Zen 101

Author Stephen Hodge on the meaning of Zen, the dangers of meditation, and the emergence of a 'Buddhist fundamentalism.'

Stephen Hodge, a former Shingon monk, studied the Japanese and Tibetan languages and Buddhism at London University, where he now teaches. His latest book, "Zen Master Class" (read an excerpt) offers a hands-on approach to Zen practice while providing an historical context for each lesson in the book. He spoke with Beliefnet about the basics of Zen practice.

We see the word "Zen" everywhere these days. There seems to be a book on "The Zen of --" just about everything. Are people in the West generally misusing the word?

Oh yes, of course. I suppose what they're referring to is the state of mind that one achieves with Zen -- a kind of spontaneity, openness, the ability to act freely and precisely. The original meaning of the word Zen has nothing to do with the way it's used in popular Western culture.

If you go to bookshops you might see a section on Buddhism and next to it there'll be a section on Zen as though they're two separate things. Not the case at all. Zen Buddhists have had their own mystique or their own legends or mythology. But basically Zen is just another form of Buddhism and different forms of Buddhism will emphasize different kinds of practice.


The original Sanskrit word is


which refers to states of meditative concentration. When the first patriarch of Chinese Zen, an Indian monk called Bodhidharma, came to China, there was a great deal of Buddhism flourishing. But the way they were doing it was through scholastic learning and good works -- like building temples, having the scriptures copied out, and charitable things. The view of the people who developed Zen was that you need actually to do the meditation practice, to break through the surface of conventional thinking, emotions, defilements, and obscurations -- break through in order to get to the underlying, the original mind.

The example often given is the sun behind clouds. The sun is always there, you can dimly see the light from the sun but you can't actually see the sun. Then when the wind blows, the clouds clear away, there it is -- but there's no direct connection between the clouds and the sun. The clouds do obscure it but they're not intrinsic to the sun. This was the idea of the Zen people and this is why they emphasized meditation because it was the best way to break through in order to achieve this state.

Can anyone be a student of Zen? For example, can you be a Zen Jew, or a Zen Muslim, etc.?
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