Rock gardens are a well-known example of Zen art.
Rock gardens are a well-known example of Zen art.

Zen is a Japanese school of Buddhism that, along with schools that include Nichiren, Tendai, Shingon and Jodo-shu, has existed for centuries and remains popular today. Perhaps more than any other Buddhist school, Zen is concerned with the awakening of awareness in the present moment. It is a disciplined, minimalistic and sometimes fierce system that is more concerned with practice than philosophy. According to its practitioners belief itself is counterproductive to awareness and hinders awakening.

History of Zen

The patriarch of the Zen lineage is Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who traveled from India in the 5th century AD to bring the practice of dhyana, or meditation, to China. The lineage became known as Ch'an, a word derived from dhyana. In the 12th century, the Tendai monk Eisai traveled to China to study Ch'an with the Lin-chi school -- Rinzai in Japanese -- and brought the teachings back to Japan. The nobility continued to prefer the flowery Tendai rituals, however, and Zen, which is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch'an, did not become immediately popular. Dogen, another monk who traveled to China, helped establish Zen by founding the Soto school in the 13th century.

Buddhist Beliefs and Zen

The core beliefs of Buddhism are contained in the Four Noble Truths. They state that the world is suffering, that suffering has a cause, that you can end suffering and that the way to do so is to follow the Eightfold Path, which is a set of guidelines for proper behavior. Zen does not contradict any of these truths, but it places more emphasis on the third truth than other branches of Buddhism. For the Zen practitioner, ending suffering by waking up into this moment is not only possible, it is the only religious practice that matters.

Zen Practice

Practitioners of Zen meditation, or zazen, sit motionless on benches for up to 18 hours a day, subject to a strike from the master's rod if sleep overtakes them. While meditating, they may be struggling with a koan, a nonsensical question posed by the master that frustrates logic. At some point, the practitioner may have an "Aha" moment when the austerity of the practice and the impossibility of solving the koan combine to destroy the thinking process altogether. At that point, the practitioner may awaken into satori, an experience of the present moment unconditioned by thinking. That unconditioned awareness is the goal of Zen practice.

Zen Art

Zen is essentially a system with no belief -- or beyond belief -- and adherents have conveyed inspiration through a multitude of art forms that have come to define Japanese culture. Zen artistic renderings are not expressions of logical beliefs, but of the intuitive understanding that Zen practice awakens. These renderings include rock gardens, tea ceremony, haiku poetry, sumi'e painting and kaiseki cuisine, among many others. Bodhidharma is a favorite subject of sumi'e artists, and his fierce, lidless eyes -- legend has it that he cut off his own eyelids -- glower from countless wall hangings.