What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is based on the teachings and practices of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, and his followers. Though many religious practices and beliefs have sprung up around it over time, at its core, Buddhism is a method of practice, rather than a system of dogma.
According to the legend, Gotama was the son of a local clan chieftain or king in a small principality of Northern India, approximately 2600 years ago. His father kept him in a sheltered life in the family palace, where he grew to adulthood, married, and fathered a child without any substantial experience of dissatisfaction or suffering. Curious about the world outside the walls, he eventually snuck out and was exposed to sickness, old age, and death, and the various sufferings that they can entail. Realizing that his father’s wealth and power could not save him from these things, he became disillusioned and fled the palace.
His existential search for answers led him to become a wandering mendicant monk. Following the traditions of the time, this meant that he practiced training his mind through meditation and training his body through yogic exercises and extreme asceticism, leading to mortification of the physical body. After several years of this and being close to death, but being no closer to the answers he sought, he again became disillusioned.
According to the story, he reviewed his experiences and realized that if neither hedonistic excess or extreme self-denial could eliminate dissatisfaction and suffering, then there must be a third option, a middle way between the two. So he abandoned his extreme physical practices and began to eat enough and exercise his body enough to regain his physical health. Doing this, and continuing his meditation practice, he had an awakening experience.
Over the ensuing decades, he spent the rest of his life sharing his revelations with any who would listen, and his wisdom and insight led him to be known as the Buddha, or the “Awakened One”. His teachings over those decades, and the many teachings added to them since, have combined with many folk religious beliefs and practices over the centuries and have collectively come to be called “Buddhism”.
What is Zen?
Zen is a school or sect of Buddhism that formed in China when Indian Buddhist practice and philosophy encountered Chinese Taoism. Zen literally means ‘meditation’, and Buddha means ‘awake’. Thus, Zen Buddhism is the “Meditation school of Awakening”. It is a collection of practices and teachings that use various forms of meditation to help us wake up to life as it is in every given moment, allowing us to see and experience the natural rhythms of existence. In doing so, we can more clearly see the origins of our sufferings, and work to address them.
Why are the terms Zen and Ch’an used interchangeably?
“Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “ch’an”, itself a pronunciation of the Sanskrit “dhyana” or Pali “jhana”, and it literally means ‘meditation’. In the West today, we primarily think of Zen through the lens of Japanese culture and practices, as these were our first introduction to the Zen world. In recent years, more attention has been paid to the Chinese origins of Zen, and so the Chinese culture and language are becoming more commonly used in Zen circles.
What are ‘Dharma’ and ‘Sangha’?
Like the term ‘Buddha’, the words Dharma and Sangha are Sanskrit words that are frequently used in Buddhist literature and discussion.
Dharma has many translations, including: ‘law’, ‘rule’, ‘teaching’, and ‘way’. A good way to think of it is as “the underlying natural law and order of the universe”, much like the Tao (Dao) in Chinese thought. It is a concept that preceded the historical Buddha, and used in a Buddhist context, it typically refers to the teachings and practices of the Buddha and Buddhism in general.
Sangha means ‘community’, and originally referred to the community of monks that followed the historical Buddha. Over time, it has come to refer to the overall community of people who study and practice the Dharma of the Buddha.
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are often listed together and are collectively known as the three ‘refuges’, ‘treasures’, or ‘jewels’ of Buddhism. In many traditions, one officially becomes a Buddhist by verbally “taking refuge” in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha:
“I take refuge in the Buddha, the teacher.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the natural order.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community.”
What is karma?
Put simply, karma is just the universal laws and realities of cause and effect. Every action (or inaction) has consequences that ripple from the present moment into future moments like the ripples expanding from a stone dropped in a pond. Like the ripples in the pond, karma extends out in all directions and not just in a straight line. That is to say, the consequences of an action don’t always have an immediate or direct effect on the actor, but may affect other people. Many people suffer the ‘bad karma’ of a murderer, for instance, even if the murderer is never apprehended or made to answer for his actions.
Some people and religious traditions use karma as a supernatural system of checks and balances that controls and explains ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actions and situations. Used in this way, it is up to the religious beliefs of the individual, and is often linked with the concept of reincarnation. However, in Zen, we think of our karma as our ‘situation’, and we simply try to ‘wake up’ to it. That is, we try to see more clearly the effects of our actions and how we can act to reduce suffering.
What is lineage?
Lineage is a traditional East Asian cultural practice of inheritance, class and property ownership. Used as a common method of legitimating authority, genealogical-like lineages have been fabricated in order to give various sects institutional prestige, prosperity, property ownership and control over the adherents. Likewise, lineages are typically established in order to invest the teachings and teachers with authority based on this inheritance. The establishment of “official” lineages for the various schools of Buddhism arose during the Sung Dynasty (960-1297). The foundations for Zen lineages originated at this time through Tao-yuan’s publication Ching-te-chuan-teng-lu (Transmission of the Lamp).
As members of the Order of the Boundless Way (OBW), we are not interested in the inheritance of property, institutional prestige, sectarian authority or control over adherents. Our tradition is founded on the free transmission of the Dharma for those who wish learn to live in the Way and practice Zen. Thus, as originally established in the Zen tradition, OBW teachers are recognized as teachers by their students and receive all their authority from this recognition. Each teacher’s understanding is authentically realized rather than institutionally instated and sanctioned.
