What is Zen?

Many people think of Zen as some sort of exotic Oriental philosophy that magically promises enlightenment, freedom, and life enrichment. Starting in the 1960s, Zen practice grew in popularity until numerous Zen centers were established across the United States and Europe. 

Most people would prefer a daily life continuously filled with ease and joy and devoid of stress and worry. It is quite natural to desire this. But life is also fraught with anxiety, distress, and suffering. This is the Buddha’s first great teaching (the first noble truth). So, how does one free oneself from becoming attached to these troubled states of mind? Some people think that Zen practice promises salvation through enlightenment. In search of a so-called Zen salvation, they may read books about Zen, or perhaps find a Zen teacher and begin to practice at a Zen center. They may engage in kōan study, attain kenshō (seeing into one’s true nature), and ultimately receive inka (confirmation of one’s enlightenment).  

This is not, however, the only way to practice Zen. 

What is true awakening? Zen master Dōgen teaches that enlightenment is living one’s own existence fully in the here-and-now. Everything is Buddha (that is, fully awakened or enlightened), just as it is. Every action and thought that leads to this realization is the Way, and the deepest form of practice is daily life itself. In other words, there is nothing inherently special about becoming a buddha. To awaken, we must simply accept fully the reality of our existence, and practice what we need to do now in order to realize the two pillars of a compassionate and wise existence. This is the essence of Zen. There is nothing else to it. It may sound simple, and on one level it is. Yet on another equal level, it is the difficult practice of a lifetime, or perhaps many lifetimes. But the truly amazing thing about Zen is the teaching that realization is possible here-and-now! This should not be confused with a notion of salvation based on attaining a “transcendent” existence. 

The community at Eishōji Zen temple endeavors to practice Dōgen’s teachings as faithfully as possible. While doing kōan-zen can certainly be a worthwhile practice, it is not the Way that Dōgen advocates. Remaining faithful to Dōgen’s fundamental teaching lies at the heart of Eishōji. We do not dilute Dōgen’s teachings to make them more palatable.  

In order to join us for practice at Eishōji, you do not have to pay a membership fee or make any doctrinal commitments. The door is always open. You can come or leave at any time.  

Authentic and genuine teaching does not change or fade with the passing of time. Neither does it change with the times. While the Buddha Way encompasses and embraces all beings, the true Dharma remains the same. 


Buddha Dharma

Buddha Dharma is diverse and if one is not careful, one will fall prey to many misunderstandings. Without careful practice, Dōgen warns that what is closest at hand will seem as far away as the heavens from the earth. In this light, I would like to put Dōgen Zen into a bit of historical context. 

 Original Buddhism 

 The main teachings of Shakyamuni are rooted in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. But I do not think Shakyamuni Buddha was so systematic about these teachings. His basic stance was the Middle Way, and his practice was Zazen. Moreover, he did not have a “one size fits all” approach, but rather tailored his teaching in accordance with each person’s capacity. His teaching was not for an elite class. It was for everyone, each in their own way. 


 After his death, the Buddha’s teachings were transfigured by his disciples. The monks sequestered themselves in the Sangha and over time practice no longer attended to the laity. The teaching that was originally for all people became an “insider” teaching. This was one of the reasons why traditional Buddhism was sometimes called a narrow or small vehicle (hinayana).  


 Mahayana Buddhism was born from a sense that traditional Buddha Dharma had grown too exclusive. The “great” vehicle sought to expand access. Not only did it interact creatively with traditional forms of Buddha Dharma, it underwent a major transition into four streams. One led to Hinduism, another to Daoism, a third to the Amida Sutra, and a fourth to the Lotus Sutra. 


 Zen can be thought of as a combination of Mahayana Buddha Dharma and Daoist practice. Although there is a small school called Ōbaku, Japanese Zen is generally divided into the Rinzai and Soto schools. The Rinzai tradition generally relies on kōan study to help practitioners achieve kenshō, while Soto practices shikantaza, just sitting, and it does not emphasize attainment of a culminating state like enlightenment. The emphasis is placed squarely on Zazen practice.  

 It is also important to note that Zazen is something quite specific and it can be misleading to confuse it with more general practices of meditation. For this reason, I avoid speaking of Zen meditation, preferring rather Zazen or Zen sitting. Those looking for meditation broadly speaking may be disappointed by how specific Zazen is.  


 In his early Buddhist training on Mt. Hiei, Dōgen was puzzled by the Tendai Buddhist teaching that “everything is originally a Buddha.” If we are already a Buddha, why do we need to practice? Dissatisfied with the answers from his Japanese teachers, he travelled to the Southern Song Dynasty of China, seeking a teacher who could resolve his difficulty. He was not impressed with his first teachers, but he finally came upon his great and beloved Caodong School teacher, Tiantong Rujing (Tendō Nyojō). Rujing taught Dōgen to “caste away the body and mind (shinjin-datsuraku).” Dōgen realized that practice and enlightenment were not separate, but rather form a non-dual unity, or what he called “the oneness of practice and enlightenment (shūshō ittō).” Enlightenment is not something coming at the conclusion of practice and it is not something separate from practice. The Soto (Caodong) school flows from Dōgen’s teachings.