Unique Teachings of Zen Buddhism

by Guy Gardner

The teachings of Zen Buddhism differ fundamentally from other schools of Buddhism. Whereas other schools stress the importance of study for understanding the teachings of the Buddha, Zen Buddhists teach the importance of direct experience. The BBC notes that “The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.”

Practice Over Theory

Zen Buddhists teach that enlightenment is only attainable when in the right state of consciousness. The importance of this practice is stressed over the readings of scripture and philosophical discussions. They believe that scriptures only offer limited guidance, and that enlightenment can only be achieved from within. Zen Buddhists see the study of theory as holding back the attainment of enlightenment by entangling the mind in narrow manifestations of reality.

Meditation

Meditation is a means for achieving the higher state of consciousness that Zen Buddhists believe represents enlightenment. Proper Zen meditation requires the practitioner to still the mind and focus on achieving complete awareness. Zen Buddhists teach the importance of being fully aware of oneself and the environment. While practitioners are aware of their thoughts, they keep them from becoming a distraction. The two main schools of Zen Buddhism are the Rinzai School and the Soto School. Each school differs in their approach to meditation.

Rinzai School

The Rinzai School uses the Koan method of meditation. The Koan method involves focusing on riddles or puzzles, known as koans, that reasoning and logic cannot solve. By focusing on these koans, the Zen Buddhist can hone the mental discipline and awareness needed to break down the “ego consciousness,” adopted from the participant’s social and cultural environment. The Koan method is used to eliminate the narrow conception of reality to achieve a higher level of awareness needed for enlightenment. The riddle, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is an example of a koan. The puzzle is not meant to have a right answer, but is rather a tool used to focus the mind. The Rinzai school believes that by focusing the mind in this way, it is possible to achieve “spontaneous” enlightenment, or a sudden realization of the higher state of awareness.

Soto School

In contrast, the Soto School teaches the attainment of gradual enlightenment achieved through the “Just Sitting” method of meditation, called "zazen." Zen Buddhists from this school don’t see meditation as separate from enlightenment, and they reject the understanding of meditation as a means to this end. Rather, they teach that meditation is a state of enlightenment that deepens over time. The Just Sitting method involves the same sitted meditation used in the Rinzai School, but without the use of koans. The Soto School teaches students to open their minds and calm their thoughts, allowing them to deepen their level of consciousness and discover an original state of enlightenment.

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