Brief History of Zen

[Extracts are from various sources, (including Wikipedia!). I’ve revised many of the quotes and texts to try to make them clearer and more accessible.]

NB. “Zen” is the Japanese form of a Chinese term, “Chan” – which is itself derived from the Sanskrit term, “dhyana” – meaning meditation or contemplative state.

Lotus flower

From its origins in India in the fifth century BCE, Buddhist ideas and practices migrated to other parts of Asia, eventually reaching Europe and the Americas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the west we often link the spread of religion with military conflict and conquest. Religious ideas and values are carried from place to place by armies and agents of colonial domination. In the case of Buddhism this does not seem to be the case. Most often Buddhism migrates from country to country along trade routes and ‘by word of mouth.’ The idea of imposing Buddhism upon a person or community is quite ‘non-Buddhist’, and certainly there are very few examples of wars or conquests undertaken in the name of Buddhism.

When Buddhist ideas and practices were carried along the Silk Road from India to China, Indian travellers would have encountered a Chinese society infused with two complementary sets of values: Confucianism and Daoism. Confucian ideas and ethics dominated the spheres of social and political organisation. The Chinese state was highly regulated and very hierarchical – from the Emperor at the top to the lowliest peasant. Government agencies proliferated and minor functionaries could be found working in even the most outlying villages of the Chinese empire. Most educated, literate men, including writers, poets and painters, also had jobs as administrators and government officials. This large, all-pervasive, bureaucracy was a reflection of Confucian ideas about how society should be ordered and how citizens should behave. Confucian values place emphasis upon strict social, legal and ethical conventions that everyone is expected to uphold in order to maintain social stability. Everyone knows his or her place and ‘keeping up appearances’ is paramount. The rather rigid Confucian system of regularised behaviour, knowledge and categorisation seems to have been very effective and efficient.


Daoism can be seen as the antidote or counter-balance to Confucian convention and regulation. While Confucianism is concerned with imposing a human order on the world, Daoism is concerned with living in harmony with the natural order of the universe. The ‘Dao’, is often translated as, ‘the way’ (its literal meaning is ‘road or path’), and we can think of it as the way of nature or the natural way of the universe. According to Daoism the way of nature is fluid, spontaneous, non-conventional and organic – it is a fluid process of change, growth and decay. Daoist writings are full of metaphors of water being more powerful than stone, willow trees bending in the wind, intuition being more effective than reason, and chance or serendipity being as important as logical thought or decision-making. Note, the similarity with one meaning of the Buddhist term, ‘dharma’: ‘how things are, the nature of things.’

Daoist writings (eg. Tao Te Ching or Daodejing & Zhuangzi) tend to place little value on knowledge that can be put into words: “The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao”; “To use words but rarely is to be natural”. The Daoist practitioner values wisdom that can’t be put into words, lives a simple life and has few needs: “Cherish sincerity; belittle the personal; reduce desires.” The more we are in harmony with patterns of natural growth, the more peaceful and fulfilling will be our lives. Daoists are suspicious of the use of misguided force and inappropriate effort – often it is better to let go rather than to cling on to habits and beliefs that go against the natural order. Hence, the Daoist concept of ‘wu-wei’, which refers to ‘doing by not-doing’ – that is, doing by not-doing things in a way that goes against the natural flow. Likewise, it is better to learn by unlearning, to know by unknowing – to let go of conventional patterns of dualistic thinking that are driven by habit and delusion – far better to be spontaneous, creative and unbound by rigid conventions. Note how this echoes Buddhist notions of ‘beginner’s mind’ and ‘Buddha mind’.

The following extract from the Cheng-tao Ke (lit. ‘realisation-way-song’) by Chinese Chan teacher, Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh – often known by his Japanese name, Yoka Daishi (665-713) – could be describing both Dao and Buddha-nature:

Like the empty sky it has no boundaries,

Yet it is right here, always profound and clear.

When you try to know it, it disappears.

You cannot hold it, but you cannot lose it.

In not getting it, you get it.

When you’re silent, it speaks;

When you speak, it is silent. [JD version]

It is quite likely that Buddhist travellers meeting Chinese Daoists for the first time would have been surprised and delighted at the similarities in their ways of thinking and at some of the values they had in common. No wonder that Zen is often described as arising from the coming-together of Buddhist and Daoist approaches to living.


Bodhidharma by Hakuin

(Japanese: Daruma) – active in 5  or 6th C. ‘First Patriarch’ of Zen Buddhism. Legend has it that he brought Buddhism to China from India. His origins are unknown, but probably non-Chinese – referred to as a ‘blue-eyed barbarian’ in some Chan/Zen texts. Associated with the founding of Shaolin temple – the first centre of kung fu as a meditation practice and martial art. There are many stories about Bodhidharma in Chinese Buddhist literature and many portraits of him by painters who were also often Buddhist monks and teachers. He is portrayed as a fearsome character with bushy eyebrows. One legend suggests that he was so furious with himself for falling asleep while undertaking intensive periods of meditation that he tore off his eyelashes and flung them to the ground outside his cave hermitage. At the spot where they landed a tea bush grew – hence the long association of tea and Zen (tea as a mild stimulant to keep meditators awake)!

For more on Bodhidharma click here

HUINENG (638-713)

Huineng tearing up scrolls

(Jap: Daikan Eno or Yeno) Sixth (and last) Zen Patriarch.

Huineng is one of the most influential figures in Zen Buddhism. He is considered to be of equal importance by all schools. Tradition has it that he was an uneducated boy when he arrived at the temple of the Fifth patriarch, Hung-jen, who gave him the job of pounding rice to make flour. One day Hung-jen asked his students to compose a poem to demonstrate their understanding of Zen. A senior student, Shen-hsiu, wrote the following:

The body is the Bodhi tree.

The mind is a clear mirror standing.

Take care to wipe it clean,

And make sure no dust is clinging.

For more on Huineng click here