Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of …

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The designation of this school of the Buddha-Way as Zen, which means sitting meditation, is derived from a transliteration of the Chinese word Chn. Because the Chinese term is in turn a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyna, however, Zen owes its historical origin to early Indian Buddhism, where a deepened state of meditation, called samdhi, was singled out as one of the three components of study a Buddhist was required to master, the other two being an observation of ethical precepts (sla) and an embodiment of nondiscriminatory wisdom (praj). The reason that meditation was singled out for the designation of this school is based on the fact that the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment (nirvna) through the practice of meditation. In the context of Zen Buddhism, perfection of nondiscriminatory wisdom (Jpn., hannya haramitsu; Skrt., prajpramit) designates practical, experiential knowledge, and secondarily and only derivatively theoretical, intellectual knowledge. This is, Zen explains, because theoretical knowledge is a form of language game (Jpn.; keron; Skrt., prapaca), i.e., discrimination through the use of language, as it is built in part on distinction-making. Zen believes that it ultimately carries no existential meaning for emancipating a human being from his or her predicaments, for it maintains that discriminatory knowledge of any kind is delusory/illusory in nature. To this effect it holds that it is through a practical transformation of the psychophysiological constitution of one's being that one prepares for embodying nondiscriminatory wisdom. This preparation involves the training of the whole person and is called self-cultivation (shugy) in Japanese. It is a practical method of correcting the modality of one's mind by correcting the modality of one's body, in which practice (prxis) is given precedence over theory (theria). (Yuasa, 1987.)

There are basically two methods utilized in meditation practice in Zen Buddhism to assist the practitioner to reach the above-mentioned goals, together with a simple breathing exercise known as observation of breath count (Jpn., ssokukan); one is the kan method and the other is called just sitting (Jpn., shikan taza), a form of single act samdhi. For example, the former is employed mainly by the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, while the latter by the St school; they are the two main schools of this form of the Buddha-Way still flourishing today in Japan. In the Rinzai school, the kan method is devised to assist the practitioner to become a Zen person (Kasulis, 1981) who fully embodies both wisdom and compassion. A kan is formulated like a riddle or puzzle and is designed in such a way that intellectual reasoning alone cannot solve it without breaking through ego-consciousness by driving it to its limit. This is, Zen believes, because it is fortified by the shield of a dualistic conceptual paradigm with all its attendant presuppositions and conditions which the ego-consciousness in a given cultural and historical milieu accepts to be true in order to live a life anchored in the everyday standpoint.

According to Hakuin (16851768), who systematized kans, there are formally seventeen hundred cases of kans, and if sub-questions are added to them, a total number of cases comprising the system would roughly be three thousand. The Zen practitioner of the Rinzai school is required to pass them all in a private consultation with a Zen master who checks the practitioner's state of mind before he or she is granted a seal of transmission. This transmission is said to occur only from a Buddha to a[nother] Buddha (yuibutsu yobutsu). Kans are accordingly grouped into five categories in a most fully developed system: the first group is designed for 1) reaching li (suchness) (richi) or the body of truth (hosshin), 2) the second group for a linguistic articulation (gensen) of meditational experiences, 3) the third group for those kans truly difficult to pass (nant), 4) the fourth group for the practitioner to make an insight of kan experiences pertinent in daily life (kikan), and 5) the fifth group for going beyond the state of buddhahood by erasing traces of enlightenment (kj). The Rinzai school summarizes this process of self-cultivation in four mottoes: a special transmission outside of the scriptures, no dependence on words and letters, point directly into [one's] human mind, and see into [one's] nature to become a buddha. (See, for examples, The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record.) While the first two phrases point to the fact of discovering an extra-linguistic reality that naturally opens up in meditational experience and of articulating it linguistically in the best way according to the capacity of an individual practitioner, the last two phrases indicate a concretization of the original enlightenment (hongaku) in the Zen practitioner, where the original enlightenment means that the human being is innately endowed with a possibility of becoming a Buddha.

On the other hand, the St school, of which Dgen (120054) is the founder, does not rely on an elaborate kan system to learn to become a Zen person, but instead follows a method called just sitting (shikan taza). It refers to a single-minded, diligent practice where the qualifying term just means the practice of meditation without any intervention of ego-logical interest, concern, or desire, so that the practice remains undefiled. This is a method of meditation predicated on the belief that the Zen practitioner engages in the practice in the midst of the original enlightenment. Or to characterize it by using Dgen's phrase, it is a method of practice-realization. By hyphenating practice and realization, the following implications are suggested: meditation is not a means to an end, i.e., a means to realization, and thereby Dgen closes a dualistic gap, for example, between potentiality and actuality, between before and after. Accordingly, he collapses the distinction between acquired enlightenment (shikaku) and original enlightenment, where the acquired enlightenment means an enlightenment that is realized through the practice of meditation as a means. With this collapsing, the St School holds that practice and realization are non-dual to each other, i.e., not two.

