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zen kanji This text is a brief introduction to Zen buddhism. As such, it is doomed to failure.
That is because one of the fundaments of Zen is learning through experience, rather than through instruction. Many adepts of Zen go so far as considering instruction harmful, because it clouds the mind and steers you away from what actually matters. Still, like many other instructors, I will persist and talk about Zen. That is because I hope that my readers will be able to learn some wisdom from these words and have the mental capacity to discard the distractions and to steer to the heart of the matter, where no words can follow.


Ch'an / Zen is a school of Mahayana buddhism. It was developed in the 7th century BCE by buddhist monks in China, after that religion had spread there, and was probably sparked by the monk Bodhidharma, though that is not entirely certain. Nowadays it is most alive in Japan. Therefore most terms in this text are listed both in Chinese and Japanese.
Like many religious schools, it has fragmented in many sects and streams.

It shares with other buddhist schools fundamental concepts like a belief in reincarnation. But there are important differences too. Zen does not believe that it requires the accumulation of many lives to achieve nirvana, enlightenment. It states that this can be achieved in a single lifetime, if a man is willing and able to break the chains that bind him. This is called satori. According to many, its achievement is the culmination and ultimate aim of Zen-study.

Techniques, methods and tools

Monastic life

Many students of Zen practice the doctrine by living in a buddhist monastery. There they live a simple, ordered life with very little luxury. The monks spent a lot of time in meditation, but also work full days, usually as farmers. This is a vital aspect of Zen; one does not achieve nirvana through idle contemplation. As Baizhang said: "A day without work is a day without food."

Zazen meditation

In zuochan / zazen, practitioners of Zen usually sit down in lotus posture or with their legs folded underneath them (seiza). They close their eyes, control their breathing and drive out the general fuss of the world around them, so that they can concentrate on introspection. Contrary to what some people believe, meditation is not a way to relax and forget one's stresses and anxieties. The body may be at relative rest, but the mind should be active and focus on the nature of Zen. Meditation, if practised well, can be quite tiring. It is rumored that Bodhidharma originally devised the oriental martial arts as exercises to keep his students physically fit, so that they could endure long meditation sessions.

The koan

The Linji / Rinzai and Caodong / Soto schools developed the gongan / koan as a tool to help students of Zen. In essence, a koan is an unsolveable riddle. A famous example is "What is the sound of one clapping hand?", but there are hundreds more, many of them not so obviously question-like as this one. Some people see them as ordinary puzzles and apply their intelligence and wit to come up with smart answers. But that is not the point of a koan; it is often paradoxical and cannot be solved by logic. Yet, students are pressed to try to solve it as hard as they can, for days, weeks or even years on end. The aim is get the student to exhaust his/her entire arsenal of logic and reasoning and finally to admit that none of that avails. When one has arrived at that point, there is an opening towards true understanding, which is the heart of Zen.
Having said that, I must disappoint the reader who now thinks he/she can skip the struggle part and jump directly ahead to that mysterious point of non-reason. The effort of the struggle is vital for the result. Neither is there are guarantee that the emptied student, once having reached the endpoint of the koan, will be able to achieve satori. He/she may have ended up with the realization that the prison has no exit, but still not be able to find a way out.
Many other Zen schools consider koans a distraction that steers students away from enlightenment and do not use it, but adepts of the schools mentioned above maintain that it can be useful.


Zen is complicated because it cannot be explained, only experienced. That is why this text can never be more than just a starting point. The difficulty of Zen lies in expanding your understanding of the world by learning as an adult, while at the same time retaining the openness of a child's mind. Some people try very hard to grasp Zen and thus practice the former, while others are ignorant and lazily practise the other. But neither suffices; both must be combined, however seemingly contradictory.

For dessert an assortment of koans, anecdotes and sayings, presented in true Zen tradition without any explanation; you can sort them out yourself.