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Zen or Ch'an, Buddhist school that developed in China and later in Japan as the result of a fusion between the Mahayana form of Buddhism originating in India and the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Zen and Ch'an are, respectively, the Japanese and Chinese ways of pronouncing the Sanskrit term dhyana, which designates a state of mind roughly equivalent to contemplation or meditation, although without the static and passive sense that these words sometimes convey. Dhyana denotes specifically the state of consciousness of a Buddha, one whose mind is free from the assumption that the distinct individuality of oneself and other things is real. All schools of Buddhism hold that separate things exist only in relation to one another; this relativity of individuals is called their "voidness" (Sanskrit sunyata), which means not that the world is truly nothing but that nature cannot be grasped by any system of fixed definition or classification. Reality is the "suchness" (Pali tathata) of nature, or the world "just as it is" apart from any specific thoughts about it.

Doctrines and Practices

Zen is the peculiarly Chinese way of accomplishing the Buddhist goal of seeing the world just as it is, that is, with a mind that has no grasping thoughts or feelings (Sanskrit trishna). This attitude is called "no-mind" (Chinese wu-hsin), a state of consciousness wherein thoughts move without leaving any trace. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Zen holds that such freedom of mind cannot be attained by gradual practice but must come through direct and immediate insight (Chinese tun-wu; Japanese satori). Thus, Zen abandons both theorizing and systems of spiritual exercise and communicates its vision of truth by a method known as direct pointing. Its exponents answer all philosophic or religious questions by nonsymbolic words or actions; the answer is the action just as it is, and not what it represents. Typical is the reply of the Zen master Yao-shan, who, on being asked "What is the Way [of Zen]?" answered, "A cloud in the sky and water in the jug!" Zen students prepare themselves to be receptive to such answers by sitting in meditation (Japanese za-zen) while they simply observe, without mental comment, whatever may be happening.


The two main sects of Zen are Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen. The Soto seems to put more emphasis on the discipline of za-zen, while the Rinzai sect makes use of meditation problems (Japanese koan) based on the dialogues (Japanese mondo), similar to the example mentioned previously, between the old masters and their students. Students are expected to present their understanding of an incident to the teacher in some nonverbal direct form (by pointing, for example), in a private interview called in Japanese sanzen.

Influence on Arts and Crafts

Zen is studied ordinarily in semimonastic communities to which laymen are admitted for limited periods. However, the Zen monastery is more strictly a training school combining meditation with a considerable amount of manual labor. The students in such schools give special attention to the arts and crafts, notably painting, calligraphy, gardening, architecture, and ceremonial tea drinking. In Japan the arts of fencing, archery, and jujutsu are also pursued.

Zen has had a strong influence upon Far Eastern arts and crafts because its point of view is connected with action rather than theory and with direct vision of nature rather than interpretation. According to Zen the mind serves properly as a window glass rather than as a reflector, that is, the mind should give an immediate view instead of an interpretation of the world. All theories of nature and reality are considered to interfere with this direct vision. Zen thereby shows its continuity with the original idea of the Indian philosopher and founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, that suffering is the result of grasping desire, for it holds that the mind and feelings frustrate their own proper functioning when they cling deliberately to the world of experience. Thus, the subject matter of Zen religious painting consists of natural forms, such as birds, grasses, rocks, and mountains, presented merely as images in a style that combines a maximum of technique with a minimum of planning and deliberation. Such art avoids iconography (illustration or representation by visual means, such as pictures) and expresses a way of experiencing rather than ideas based upon experience, for Zen is not committed to any system of doctrine or belief.


According to tradition, Zen was introduced into China in 520 by the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. The most important figures in Zen's early development, which is distinctively Chinese, were Hui-neng, Te-shan, and Lin-chi. Chinese black-ink painting during the Song dynasty (960-1279) became one of the finest artistic expressions of the Zen school.

The two main sects of Zen were brought to Japan by Japanese who had studied in China. The Buddhist monk Eisai introduced Rinzai Zen in 1191, and the Buddhist monk Dogen introduced Soto Zen in 1227. Both sects continue to flourish in Japan. With the development of Zen in Japan, such painters as Sesshu, Sesson Shukei, and Jasoku expressed the Zen view of nature directly in their work. Under Zen influence the Japanese brought the art of ceremonial tea drinking to a high degree of refinement and also developed a distinctive kind of poetry, the brief verse form haiku.

Western interest in Zen dates from the publication of the first authoritative account of the subject in English, Essays in Zen Buddhism by the Japanese scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki. After World War II and the occupation of Japan, a great interest in Zen developed in Europe and the U.S., notably among artists, philosophers, and psychologists. It had a special appeal for abstract and nonobjective painters and sculptors. Philosophers have noted its affinities with the thought of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the theory of general semantics of the American scientist and writer Alfred Korzybski, and, to some extent, with existentialism as propounded by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

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