What is Zen? (Zen for Beginner's Mind)
"Zen points directly to the human heart. See into your nature and become a Buddha." -Hakuin
Zen is a style and technique of "direct pointing" to the Mind-nature brought to China by the Indian sage Bodhidharma. Zen Masters show their students how to bypass all religious posturing and written crap to see directly into the True Mind.
Buddhism was already in China by the time Bodhidharma appeared, stepping off a boat in Suchow after a hard three year journey. But Zen was unknown there. (Also, curiously, no record at all exists of Zen in India -- although the Chinese Zen literature speaks of twenty-eight Indian Zen Patriarchs, starting with Mahakasyapa)
Bodhidharma was quickly granted an audience with the devout Buddhist Han Emperor, who asked how much "merit" he was going to receive for donating money to temples and building elaborate Buddhist stupas.
"No merit whatsoever," Bodhidharma replied.
The Emperor's mouth fell open.
"What is it then that you call holy?" (If not stupas, temples, copying and chanting sutras, &c.)
Without even blinking his eyes, in true Zen "mondo" style, Bodhidharma answered: "Vast clear blue sky, nothing holy."
"Who is this man standing before me?"
That was the end of the interview. Bodhidharma walked north to the Shaolin monastery, where he spent nine years sitting cross legged staring at a wall. (Some claim that the "wall" was actually the steep mountain peak behind the temple.) Bodhidharma's "wall gazing" meditation became the basis for Zazen and Mokuso (sitting and kneeling meditation) as it is still practiced in various schools in China and Japan.
But Zen is not the same as slipping into passive vacuity (although this may be how some contemporary Zen groups do it -- "zafu zombies," I call them).
Bodhidharma bristled with energy. In paintings he is always portrayed with bulging eyes and an angry scowl. He must have survived storms at sea on his way to China. Even to reach the Shaolin monastery he walked thousands of miles. Maybe he met bandits in the mountains. When he saw the weak state of the monks at the Shaolin temple he taught them a series of energetic movements that became the basis for kung fu.
No, Bodhidharma was not doing "zafu zombie" Zen. The First Chinese Zen Patriarch was gazing ferociously through the Matrix (so to speak) into the Unborn. He was so intense in his Zen that his legs withered down to almost nothing. When he started to drowse, he's said to have torn off his own eyelids.
He also held Dharma-talks. Several of these talks, one an informal Q&A session titled "Bloodstream of the True Dharma" in which he responded directly to questions put to him by Shaolin monks and visitors, have survived as scrolls that were excavated from a north China cave in the 20th century.
In these Dharma talks Bodhidharma disparaged all technical "Buddhist" practices such as "sitting for long periods, chanting sutras, shaving the head, prostrating, &c." as means to Awakening. (Note that Bodhidharma himself had already had Satori long before he sat down to face the wall or the mountain peak for nine years. He did not recommend "sitting meditation" as a way to become enlightened, nor did he ever claim that Zen sitting is "Enlightenment itself").
Bodhidharma said that holding onto the idea of a Buddha or the self-consciousness of "practicing" Buddhism would only block the instantaneous realization of the intrinsic Enlightened nature.
Shockingly to the monks, Bodhidharma also claimed that a killer, a precept-breaker, a butcher of animals could become a Buddha as easily as a monk or priest, just by directly seeing the Mind's "basic self-nature."
What kind of teaching is this? It isn't a "teaching" but a pointing. Teachings develop into religions. Zen is the direct and vivid here-now realization of the natural state sometimes called Wu Hsin (Mushin), sometimes "the inconceivable state of the Tathagatas," and sometimes merely "Tathata" (It-ness or Be-ing Itself).
Directly realizing for oneself all that there is to be realized free of words and texts is the summit of Zen.