Zen is the Japanese form of the Sanskrit word dhyana, "meditation," and is a school of Buddhism which has had significant impact in Japan and Europe and America. Founded in China in the 6th century C.E. as the Ch'an school of Mahayana Buddhism, it was exported to Japan in the 12th century C.E. and gradually developed its own unique, indigenous character. The Indian scholar/monk Bodhidharma is traditionally attributed with transferring the tradition from India to China. The essence of Bodhidharma's teachings is that one does not need to study sacred texts, worship deities, or do elaborate religious rituals to achieve enlightenment. Rather, one needs to break through the boundaries of conventional thought using meditation and experience the world as it truly is in the moment. Zen maintains that this was the way the Buddha himself attained enlightenment. Zen teaches that all humans have the capacity to attain enlightenment because we all have an inherent Buddha-nature; indeed, we are all already enlightened beings, but our true potential has been clouded by ignorance. According to some Zen traditions, this ignorance is overcome through a sudden breakthrough — called satori — during meditation in which the true nature of reality, and our experience of it, is revealed. Different Zen sects, of which Rinzai and Soto are the major two, have developed various methods to achieve this enlightenment, including the practice of zazen ("just sitting" meditation). Despite the apparent simplicity of the message of Zen, training is arduous and requires guidance from a master. In Japan Zen became popular among the warrior samurai for its focus on discipline and self-control; Zen also informs the practice of various arts, such as calligraphy, painting, garden design, and archery. Beginning in the 20th century a popularized version of Zen has become spread throughout the world and influenced many in both the United States and Europe, where it has been incorporated into everything from motorcycle maintenance to cooking to professional sports.


Quick Fact Details:

  • Formed: The roots of Zen are clouded with legend; its origins in Chan (Chinese Buddhism), its transmission to Japan, and its transition to a uniquely Japanese tradition are gradual and not identifiable until the 12th century C.E. and later.
  • Deity: Zen includes the wide diversity of the Buddhist pantheon, but also teaches that the divine nature is in all things and that the Buddha-nature is shared by everyone. There is no concept of omnipotent, eternal deities.


Quick Fact Sources include www.adherents.com, www.bbc.co.uk/religion, The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions (2006), The Encyclopedia of Religion (2005), the Religious Movements Page at the University of Virginia, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions (2002), and the Encyclopedia of World Religions (1999).


Quick Facts

Formed 650
Adherents 10,000,000
Deity None (N/A)
Sacred Text Platform Sutra, Lankavatara Sutra, Shobogenzo
Origin China / Japan
Headquarters None
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