Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Zen Buddhism

Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Zen Buddhism

tree of life spiritual teachings

“The Great Path has no gates.
Thousands of roads enter it.
When one passes through this gateless gate
He walks freely between heaven and earth.”


The way of Zen is that of self-searching to realize one’s own true nature through meditation and self-discipline. Zen is a meditation for the becoming of Self!

The meaning of the word “Zen,” according to the Master himself, is understood by no one, not even those who have attained its wisdom. For, if it were definable, it would not be Zen. It implies a mystery revealed only to him who achieves it. The true secrets of life can never be communicated outwardly or verbally from one to another.

In description, it relates to the discovery of Self, and the contemplation of reality. “Zen” is actually a Japanese word, which in Chinese is called “ch’an,” and in Sanskrit, “Dhyana.” The nearest to a literal translation of the word would be “meditation.”

Zen cannot be studied nor taught in the usual sense; it must be achieved through the actual process of becoming it, and is communicated as a state from those who have it – to those capable of receiving it.

Zen is both within and without. Its writings are called its “flesh and bones,” but the marrow of it comes not in words – only in being.


One of the old teachers explains Zen through a story:

A fish went to the Queen fish and asked of her:
“I have always heard of the sea, but what is this sea? Where is it?”

The Queen fish answered in this way:
“You live, move, and have your being in the sea.
The sea is within you, and without you,
and you are made of sea and you will end in sea.
The sea surrounds you as your being.”


Gautama Buddha, the original founder of Buddhism in India, lived 500 years before Jesus. One day, he was preaching to his many followers, when some presented him with a golden lotus bloom. He sat enthralled with its beauty, until one asked him to share what it was teaching him. But, he remained silent and watched his disciples instead, until he discerned that one of them, without words, had grasped exactly what he had received concerning the “eye of the Right Law.”

To this one disciple, he immediately transmitted the whole “treasury of Dharma”, and caused him to become enlightened. Thus was born the Order of Silent Instruction. This enlightened monk became the first Patriarch of the Buddhist sect of Dhyana, which has sought ever since to preserve the true spirit of the Great Instruction – not permitting it to be confused by word or symbol.

From the first Patriarch of Dhyana, the Law was communicated to each successor without words, in an unbroken line of “meditating masters”, until we come to the twenty-eighth Patriarch, who lived in the sixth century A.D. This 28th Patriarch of Buddhism, called Bodhidharma, became its greatest exponent, and the First Patriarch of Zen.

He was in every way extraordinary – huge and ungainly in size, haughty and commanding in bearing. A blue-eyed Brahman of princely birth, like most other Patriarchs, he cared nothing for personal appearance, having renounced the world. He usually wore a tattered robe of red, or saffron, color – though the robe of the Zen patriarch is traditionally green.

A shabby exterior was sometimes cultivated by the old Zen priests to discourage applicants who did not have the perception, nor the worthiness, to pierce external appearances and discover the underlying reality.

Never before had one like this been seen crossing the mountains from India to China where he went to bring the Dharma, first presenting himself before the pious Buddhist Emperor Wu who wished to see him. But, Bodhidharma with aggressive and uncivil manner seemed determined to humiliate the personification of worldly power, and left after a brief encounter. He never attempted to make himself agreeable to anyone, and was sometimes a controversial figure.

From there, he went to the Chinese monastery at Shao Lin where he sat nine years facing a blank wall in meditation, and awaiting the perfect outworking of the Law. He knew the Dhyana was the royal road to Selfhood, and that those seeking its Great Truth would inevitably be drawn to him.

Finally, one came. But Bodhidharma knew that the Way was only for the strong, and he ordered the man to leave. The seeker, according to the story, would not be discouraged and stood for several days in the snow, refusing to leave until an interview should be granted. When no invitation came, he finally cut off his right arm and sent it to the Patriarch, upon which time he was received and the discipline bestowed upon him.

When the time came, after a long life and many disciples, for Bodhidharma to leave his earthly mission, this fierce, mysterious old man spoke to his followers and again, like Buddha, placed his great green cloak over the one who was silent with true perception, and poured into him the ever-lasting waters of the Law. Then, he went to his final resting place.

The peculiar vitality of their teachings emphasizes the achievement of tranquility in strength, rather than in weakness; and, most of the Patriarchs have enjoyed extraordinary health and lived to great age.

Three years after his burial, strange stories began to circulate among the Chinese peasants concerning this fierce old philosopher. Various of them had seen him resolutely treading the path over China’s western mountains towards India, barefoot, but carrying one shoe in his hand.

