The Teaching Techniques of Zen Buddhists

More than any other school of Buddhism, Zen relies on direct experience.
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Questions about God and religious philosophies aren't very important to Buddhists in general, and least of all to those in the Zen tradition. The teachings of the Buddha are already practical and uncomplicated, and Zen takes a minimalistic approach to them that can be enigmatic. Because Zen is more of a practice than it is a philosophy, the techniques that masters use to teach it focus on experience and de-emphasize the mind.

1 The Message

Zen traces its origins to the famous Flower Sermon given by the Buddha. On the day of the sermon, the Buddha sat before his disciples holding a lotus flower and, saying nothing, simply stared at it. One disciple -- Mahakasypa -- smiled. The Buddha entrusted Mahakasypa with all that could be passed on outside of tradition through the special transmission between master and disciple. Mahakasypa became the patriarch of a lineage that emphasized dhyana, or meditation. When Bodhidharma brought the teachings of this lineage to China, it became Chan, and when Eisai brought them to Japan, it became Zen.

2 Chan Teaching Methods

The relationship between the master and disciple is central to Zen, and the master's task is to pass on an experiential understanding of the tradition, not an intellectual one. This involves methods that appear irrational or mystical to outsiders. As Chan became established in China in the 8th century, the methodology for teaching came to involve three principles. The first was to "never tell too plainly" and the second was to shock by doing such things as as boxing a student's ears or shouting. The third was to encourage students to travel from teacher to teacher to keep them from settling into habitual patterns.

3 Koan

Koan are public stories, and as the Chan tradition developed in Taoist China, the study of these stories, which are anecdotes concerning great masters, became an important teaching method. Collections of these paradoxical stories include the Mumonkan, or Gateless Gate and the Shoyo Roku, or Book of Serenity. Following Hakuin Ekaku, an influential master who revived the Rinzai school of Zen in the 18th century, koan practice became an important part of Zen study. In this practice, which is different from studying anthologies of koan, the student must answer a paradoxical question posed by the master. Hakuin revolutionized Zen by introducing this practice.

4 Zazen

Meditation is central to Zen practice, and the form peculiar to that tradition is called zazen. The goal of Zen is to empty the mind and focus the attention entirely on the present moment, and to that end, practitioners try to sit as still and straight as possible while remaining alert. In a zendo, or meditation hall, the master often circulates among the meditators with a stick and may use it to shock a sleeping student back to awareness. In Zen stories, the shock is usually supplied in the form of a hard whack, but in modern practice, it's usually more of a light tap.

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.