What Zen Is, What Zen Isn’t

Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book titled, The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert Buswell Jr., who ordained as a Theravada monk in Thailand, and later became a monk in Korean Seon (선,禪) Buddhism which is very similar to Japanese Zen or Chinese Chan Buddhism. After several years, he finally returned to lay life in the US to pursue academic studies, but he wrote this book to describe his first-hand experience of Korean Buddhism:

Unlike most Westerner scholars and practitioners of Zen, I first learned about the tradition through living the life of a Zen monk, not through reading English-language books about Zen. Only well after starting monastic training in Korea did I begin to read any of the Western scholarship about Zen. But something seemed askew. Zen as I was experiencing it as a monk living in a monastic community just did not quite mesh with Zen as I found it described in this literature. (pg 8)

The book talks a great deal about his life as a monk in the Jogye Order in Korea, his teachers, training, etc. Unlike Japanese Buddhism, which has many different sects (shūha, 宗派), nearly all temples in Korea belong to the Jogye Order,1 and practice Seon Buddhism. However, Seon Buddhism itself is very broad (like Tendai Buddhism in Japan), and includes many different practices, teachings, etc. Later, Buswell talks about the differences between what people think Zen Buddhism is, and what he experienced.

For example, he talks about doctrine and study in Zen:

…many Western writers depict Zen Buddhism as radically bibliophobic [against books] and advocate that doctrinal understanding has no place in Zen training. But would such a reading be correct? Sŏn monastic life in modern Korea suggests not. Most Korean monks training in the meditation hall have extensive knowledge of Buddhist doctrine, ranging from basic “Hinayana” and Mahāyāna sūtras, to theoretical treatises on Sŏn praxis and collections of Sŏn lore. Most began their meditation training only after they were steeped in the basic teachings of Buddhism. Many had several years of study in the seminary behind them before they even considered starting meditation; as one monk told me, an infant must learn to crawl before it tries to walk, and so too must monks study before they begin to meditation. (pg 217)

This is really an important point. Some, not all, Zen practitioners I’ve met in the West seem to place a lot or reliance on meditation only, and seem not interested in studying Buddhism at all.

He also criticizes the idea that Zen is only about meditation:

While it is true that the meditation hall and the monks practicing there are the focus of much of the large monastery’s activities, the majority of its residents spend no time in meditation, and many have no intention of ever undertaking such training. Zen monastic life is broad enough to accommodate people of a variety of temperaments and interests—administrators, scholars, workers—offering them many different kinds of vocations.

….The testimony of the Korean monastic community, however, suggests instead that a disciplined life, not the transformative experience of enlightenment [through meditation], is actually the most crucial to the religion. This need not necessarily be even an examined, or an informed life, though those would be highly prized, but one that is so closely and carefully structured as to provide little opportunity for ethical failings or mental defilements to manifest themselves. The Koreans (and the Chinese and Indian Buddhists before them) created such structured regimens for their monasteries because they recognized that few meditators would have much chance of progressing in their practice without them. In this endorsement of discipline over transformation, the Sŏn monks of Korea would find much in common with their Buddhist counterparts in Southeast Asia—or even with the Benedictines of France. (pg 218-219)

This last statement may seem odd to readers who are interested in Zen, but consider the Buddha’s words in the Sutra of Half of the Holy Life:

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path. (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

That’s why the Three Treasures of Buddhism (三宝, 삼보) includes the Sangha: the Buddhist community.2

Finally, Buswell writes:

Modern Sŏn monks in Korea train within an extensive web of religious thought and practice, a web that reticulates with the historical, institutional, and cultural contexts of their centuries-old tradition. These monks know that while Zen masters teach sudden enlightenment, they follow in their daily practice a rigidly schedule regiment of training. They know that while Zen texts claim to eschew doctrinal understanding, monks are expected first to gain a solid grounding in Buddhist texts before starting meditation practice. They know that while the iconoclastic stories of the past Zen masters glorify seemingly antinomian behavior, monks are pledge to maintain a sober, disciplined lifestyle….Zen monks are sophisticated enough in their understanding of their tradition to mediate in their daily lives these polarities….it is time that our scholarship learn to do the same. (pg. 223)

Compared to some of the limited experiences I’ve had with Zen in the US (some positive, some negative), I think this book really helps to explain Korean Buddhism, and East Asian Buddhism as a whole much more effectively than some other books I’ve read in English. These books aren’t wrong (actually some are pretty good), but they’re not telling you the whole picture.

