An Introduction to Zen Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths

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History of Zen

The traditions of Buddhism have been practiced by many, yet not all the practices are the same. Early Buddhism consisted of three main movements, those being the Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna, each going through various phases of expansion in different areas of the world.

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The practices of the Mahāyāna were among the first to make their way into China from India. It is not certain when Buddhism reached China, though it is known that it started to make its way there through the Silk Road, where missionaries and pilgrims began to travel between China, Central Asia, and India. One of the most important, or well-known, stories is the story of the Han Emperor Mingdi who dreamt about Buddha. In 68 AD, Mingdi sent his people to Central Asia to learn more about Buddhism after his interaction with the Buddha through his dream. Three years later his people brought back with them not only images of Buddha, and Buddhist scriptures, but also two Buddhist monks named She-mo-thing and Chu-fa-lan to preach in China. This would have supposedly been the first time that China had actual Buddhist monks to teach their ways of worship. Shortly after a Buddhist community was established within the capital of China. From then on, the Buddhist community grew outwards from the capital continuously. They introduced the sacred books, texts, and examples of Buddhist art.

Regarding the introduction of Buddhism to Japan it can be looked at as a series of imports from China. Over the centuries, some say starting as early as 500 C.E., both lay disciples, or home Buddhists, and monks traveled to the mainland, bringing back with them additional Buddhist teachings and practices. Just as China has a well known story so does Japan. It is said that a political delegation arrived from Korea, in 538 C.E., bringing a variety of gifts for the Emperor. Some of these gifts were a bronze Buddha image, some sutras, a few religious objects and a written letter that praised the Dharma. During the better part of the next century, Japan gained a strong establishment of Buddhism as a religion officially recognized and actively supported by the imperial court. The injection of Chinese culture into Japan was the introduction of the Chinese script, providing the means for the Japanese people to assimilate the Chinese version of the Buddhist teachings.

Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism agree to the essential quality of enlightenment, but they also disagree as to the best way to obtain it. Rinzai objects to the emphasis that Soto places on sitting meditation. This does not mean that the Rinzai school completely rejects zazen. They practice meditation religiously, but they believe that Soto emphasizes zazen at the expense of other techniques that could be used. Soto places great importance on zazen to create a state of mind that is optimal to achieve enlightenment. Sitting meditation is the heart of Soto Zen. Zazen was the key to the Buddha’s enlightenment. Bodhidharma himself, the ancestral teacher of all Zen practitioners, meditated for nine years after his enlightenment. If he, with his wisdom and understanding, found it worthwhile to devote that much of his time to the practice of zazen, it must have its benefits.

Zen did not find its way into the United States until the late 19th century where Japanese teachers, who went to America to provide for Japanese immigrants, became integrated with American culture. It was not until after World War II, that interest from non-Asian Americans began to grow. As a result of this Zen tradition began to set its roots and influence the larger western world. Amongst the great number of those who influenced the spread of Zen in the western world, D.T. Suzuki became one of the most important figures through his great literary impact. The majority of his efforts were in translating and publishing Oriental spiritual literature in the West. Some of his first projects were the translations of the Tao Te Ching and Asvaghosa's Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. He became a visible promoter of Zen Buddhism and remains to this day one of its most important influencers in the western world.

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