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Zen Buddhism: Main Features


Zen Buddhism is a peculiar religion because unlike most other religion such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and many others, Zen Buddhism does not have a god to worship. In Zen Buddhism there is no particular spiritualism since any Zen practitioner is expected to meditate in search of enlightenment and not the satisfaction of a godly worship that is sought by other forms of religion. Zen Buddhism does not have a very clear origin though it is highly believed to have its roots from Buddhism. It is in fact believed to have developed from an interaction between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Zen Buddhism is simply a religion of no religion and a belief of no faith. There are five houses of Zen Buddhism which were basically founded by teachers or masters. The five schools or sects were not formalized and were basically without dogma. These houses are believed to be the sources of most Zen Lineages all over the world. The five houses include Guiyang, named after master (885-958) Guishan (771-854), Linji named after Linji Yixuan (866), Fayan after Fayan Wenyi, Yunmen after Yunmen Wenyan (949) and Caodong named after Dongshan Liangjie (807-869). Unlike many other forms of religion that base their belief on written materials by their founder and or masters, Zen does not rely on either written or verbal discourse. This is because as it is in Buddhism which is its source, Zen believes in inherent wisdom and not external answers found in books and other sources of doctrine. Zen believers are expected to search into their being through meditation and find new perspectives, insights, revelations which bring the sense of enlightenment. It is based on the fact that Buddha was founded on internal thoughts and thus should make disciples and be propagated through the same. (Alan 1958).

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Zen Buddhism can safely be considered as a philosophy due to its lack of a “god” aspect. It is a religion that is based on basically the act of meditation. A Zen Practitioner must meditate in a mission to find meaning of life which is also referred to as enlightenment. Given its source; Buddhism, meditation is very key if anyone is to understand this religion. For a non practitioner to understand this philosophy one must have an open mind to ideas as this is clearly the mission of this religion; to search for wisdom from within themselves.

It requires a discipline that ensures that one is always ready to set apart some times ranging from a few minutes to hours a day to close himself up from their physical surroundings and just meditate. Meditation can be done in many postures. The name Zen implies sitting meditation and this kind of meditation is called Zazen in Japanese. A Zazen practitioner sits on the floor or on a chair and depending on which sect he belongs to either Rinzai Zen or Japanese Soto the practitioner will either face the wall or sit in the middle of the room. The main idea is to assume a posture that will aid the practitioner concentrate on the flow of his thoughts allowing them to come into his mind and pass without any interference. However meditation practices can vary from one type of practitioner to another (Bainbridge, 2005).

Zazen practitioners sit and instead of concentrating on the activities of his mind, they instead emphasize on their breathing striving to maintain its natural pattern. In this type of meditation, the practitioner recognizes his body’s action without interrupting them at all and a result his normal memory is affected and is therefore able to find enlightenment while he is lost in deep meditation. There are other forms of meditation where practitioners do not necessarily have to sit but can actually stroll or just stand. Just as in styles the amount of time spent in meditation varies. There are those who recommend 5 minutes or more but there are those who insist on up to 40 minutes several times a day. Whether it is five or 40 minutes the goal is to keep the discipline of consistency in meditation. (Alan 1958).

Just like in any other forms of worship, apart from individual worship there are times when Zen Buddhism practitioners team up and meditate together under direction of their leader who by the way is not idolized like other forms of religion. This type of corporate worship is known as Sesshin. During Sesshin which basically means gathering the mind, intensive group meditation takes place. During these period which ranges from 1 up to 7 days, practitioners practice only the Zazen form of worship which is characterized by 30-50 minutes of seated meditation. These meditation intervals are interrupted by short rests breaks and meals and sometimes short duration of work. During Sesshin, the gathered practitioner observes everything with the same mindfulness. During this period sleep hours are shortened and there are occasional interruptions by the master giving public talks perhaps to give direction to the corporate meditation. Periods of Sesshin are several in a year in accordance to Buddhism. (Charles 1975).


Spiritual things are spiritually discerned and so I have no problem with Zen Buddhism belief since there should be meditation in order for one to understand his spiritual realm. I however, believe that worship and meditation should be directed to a god; otherwise there would be no need for a person to believe ideas from himself but instead from a higher or superior being to him. I also agree with the philosophy of corporate worship where the practitioners come together to gather their minds and do everything with the same mindfulness. However, further I am left wondering that if there is a gathering of mind, shouldn’t there be a specific goal? Shouldn’t the practitioners share the results of their meditation? Shouldn’t they have a common pool where they pour their new experiences and enlightenment since one may have discovered something that could be beneficial to all?

Again if anyone really believes that they have made significant discoveries and enlightenments, what would be wrong in documenting them for his fellow believers; what would be wrong to record somebody’s experiences during meditation for the sake of his juniors. I am of the opinion that if Zen Practitioners really believe in their form of religion, they should record their experiences both for generational transfer and for the enlightenment, and above all they should lead someone to a superior being to themselves since it is clear that human being are not all sufficient and no matter what they believe in, there is clearly need for a superior being and my sincere opinion is that, that superior being should be a god.

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Alan W, (1958): The Spirit of Zen, New York; Grove Press, Inc.

Bainbridge, W. (2005): Religion and Science: A Comparative view- Houghton Mifflin; Boston.

Nacy W, (1966) Three Ways of Asian Wisdom, New York, Simon and Schuster.

Charles, P. (1975), Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, Penn State Press.

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