Anyhow, check out Buswell’s book if you can. I highly recommend it. Suffice to say I have a much greater respect of Seon Buddhism and Korean Buddhism as a whole. It’s certainly not perfect (Buswell doesn’t imply it is either), but like Asian Buddhism in general, it has the benefit of experience, which Western converts largely do not.

P.S. Today is a kind of “triple-post” day. Just lots of interesting things I wanted to share lately. 🙂

1 Japanese version of the same page is here.

2 That’s why I think “American” Buddhism still has a long way to go: not enough “critical mass” of trained monastics and communities. One charismatic teacher alone isn’t enough, it requires a whole, established community and there just isn’t enough of them. Eventually, it will get there, but it will take time and investment. Until then, it’s mostly a lay community of people dabbling in it. Without sufficient structure and training, the community risks being “the blind leading the blind”. Personally, I think the best way to remedy this, is to have more and more Buddhists train in Asia until they’re thoroughly steeped in the tradition (1-2 years isn’t enough, more like 10-20), and then come back until there’s enough critical mass to start larger communities. Easier said than done, I know. Just my thoughts. 🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on “What Zen Is, What Zen Isn’t”

  1. Hi Doug,

    I liked your point about how the monks had a foundation in understanding in the Sutras before they started to meditate. It is the same in the Chan tradition of China. Master Hsuan Hua for example, was a Chan Patriarch and taught the Sutras everyday. I think it is crucial to have this foundation in understanding from the Sutras.

    Without these fundamentals in understanding, meditation might give you a little peace, but may not lead you anywhere further along the road to enlightenment. And without these fundamentals in understanding, Zen can easily degenerate into a teacher asking weird questions and then giving strange answers – all of which are nonsense – but which the student assumes to be profound. And so both the student and teacher go around in a circle of delusion, which is a shame really.

    You see, some of those strange question and answer stories that you hear of in the Zen and Chan tradition were basically secret understandings between the Master and disciple regarding the Buddha Nature. To an outsider, their interaction would seem strange, but to those involved, they are talking in metaphors of the Buddha Nature and usually the Master is helping the disciple see their own Buddha Nature – which they call the “Original face”.

    It’s sort of like when 2 really close friends can talk in a secret language of gestures and abbreviations and they’ll know exactly what’s going on, yet outsiders would think, “What the heck are these two going on about?” So these famous Zen stories we hear about are often specific to those people involved. Outsiders may not understand.

    So the danger is that without the foundation in understanding in Sutras like the Shurangama Sutra, people are just playing games with Zen, engaging in Chan banter assuming it to be deep and profound wisdom, but could potentially just be nonsense.


  2. I also think it’s pretty important to point out that some of the Japanese patriarchs, especially Dogen in the case of Zen and Shinran and Honen in the case of Pure Land, radically transformed the way Buddhism was being practiced.

    Yes, there’s less meditation going on in Korean Zen temples, but that’s not necessarily a reflection on Zen as a whole, but rather how it’s practiced by Korean schools. Soto-shu monks all do tons of sitting meditation from the beginning (although if you read stuff like the blog articles by the current abbot of Antaiji, there’s a lot of sleeping going on during “meditation”).

    Still, I think that while Japanese schools are the ones with which most Americans and Europeans are familiar, they are perhaps the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the rest of east Asian Mayahana Buddhism. In other words, many of the separate Japanese schools really took a specific concept and RAN with it in a way that their mainland counterparts did not.