According to the St school, the meditational practice, when it is seen as a process of discovery, is a deepening process of becoming aware of the original enlightenment with an expansion of its corresponding experiential correlates and horizons, and it is for this reason called the school of gradual enlightenment or silent illumination. On the other hand, the Rinzai school is called the school of sudden enlightenment, because it does not recognize a process leading to enlightenment (satori) as something worthy of a special attention; what counts is an experience of satori only. Even though there is the above difference in approach between Rinzai and St schools, the outcome is the same for both insofar as the embodiment of wisdom and compassion is concerned. This is because they both follow the same practice of sitting meditation. Whatever differences there are between the practitioners of the two schools in regard to the linguistic articulation of their meditational experience, they arise from an individual practitioner's personality, disposition, intellectual capacity, and/or linguistic ability.

When one engages in Zen meditation, Zen recommends that its practitioner follow a three-step procedure: adjusting body, breathing and mind. The practitioner follows these adjustments in the order mentioned when he or she begins, and when concluding a sitting session, the procedure is reversed so that he or she can return to an everyday standpoint. I will now briefly explain these three steps in the order mentioned.

Generally speaking, the adjustment of the body means to prepare oneself (ones mind-body) in such a way that one can achieve an optimal state of being free. To do so, the practitioner needs to have a proper diet, engage in appropriate physical exercise, and avoid forming habits contrary to nurturing a healthy mind-body condition. Specifically, however, when Zen mentions the adjustment of the body, it has in mind seated meditation postures. There are two postures which Zen recognizes: the lotus-posture and the half-lotus posture. A long Zen tradition takes them to be effective for stilling the mind and dissolving various psychological complexes and psychosomatic disorders. However, if a lay practitioner cannot at first assume these postures, they can be substituted initially by sitting on a chair with the spine straight, as it can bring about a similar effect. The adjustment of the body is necessary for the practitioner in order to experience the practical benefits of doing meditation.

The benefits of Zen meditation are closely tied to the practice of breathing. Generally speaking, Zen doesnt recommend any complicated, strenuous breathing exercises as in yoga. Zens breathing exercise is called observation of breath count (ssokukan). In this exercise, the practitioner counts an in-coming breath and an out-going breath. Before counting the breath, the practitioner breathes in through the nostrils and breathes out through the mouth a couple of times. Then one starts counting breaths, but this time breathing in through the nostrils and breathing out through the nostrils. The breath count is performed while performing an abdominal breathing: one brings in air all the way down to the lower abdomen, and breathes out from there. This exercise has the effect of infusing ones mind-body with fresh life-energy and expelling a negative toxic energy out of the practitioners system. For this reason, it must be done in a place where there is ample ventilation. A key to performing breathing exercises successfully is just to observe the in-coming and out-going breath.

Though these are simple instructions, they difficult to execute because the neophyte tends to become distracted. Present concerns, worries, fears, and past memory often surface. Zen calls them wandering thoughts, which refers to any mental object that prevents the practitioner from concentration. If one wants to make progress in meditation, this is one of the first things that the practitioner must learn to overcome.

We now turn to the psycho-physiological meaning of the breathing exercise. Ordinarily, we breathe sixteen to seventeen times per minute, which we do unconsciously or involuntarily. This is because under ordinary circumstances, breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Neurophysiologically, the center where breathing is controlled is found in the hypothalamus, in the mid-brain. The autonomic nervous system is so-called because it functions independently of our will. Zen breathing is a shift from unconscious, involuntary breathing to conscious, voluntary breathing. This means that Zen meditation is a way of regulating the unconscious-autonomic order of our being. Breath count trains the unconscious mind and the involuntary activity of the nerves that control the function of the various visceral organs. Here we find a reason why Zen recommends abdominal breathing. In the upper part of the abdominal cavity, parasympathetic nerves are bundled up, and the abdominal breathing exercise stimulates this bundle. As it does so, parasympathetic nerves function to still the mind.

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Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of ...

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March 4th, 2015 at 6:32 pm

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