus-sutra and its main is samatha and samadhi, one of the Buddhist meditation methods. The fourth one is Ch'an in Chinese (or Zen in Japanese) school. Its founder was Bohdidharma, an Indian Buddhist master, came to China about the latter half of the fifth century and the first half of the sixth century. The main message which Bodhidharma sent to us runs like this:
"Not relying on the words and letters, Teachings are transmitted outside the Scriptures; Pointing directly into one's mind, then one can see into his own nature and attains Buddhahood."
To help people who like to do kensho (see into one's own nature), Zen masters have designed many different methods. The four main ones of them are: counting your breaths out and in, following your breaths with your mind's eye, shikantaza (or just sitting in your whole awareness), and koans. Actually, the practice of this school based on the Way of the Buddha: dhyana (or meditation) which the Buddha did at least for six years until he became the Enlightened One. Its teachings are based on the teachings of the Buddha in the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra which the doctrine of emptiness of Nagarjuna based on and the teachings of the Buddha in the Lankavatara-sutra which the doctrine of Consciousness-only of Vasubandhu based on. And sometimes the teachings of the Buddha in the Avatamsaka-sutra can be seen in Zen, too. Therefore, it can be said that the teaching system of Zen Buddhism is an integrity of the whole Mahayana Buddhism. When the Yogachara school, the precedent of the Vijnanavada school, at first, was brought by Padmasambhava into Tibet, it adopted some features of the native cult had been there: the Bon of the Tibetan people and the mysticism was one of its characteristics. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a school called Dozgchen has some characteristics which are somewhat similar to Zen.
However, despite how different those schools seem to be, they all have the same ultimate goal: to help anyone who likes to learn and practice what the Buddha taught: to become enlightened, liberate oneself from his suffering caused by his greed, anger, and ignorance and then if he likes, he can help others do the same thing.
What I have just said above are some simple words on some main ideas and I won't go into the other sects of Buddhism because I think it is enough for this time. If you want to go further into them, you might need to read some books on them such as "The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy" by Junriro Takakusu.
There are a couple of things here I like to make it clear: There are many and many different methods of meditation which are used in the different Buddhist schools, for example, the methods are used in the Tibetan Buddhist schools can be called "the methods of visualization", this means when a practitioner does one of these he needs something to rely on, usually an image. In Zen Buddhism, the methods are different. This means they do not need any image to rely on, especially in shikantaza. When someone, a Westerner in particular, who reads the teachings of the Buddha, for the first round, on the Four Noble Truth, usually sees that Buddhism shows us everything in this world is full of suffering, temporary, unreliable, deceitful ... oh! too passive and pessimistic... Yes, he is correct but this is just one step or the First Truth of the Four Noble Truth. If he stops right here, he already miss the three more steps that he needs to go and see the whole thing.
Furthermore, all the teachings of the Buddha and Zen masters are for practicing and not only reading. If you like experience something for yourself you might want to practice one of them. Yes, the Buddha-Dharma which Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers are now practicing , I think, it is closer to the teachings of Indian Buddhism than Chinese Buddhism. He goes back to the original teachings of the Buddha, for example, he emphasizes the practice on breathing, on awareness to whatever we do in our everyday life. Another feature in Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhism is his trend to get closer to Christianity. This is shown in some of his books.
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