By Daniel Scharpenburg
Some clarification is necessary, I think.
I use Ch’an and Zen interchangebly. This is bound to lead to confusion, but I am having trouble not doing it. And, actually most people with Ch’an lineages that I’ve encountered do the same. I think it’s a useful topic to explore.
What we are talking about is a long evolving mystical tradition that exists within Buddhism.
Supposedly this mystical tradition has been transmitted from teacher to student since the time of the Buddha (2500 years or so ago), all the way down to me. This is sometimes referred to as the transmission of the lamp or the transmission of light.
This tradition can be joined by anyone and can be practiced by anyone. One does not have to be a Buddhist or even care about Buddhism. This practice is designed to deepen our experience of existence and to come into an understanding of the essence of our true selves.
The core to this lineage is a specific message: We are Enlightened already. The only thing that keeps us from our Awakening is the fact that our minds are obscured by delusion. That’s a unique way of looking at things. We aren’t trying to attain Enlightenment, we are trying to discover the Enlightenment that we have already.
I felt like I had to explain all of that to come to an understanding of names. So, here we go.
Dhyana is the original name of this lineage. Dhyana can be used to refer to either meditation or the stages of spiritual absorption that the mind enters during deep meditation.
So, what it really means is the meditation lineage.
You might think all Buddhist lineages meditate, and that’s actually not true. Different Buddhist lineages emphasize different things. Some emphasize living as monastics, some emphasize chanting etc.
This lineage places meditation and mindfulness at the center. Everything else is used to serve the purpose of strengthening our meditation practice. It spread across Asia to different countries and in each of these countries it got renamed in the local language.
So, when it was brought to China by a man named Bodhidharma, it became Ch’an.
And when it spread to Vietnam it became Thien.
And when it spread to Korea it became Son.
And when it spread to Japan it became Zen.
The Japanese version—Zen—is the one that came to the West first.
A Zen teacher named Soyen Shaku came to an event called the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, which introduced a lot of different religions to America for the first time.
Soyen Shaku introduced Zen to America and his ideas were well received. Later a student of his named D.T. Suzuki would help spread Zen further in America by writing books in English.
So, Zen is used as shorthand because here in the west people don’t know these other words.
The Vietnamese Thien Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls his teaching Zen when he is talking to western audiences.
The Korean Son Master, Seung Sahn, called the Buddhist Order that he founded in the United States the Kwan Um School of Zen.
And I tend to use Ch’an and Zen interchangeably, but I’ve been trying to use Zen more and more.
In fact, there are a couple groups that share my lineage, the lineage of Master Xu Yun, and they just use the word Zen, but I do place importance on telling people that my title is Chanshi, not Sensei or Roshi (if they ask).
There are some purists who think this is not a good idea, because in each country it has entered, Ch’an Buddhism became a little different.
In China, it took some of the culture of the native religions—mainly Taoism—but some Confucianism as well. It was pretty open and exploratory and flexible, there as well. It wasn’t held by rigid dogma, for the most part and there was a lot of dialogue between Ch’an Buddhism and other Buddhist sects as well as other religions. Ch’an is wild and free, like Taoism.
In Korea it actually started to become a little less meditation focused.
In Japan it became more rigid and strict, taking on some of the traits of the Shinto religion.
I want to make it clear that I don’t want to say that these other forms are bad, but only that they’re different.
I think using shorthand and calling my practice Zen is fine. Although my lineage is a Chinese one, I am very inspired by a few teachers in the Japanese lineages, such as Ikkyu and Dogen.
It helps that when I say “Zen Buddhism” people who have done any level of study will know exactly what I mean. And people who have done no study at all might have something of an idea too.
And that’s good.
Some people place a lot of importance on lineage. People can sometimes have an attitude of, “Do you know who my teacher is?” and I’m not sure that’s helpful.
A solid understanding of Awakening is more important than lineage anyway.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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