Friday, February 27, 2009

All about Me(me): Buddhism

Narya gave me Buddhism as one of my words. I could write pages and pages and pages on Buddhism. I wasn't sure where to start, and lo!, this morning a friend emailed me to ask what the difference is between Zen and other sects of Buddhism. Here's my response to her.

If you'd like me to give you 5 words I associate with you to explore on your own blog, tell me in the comments.


Disclaimer: Dividing Buddhism into "Zen" and "Other" is sort of like dividing Christianity into "Calvinism" (for example) and "Other." Nonetheless, we shall examine what makes Zen so very Zen.

Zen is direct pointing at mind!
Zen is the diamond that cuts through illusion!
If you meet the Buddha, kill him!

Zen is the Japanese translation of "Ch'an," the Chinese word for "meditation." Ch'an is a sect of Buddhism that originated in China. At the time (at least in China), Buddhism was a super-scholarly pursuit, monks spending days and nights memorizing and debating sutras, quibbling over what exactly the Buddha meant when he said this or that. Also, the monastic orders became very wealthy and opulent because Buddhism was held in high esteem.

Ch'an arose a reaction against this ivory tower Buddhism. Legend has it that the first Ch'an patriarch was illiterate, but this may have been fabricated to prove a point. Ch'an/Zen emphasizes meditation and direct insight. (Zen is direct pointing at mind!) Ch'an redefined the concept of Nirvana. In other sects Nirvana is a sort of extinguishment-paradise after death, an escape from rebirth. In Ch'an/Zen, it is the extinguishment of duality and notions, the direct experience of reality, and it attainable in this life. (Zen is the diamond that cuts through illusion!)

Ch'an/Zen also got rid of the worship on the Buddha. (Many sects always did and still do worship the Buddhas. Many Tibetan Buddhists, for example, are very into Buddha & Bodhisattva worship, but of course their flavor of Buddhism is influenced by pre-Buddhist Tibetan animism.) The object is to BECOME the Buddha, here and now, not to worship external Buddhas. All external Buddhas are false. (If you meet the Buddha, kill him!)

Ch'an spread from China, becoming "Zen" in Japan, "Thien" in Vietnam, and "Seon" in Korea. It is also known as "Dhyana," the Sanskrit word for meditation.

It's interesting to note that Ch'an/Zen places a good deal of emphasis on lineage. ("I received the precepts from so-and-so, who received it from so-and-so, who traces his lineage back to Patriarch So-and-So.") This is because Ch'an/Zen has needed to prove its legitimacy ever since its origins as a renegade sect. Also, it may be because of the importance of ancestors and lineage in the Chinese culture.

Recommended reading: Zen Speaks!: Shouts of Nothingness.

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