I took this photo recently while walking to work. The word “Zen” (禅) gets used a lot in funny ways in English. For some reason, people often use Zen to mean relaxation, or peace of mind, without any Buddhist meaning. Or, it means a blissful state of mental focus, becoming a master of something, kind of like a Taoist sage (仙人, sennin in Japanese).
None of this is really wrong though. It’s just how language works: foreign words get adopted and used in different ways. I see it happen in Japanese all the time: English words are used in different ways than native English speakers.
Still, it’s good to understand what Zen is, originally.
First, the term “zen” is kind of bland actually. It derives from the Chinese word “chan” (禪), which itself is just a phonetic pronunciation of the Indian Sanskrit word Dhyāna. This means “meditative absorption” in a Buddhist sense.
In East Asian (i.e. “Mahayana” Buddhism), there are 3 broad schools or traditions:
- Meditation Buddhism – the focus is on practicing meditation in order to attain greater insight. This is typically done in a dedicated or monastic setting because of the training and mentoring required.
- Devotional Buddhism – the focus is on a particular Buddhist figure (or scripture), either to create positive future conditions, or awaken the same qualities in one’s self.
- Tantric Buddhism – shares traits of the other two, but focus is on reciting mantras, visualizing a Buddhist deity, and performing the correct ritual gestures. Significant training and mentorship required.
All Buddhist groups in East Asia include one or more of these traditions. Zen is essentially meditation Buddhism, but may also include elements of devotional and tantric Buddhism depending on the particular temple or tradition. Zen has an almost “mystical” image in the West, but in practice this is somewhat exaggerated.
But now you know.