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Zen is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, translated from the Chinese word Chán to Japanese. This word is in turn derived from the Sanskrit dhyāna, which means "meditation" (see etymology below).

Zen emphasizes experiential prajñā, particularly as realized in the form of meditation, in the attainment of enlightenment. As such, it de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct, experiential realization through meditation and dharma practice.

The establishment of Zen is traditionally credited to be in China, the Shaolin Temple, by the Southern Indian Pallava prince-turned-monk Bodhidharma, who came to China to teach a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words". The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century AD. It is thought to have developed as an amalgam of various currents in Mahāyāna Buddhist thought — among them the Yogācāra and Mādhyamaka philosophies and the Prajñāpāramitā literature — and of local traditions in China, particularly Taoism and Huáyán Buddhism. From China Zen subsequently spread south to Vietnam, and east to Korea and Japan.


Zen asserts, as do other schools in Mahayana Buddhism, that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, the universal nature of inherent wisdom (Sanskrit prajna) and virtue, and emphasizes that Buddha-nature is nothing other than the nature of the mind itself. The aim of Zen practice is to discover this Buddha-nature within each person, through meditation and mindfulness of daily experiences. Zen practitioners believe that this provides new perspectives and insights on existence, which ultimately lead to enlightenment.

In distinction to many other Buddhist sects, Zen de-emphasizes reliance on religious texts and verbal discourse on metaphysical questions. Zen holds that these things lead the practitioner to seek external answers, rather than searching within themselves for the direct intuitive apperception of Buddha-nature. This search within goes under various terms such as “introspection,” “a backward step,” “turning-about,” or “turning the eye inward.”

In this sense, Zen, as a means to deepen the practice and in contrast to many other religions, could be seen as fiercely anti-philosophical, iconoclastic, anti-prescriptive and anti-theoretical. The importance of Zen's non-reliance on written words is often misunderstood as being against the use of words. However, Zen is deeply rooted in both the scriptural teachings of the Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama and in Mahāyāna Buddhist thought and philosophy. What Zen emphasizes is that the awakening taught by the Buddha came through his meditation practice, not from any words that he read or discovered, and so it is primarily through meditation that others too may awaken to the same insights as the Buddha.

The teachings on the technique and practice of turning the eye inward are found in many suttas and sutras of Buddhist canons, but in its beginnings in China, Zen primarily referred to the Mahayana Sutras and especially to the Lankavatara Sutra. Since Bodhidharma taught the turning-about techniques of dhyāna with reference to the Lankavatara Sutra, the Zen school was initially identified with that sutra. It was in part through reaction to such limiting identification with one text that Chinese Zen cultivated its famous non-reliance on written words and independence of any one scripture. However, a review of the teachings of the early Zen masters clearly reveals that they were all well versed in various scriptures. For example, in The Platform Sutra of the Sixth ancestor and founder Huineng, this famously "illiterate" Zen master cites and explains the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra.

When Buddhism came to China the doctrine of the three core practices or trainings, the training in virtue and discipline in the precepts (Sanskrit Śīla), the training in mind through meditation (dhyāna or jhana) sometimes called concentration (samadhi), and the training in discernment and wisdom (prajna), was already established in the Pali canon.[13] In this context, as Buddhism became adapted to Chinese culture, three types of teachers with expertise in each training practice developed. Vinaya masters were versed in all the rules of discipline for monks and nuns. Dhyāna masters were versed in the practice of meditation. And Dharma, the teaching or sutra, masters were versed in the Buddhist texts. Monasteries and practice centers were created that tended to focus on either the vinaya and training of monks or the teachings focused on one scripture or a small group of texts. Dhyāna or Chán masters tended to practice in solitary hermitages or to be associated with the Vinaya training monasteries or sutra teaching centers.

After Bodhidharma's arrival in the late fifth century, the Chán masters associated with his teaching line united around the practice of meditation. They agreed that studying the rules of discipline and the scriptures didn't correctly emphasize the experience that led to the Buddha's awakening. Awakening like the Buddha, and not simply following rules or memorizing texts, became the watchword of the Chán practitioners. Within 200 years after Bodhidharma at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, by the time of the fifth generation Chán ancestor and founder Daman Hongren (601–674), the Zen of Bodhidharma's successors had become well established as a separate school of Buddhism and the true Zen school.

The core of Zen practice is seated meditation, widely known by its Japanese name zazen, and recalls both the posture in which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, and the elements of mindfulness and concentration which are part of the Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. All of the Buddha's fundamental teachings—among them the Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, the idea of dependent origination, the five precepts, the five aggregates, and the three marks of existence—also make up important elements of the perspective that Zen takes for its practice. While Buddhists generally revere certain places as a Bodhimandala (circle or place of enlightenment) in Zen wherever one sits in true meditation is said to be a Bodhimandala.

Additionally, as a development of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Zen draws many of its basic driving concepts, particularly the bodhisattva ideal, from that school. Uniquely Mahāyāna figures such as Guānyīn, Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra, and Amitābha are venerated alongside the historical Buddha. Despite Zen's emphasis on transmission independent of scriptures, it has drawn heavily on the Mahāyāna sūtras, particularly the Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sūtra, Hredaya Pranyaparamita the Sūtra of the Perfection of Wisdom of the Diamond that Cuts through Illusion, The Vajrachedika Pranyaparamita the Lankavatara Sūtra, and the "Samantamukha Parivarta" section of the Lotus Sūtra.

Zen has also itself paradoxically produced a rich corpus of written literature which has become a part of its practice and teaching. Among the earliest and most widely studied of the specifically Zen texts, dating back to at least the 9th century CE, is the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, sometimes attributed to Huìnéng. Others include the various collections of kōans and the Shōbōgenzō of Dōgen Zenji.

Zen training emphasizes daily practice, along with intensive periods of meditation. Practicing with others is considered an important part of Zen practice. D.T. Suzuki wrote that aspects of this life are: a life of humility; a life of labor; a life of service; a life of prayer and gratitude; and a life of meditation. The Chinese Chán master Baizhang (720–814 CE) left behind a famous saying which had been the guiding principle of his life, "A day without work is a day without food."