Lineage often becomes intertwined with Dharma Transmission and Mind-to-Mind Transmission. See the next two questions for more detail. For more thoughts on lineage, see the Essay entitled “Who’s Your Teacher?” on the Teachings page of this website.
What is Dharma Transmission?
Dharma Transmission is the process by which a person becomes aware of and comes to live by the Dharma. As people learn and experience the Dharma they incorporate these teachings into their lives and through this process the Dharma is said to be transmitted to them. This transmission can happen in many various ways, including: serendipitous discovery, personal research and inquiry, study of Buddhist literature, personal practice of Buddhist disciplines, interactions with Buddhist practitioners, and receipt of instruction from Buddhist teachers. Traditionally, Dharma Transmission occurs in an official way when someone becomes ordained in a Buddhist tradition. The concept of using Dharma Transmission as some form of official endorsement is a sectarian practice that varies greatly among Buddhist traditions and sects.
Dharma Transmission is often confused with Mind-to-Mind Transmission. See below.
So then, what of Mind-to-Mind Transmission?
The concept of Mind-to-Mind Transmission, or Transmission of the Light, has often been confused with Dharma Transmission and presented as the method that justifies lineage. It actually has nothing to do with this. Transmission of the Light is an expression that refers to our realization of our own awakened mind, or Buddha-Mind. It is the process of self discovery, of our realizing the inherent perfection that is the core of each one of us. The light that is transmitted is precisely the original wisdom we are born with. This transmission doesn’t give us anything that is different from or outside of us – it is our root being. In truth, transmission is actually an unveiling rather than a transmission, the revelation that each one of us truly possesses Buddha consciousness. Once this is truly realized, one has received Mind-to-Mind Transmission and no longer feels a need to have their understanding confirmed or recognized. Thus, the great gift (and little-told secret) of Zen is that the teacher actually has nothing to transmit.
Why do we have Teachers, then?
As mentioned elsewhere on this site, teachers are those who have been farther along the path, and have come back to give guidance to those of us who want it. In addition to telling us what lies ahead, they may be able to teach us specific techniques or disciplines to help us through struggles and over barriers that could otherwise impede our progress. But it is important to remember that, just as in other disciplines, Zen teachers are an aid, not a requirement.
Ideally, Zen teachers should assist us in our practice, encourage us to be diligent, guide our meditation practice in both public and private meetings, offer personal aid in difficult times, and talk about Zen texts to enrich our understanding of Buddhism and Zen concepts. Most importantly, Zen teachers should strive to inspire students by setting a living example through their interactions with students and others and how they conduct their own everyday lives. A good teacher will thus serve as an inspiration to us to become wiser and more compassionate human beings.
What is the significance of the Teacher-Student Relationship?
Historically, only a few well-known Zen teachers (such as Bankei) had many students in their lifetime, let alone at any given time. The legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, had only a handful of students, and Rinzai (Lin-chi), the founder of one of the two major Japanese schools of Zen, had maybe a score of students in his lifetime.
Thus, In Zen, as in every other spiritual tradition, the teacher-student (or master-apprentice) relationship is seen to be intensely personal and is regarded among the most sacred of relationships. Such associations typically consist of a mutually understood pact by which each is bound to the mutual principles of integrity, honesty, admiration, and respect.
In the case of the Master-Apprentice relationship (for the purpose of ordination), there is an additional promise of commitment. Apprenticeships require that a specific period of training and level of competency be attained before the apprentice can be endorsed by the teacher. Typically, such apprenticeships are not about understanding Zen, but rather acknowledging a certain level of expertise in specific arts and/or practices related to Zen.
What more can you tell me about ordination?
Individuals may seek ordination for various purposes, including personal enrichment, spiritual commitment and/or religious affiliation, or to extend their practice into teaching and/or the ministry. Ordained members are legally recognized as clergy and are sanctioned to provide all of the services normally associated with this vocation.
Practitioners who choose to become members of the religious order do so by approaching an ordained member for an apprenticeship. They must recognize that ordination involves lifelong commitments, responsibilities, and greater expectations of humility, compassion, and tolerance, but there are no special rights or privileges granted to ordained members. Upon acceptance of both parties, the initiate then undergoes a prescribed course of study and training that culminates with ordination. The terms and duration of training vary according to the initiate’s background, knowledge, and applied life experience.
Does one have to “convert” to Buddhism to practice Zen?
As stated above, Zen Buddhism is, at its core, a collection of teachings and practices that help us wake up to the present moment and address our suffering. As such, the only ‘belief’ required to practice Zen is the ‘belief’ that the methods and teachings will work and are worth pursuing. One does not have to ‘convert’ in the traditional sense of forsaking previously held beliefs and practices – there are many people from many faiths who practice Zen Buddhism while remaining faithful to their religions. When he was asked questions of a religious nature, like “Is there a God?” the historical Buddha even stated that he was not a god, and he was not there to answer such questions. These are best left for people to discover within the framework of their own beliefs.