Zen Buddhism


The cover image was produced by the transcriber and is placed in the public domain.


and Its Relation to Art


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Books on the Far East often mention a sect of Buddhism called Zen. They say that it was a "school of abstract meditation" and that it exercised a profound influence upon art and literature; but they tell us very little about what Zen actually was, about its relation to ordinary Buddhism, its history, or the exact nature of its influence upon the arts.

The reason of this is that very little of the native literature which deals with Zen has yet been translated, perhaps because it is written in early Chinese colloquial, a language the study of which has been almost wholly neglected by Europeans and also (to judge by some of their attempts to translate it) by the Japanese themselves.

The present paper makes no attempt at profundity, but it is based on the study of original texts and furnishes, I hope, some information not hitherto accessible.

Before describing the origins of Zen itself I must give some general account of Buddhism. At the time when it reached China[1] there were two kinds of Buddhism, called the Lesser Vehicle and the Greater. The former, Primitive Buddhism, possessed scriptures which in part at any rate were genuine; that is to say, they recorded words actually used by Shkyamuni. The ordinary adherent of this religion did not hope to become a Buddha; Buddhas indeed were regarded as extremely rare. He only aspired to become an Arhat, that is "an ascetic ripe for annihilation," one who is about to escape from the wheel of reincarnation—whose present incarnation is an antechamber to Nirvna. To such aspirants the Buddha gives no assistance; he is what children in their games call "home," and his followers must pant after him as best they can.

Those who found this religion too comfortless invented another, which became known as Mahyna, the Greater Vehicle. Putting their doctrines into the mouth of Shkya[8]muni, they fabricated ad hoc sermons of enormous length, preached (so they asserted) by the Buddha himself in his "second period" to those who were ripe to receive the whole truth.

The great feature of this new Buddhism was the intervention of the merciful Bodhisattvas, illuminati who, though fit for Buddhahood, voluntarily renounced it in order to help mankind.

The first Buddhist books to reach China emanated from the Lesser Vehicle. But the Greater Vehicle or Bodhisattva-Buddhism soon prevailed, and by the sixth century A.D. over two thousand works, most of them belonging to the Greater Vehicle, had been translated into Chinese.


There were already many sects in China, the chief of which were:

(1) The Amidists.

This was the form of Buddhism which appealed to the uneducated. It taught that a Buddha named Amida presides over the Western Paradise, where he will receive the souls of those that worship him. The conception of this Paradise closely resembles the Christian idea of Heaven and may have been derived from it.

(2) The Tendai Sect, founded at the end of the sixth century. Its teaching was based on a scripture of enormous length called the Saddharma Pundarka Stra, which is translated by Kern in the Sacred Books of the East. It was perhaps the broadest and most representative sect. It laid great stress on the ethical side of Buddhism.

We now come to Zen.

In the year 520 A.D. there arrived at Canton a missionary from Southern India. His name was Bodhidharma and he appears to have been the younger son of an Indian Prince.

The reigning Emperor of China was a munificent patron of Buddhism. He had built monasteries, given alms, distributed scriptures, defended the faith. Hearing that a Buddhist prince had arrived from India he summoned him at once to his[9] Capital. The following conversation took place in the Palace at Nanking:

Emperor: You will be interested to hear that I have built many monasteries, distributed scriptures, given alms, and upheld the Faith. Have I not indeed acquired merit?

Bodhidharma: None at all.

Emperor: In what then does true merit consist?

Bodhidharma: In the obliteration of Matter through Absolute Knowledge, not by external acts.

Emperor: Which is the Divine and Primal Aspect of Reality?

Bodhidharma: Reality has no aspect that is divine.

Emperor: What are you, who have come before my Throne?

Bodhidharma: I do not know.

The Emperor could make nothing of him. Monasticism, a huge vested interest, decried him, and after a short stay in Nanking he started northward, towards the Capital of the Wei Tartars, who then ruled over a large part of China. The Wei Emperor, like his Chinese confrre, was also a great patron of Buddhism, and he, too, desired an interview with the Indian priest. But Bodhidharma had done with Emperors, and settled in a small country temple, where he lived till his death nine years later. Some say that he tried to visit the Capital of the Weis, but was prevented by the intrigues of the monks there.

He left behind him a few short tractates, the substance of which is as follows:

There is no such person as Buddha. Buddha is simply a Sanskrit word meaning "initiate." The Absolute is immanent in every man's heart. This "treasure of the heart" is the only Buddha that exists. It is no use seeking Buddha outside your own nature. Prayer, scripture-reading, fasting, the observance of monastic rules—all are useless. Those who seek Buddha do not find him. You may know by heart all the Stras of the twelve divisions, and yet be unable to escape from the Wheel of Life and Death. One thing alone[10] avails—to discover the unreality of the World by contemplating the Absolute which is at the root of one's own nature.

Some one asked him: "Why may we not worship the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas?" He answered:

"Ogres and hobgoblins can at will assume the outward form of Bodhisattvas; such are heretical and not of the true Buddha. There is no Buddha but your own thoughts. Buddha is the Way. The Way is Zen. This word Zen cannot be understood even of the wise. Zen means 'for a man to behold his fundamental nature.'"[2]

The highest truths cannot be written down or taught by speech. A man who cannot write a word, can yet contemplate his own heart and become wise. Knowledge of 1,000 Stras and 10,000 Shstras cannot help him to realise the Absolute within him.

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