  3. Hi guys, and welcome!

    Essence of Buddhism: Buswell interestingly explained that those koans (at least in a Korean context) are intended nothing more than to sow doubt, so unlike Japanese Rinzai, you spend your whole life with a single koan or two until that sense of doubt completely pervades you.

    In any case, it makes sense: without training and foundation, it’s just a weird cycle of riddles and answers.

    But anyway, yeah, foundations are crucial for Buddhism, and probably any religion for that matter.

    Matt: That’s what we’d like to think (I’ve believed it for a long time myself): that Japanese schools took certain concepts and really ran with them. However, as Buswell points out, this doesn’t always mesh with things on the ground. It’s true that Soto training/meditation halls do a lot of meditation (then again, as Buswell points out, so do Korean meditation halls), but there’s also a lot of parish monks who do not because they’re busy serving the community, or adminstrative monks in larger temples (like Sojiji which I’ve visited previously). In other words, Buswell points out the same thing: that in order to support the monks who meditate, there are a lot who take on other administrative roles and are content to do so. He also does mention that he’s confirmed some of the same experiences in Japanese Zen as well, though I didn’t quote that part of the book. Japanese Buddhist institutions have seminaries, just as Buswell described them in Korean Zen, and most trainees (not necessarily foreign ones who can’t read/write Japanese proficiently anyway) usually undergo those seminaries for years.

    Reader and Tanabe’s book, Practically Religious, is an excellent field-study (like Buswell’s book) on Japanese Buddhism as it is practiced and also questions how we Westerners have come to understand Buddhism through academic sources only. I highly recommend it. 🙂

    The sleeping story was amusing by the way. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Also, regarding the notion that Japanese Buddhism is somehow unique because of its emphasis on schools built around a single practice (Soto, Jodo, etc), I have come to believe that this is more due to politics (and to some degree geographic isolation after the end of the Tang Dynasty in China) than any inherent cultural ingenuity. Groner’s book on the life of Saicho, and James L. Ford’s book on Jokei helped convince me of this.


  5. I thought a posted this a few days ago it didn’t show up. Basically what I said was… I mostly agree with this. When Bodhidharma said that Zen was a transmission outside the sutras he didn’t mean that the sutras were outside of Zen and I doubt that he intended such an understanding. Dogen Zenji rejected any concept that study was unimportant. I do take issue with the idea that zazen should be put off until a certain level of intellectual training.


    1. Hi Mui,

      The author mentioned the same thing about Bodhidharma coincidentally in the book (that people were taking it out of context).

      Regarding the issue of training before meditation, please bear in mind that this is intended for professional monastics, full renunciants who were expected to devote full-time to it. Lay classes, as far as I’ve seen in Asia, don’t require this because lay followers aren’t expected to make such a commitment anyway.

      Interestingly though, in one of the sutras of the Pali Canon (which I can’t remember when I need it) the Buddha explained the Buddhist path as a steady progression from basics like compassion and moral conduct to more advanced practices like mindfulness meditation.

      The idea is somewhat the same: it works best when the foundations are established. Otherwise one might put the cart before the horse. 🙂

      Of course the fact that there are so many meditation classes for people in Asia and in the West shows this isn’t a hard, fast rule but a recommended best-practice. Otherwise one’s mileage may vary. 😉


  6. Oh, I fully agree that geographic isolation and politics did play a huge role in separating Japanese Buddhism from mainland Buddhism; I’m just saying that Japanese Buddhism IS different, and a lot of Europeans and Americans seem to assume that all Buddhism is like the Japanese variation, whereas in a lot of cases the Japanese schools seem to be more exceptions than rules (at least in comparison to Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean Mayahana schools).


    1. Ah I see your point. Yeah I have to agree: people assume it’s the norm or at least the gold-standard when comparing other forms of Buddhism. I did that myself for years until I read some mainland Buddhist literature and understood the diversity a little better. 🙂


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