Zen and Buddhism

The Buddha once said that what he taught was “suffering and the end of suffering.” He asserted that he had personally experienced this “end of suffering” through “awakening,” his enlightenment experience. He further asserted that anyone could also realize this end of suffering by following the way he outlined, the Noble Eightfold Path. Just exactly what is meant by such terms as suffering, the end of suffering, awakening, enlightenment, and just how one goes about attaining it are matters of continuing debate, but the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is this:

There is something that is fundamentally awry or deeply problematic in the nature of human existence, and this problem can be solved at its most basic level, enabling one to become liberated from this pervasive existential dissatisfaction and live a life that is deeply satisfying.

Zen is among the schools of Buddhism which assert that solving the problem at its most basic level will necessarily involve a radical transformation of our understanding of reality. In other words, the primary problem is human ignorance. Our understanding of what we are and what the world is, which we take for granted and seems to work well enough in everyday life, is fundamentally delusional. “Waking up” involves seeing how things really are, and a satisfying life is lived by being in accord with that truth. Zen aspires to go directly to the heart of this great matter. It is a path that is direct, immediate, and personal, never far from the present moment, the concrete stuff of your actual life.

Zen therefore asserts that through practice one can personally realize this “heart of the Buddha’s teaching” by “seeing one’s own nature,” which is identical to the nature of a Buddha (“Buddha-nature”), identical to what the Buddha “saw” when he woke up. Exactly what this is, how it is talked about, what one must do to realize it, and the evaluation of whether or not one has attained this truth varies among the different schools of Buddhism, the traditions and lineages of Zen, and even individual teachers within the same lineage. There may be “one truth,” one “heart of the Buddha’s teaching” to be realized, but it is experienced, manifested, expressed, and talked about in many different ways.

Of course there is much, much more to Buddhism than this. The Buddha taught for over forty years, and commentators have been extending, amplifying, clarifying, and modifying what he said for over two thousand more, so any attempt at exposition of those teachings is well beyond the scope of this website or the abilities of this author. There is plenty of information on Zen and Buddhism easily available via the internet. However, the connection between Zen and Buddhism is precisely at this point of the heart of his teaching, the interdependency between “awakening” and the “end of suffering.” This “awakening” or “realization” is approached somewhat differently in the two main traditions of Zen which come through Japan, Soto and Rinzai.

Soto & Rinzai >