Zen is a Japanese word derived through a Chinese approximate pronunciation from the Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit ‘dhyana’, which means illumined trance. The word is written in Japanese with the Chinese character imported along with the concept.


The left-hand side of the character is what is called the radical, and gives the general class to which it belongs 5 this radical is associated with religion and with happiness. It is itself a character. It is

 similar to (and often confused with) another radical, which has the meaning ‘garment’. The right-hand side gives a rough guide to the pronunciation, but this too is often chosen, out of several possible ones, for its appropriateness, here the right-hand side means ‘alone’. It is a character in its own right.

Most Chinese characters have at least two pronunciations in Japan. One is an approximation to the way the Chinese pronounced

them (in the sixth, eighth or fourteenth century depending on the circumstances), and the other is a native Japanese word chosen to give the meaning of the character. ‘Zen’ is one of the few characters which has only one reading, the Chinese one. There was no Japanese word with the meaning of transcendental aloneness contained in the structure of this Chinese character.

The warriors who trained in Zen when it first took root in Japan in the thirteenth century were sometimes uncertain about the exact make-up of the less common characters. Two of the stories which will come later turn on a mix-up between two very similar radicals, No. 113 and No. 145, the latter having one small stroke extra, and the meaning ‘garment’.

When this is put to the right-hand side ‘alone‘, the sense is a single cotton garment, generally an undergarment, and some warriors thought that Zen took its name from mountain ascetics wearing only one thin robe 5 others mistook both sides of the character, and supposed that Zen was written with a character whose meaning is ‘loin-cloth’. These mistakes became the subject of koan riddles, and the teachers turned them to spiritual use.


Dhyana was only one of the methods of Buddhist practice, others being Morality and Insight. But the word Zen was extended to mean realization of spiritual transcendence beyond all distinctions, and also expression of the transcendent within the world distinctions, illusory as they are. The reader who has no idea of Zen might now read the short ‘Zazenron’ classic by one of the masters who brought Zen to Japan .

The diagram below is not a diagram, but only an indication} the existence of the line itself is merely theoretical.

Above that line, the absolute is actual and the world of distinctions only theoretical


Below that line, the world of distinctions is actual and the absolute only theoretical

Books and words are concerned with the world of distinctions 5 Zen in the world of distinctions drives at realization that the distinctions are only theoretical. Though theoretical, distinctions can express something, and the true expression of the universe is called Buddha- nature. Zen in the world of distinctions aims at realization of the universal Buddha-nature, which is clearly realized and clearly expressed by the Buddha-in-his- own-glory, clearly realized but to an ordinary eye not so clearly expressed by the Buddha-engaged-in-activity, little realized and little expressed by the ordinary being in his ordinary activity.

To the Buddha-eye, everything in the universe animate or inanimate is expressing in its changes the universal Buddha-nature$ these are ‘theoretical’ changes of what is beyond definition as changing or not- changing. Mental agitation, and especially the desire that things should not change, obscures the expression of Buddha-nature. Transcendence is beyond words.

In the world of distinctions, there are the two aspects: Buddha- realization, and Buddha-action. Buddha-realization is awareness of the harmony in the cosmic current of change5 Buddha-action expresses inspiration arising from awareness of that harmony.

Buddha-realization must be recognition of Buddha-life in the tiniest things. Just as when one knows someone very well, one can recognize him at a distance, or from a passing glimpse in a crowd, or from his hand-writing or voice, so the Zen man has to be able to recognize the Buddha in everything. Many of the classical meditations are concerned with developing this power of recognition, and are therefore presented in the form of a riddle, technically called ‘koan’.

As to what that recognition experience might be like, there is this illustration. A man in a big department store sees someone in the distance approaching and looking at him with interest. He cannot quite place who it is, though there is something familiar. Coming closer, he finds it is himself reflected in a large mirror. Then he smiles. Even an experienced Zen man may have his awareness momentarily clouded over sometimes, but he awakens almost at once, and when he does, he smiles. There is a hint in this little incident which is often not grasjied for some time, though many people think the meaning is ‘obvious’.

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