Finally, the Chinese Emperor heard the story, and caused his tomb to be opened. Nothing remained in the grave but one shoe – supposedly the mate to the one he carried on the path.

There are other tales circulated concerning a visit to Japan, but not clearly authenticated. He was said to have walked across the water of the Strait of Korea, or to have been carried across standing upon a leaf, to reach Japan. Many stories, games, and pictures depict these various traditions.

The chief efforts of the Zen sect are directed toward the attainment of spiritual enlightenment through personal experience in contemplation, in addition to the living prayer of daily activity which brings full appreciation of life’s simple beauties. As a result of this practice, there is manifested a strong individuality, and a feeling for the tranquil beauty of nature, which in turn, produces a sort of serene “air-rhythm” of transcendence over the incidents of human life.

There is a method of Zen meditation called “Zazen.” As quoted from a Zen authority, the instructions were:

  • Arrange a seat of matting at a suitable place and lay a cushion upon it. Then, sit down cross-legged, placing the right foot upon the left thigh, and the left foot upon the right thigh. Put on robes and a girdle not too tight, and preserve their symmetry.
  • Then put the right hand (palm upward) on the calf of the left leg, lay the back of the left hand upon the palm of the right hand, and let the tips of the two thumbs touch each other.
  • Sit thus, keeping the body erect, inclining neither to the right nor to the left, bending neither forward nor backward. Let the ears be just above the shoulders and the nose be directed toward the abdomen. Lay the tongue against the roof of the mouth and keep the lips and teeth closed. The eyes should be kept open; the breath should flow gently through the nostrils.
  • When the bodily position is thus established, exhale a deep breath; then remain seated, after having examined the posture by swinging the body slightly to the right and left. Thereafter, proceed to the contemplation of what is beyond thought.

A famous Zen monk was once questioned by a temple official concerning the existence of a heaven or a hell – whether they really existed. The priest scornfully answered, calling him a fool, who lived off the temple, but was ignorant of its teachings. Then, he explained to the angered man: “You ask where is hell? Your mind is hell. I see hell in your face.” When the other became immediately remorseful, and set about to restore harmony, the priest remarked: “You ask where is heaven? Your mind is heaven now. I see heaven in your face.”


  1. Its practices are as old as Buddhism, and probably extend much farther back into the dim past of the most ancient recluses of India.
  2. Being of practical application, rather than an abstract philosophy, it is equally as popular in present day usage at any level of society.
  3. Zen rejects the importance of scriptural authority, saying that Truth can only be realized internally, and never communicated by outward means. They also reject prayer and fasting and monastic rules as representing worship of only the phantom of truth.
  4. They reject the Buddha as a personality, saying, true Buddha is a state of consciousness. The contemplation of the Absolute into which all personalities are absorbed is conducive to the greatest good.
  5. Zen is not idolatrous, but preserves an exalted concept of Deity. An early Zen teacher, when cold, actually warmed himself by making fires out of statues from a nearby temple, insisting men are merely confused when encouraged to accept a symbol for the real.
  6. A curious Zen method is to express profoundest realization by some simple or otherwise meaningless gesture. They have been known to box the ears of Emperors. Perhaps this is where the Zen stick comes in.


Here are several examples of Zen stories of self-discovery. Let them be unto you a living experience. If they are not, the Zen student would say you have not Zen – and you would be sent to your meditation chamber until you knew from the story that reality within yourself.


“Muddy Road”

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling.

Coming around the bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her across the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then, he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially, the young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan, “Are you still carrying her?”


“A Parable”

A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him.

Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above.

Trembling, the man looked down where far below another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice – one white and one black – little by little started to gnaw away the vine.

The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!


“Black-Nosed Buddha”

A nun, who was searching for enlightenment, made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went, she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed, and still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense to her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.


The Zen masters devised mental problems to stop their students’ word-drunkenness and mind wandering. These were called Koan and were meditated upon by the students. Through these, the teacher said to his students: Don’t waste your life merely sensing; channel thought and feeling to one purpose – and then, let it happen.

To a Koan, there are many right answers and there are also none. The Koan itself is the answer. None of the stories make any pretense at logic. The intent was to help the student break the shell of the limited mind and attain enlightenment.


“Joshu Washes the Bowl”

A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”

The monk replied, “I have eaten.”

Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment, the monk was enlightened.


“The Enlightened Man”

Shogen asked: “Why does the enlightened man not stand on his feet and explain himself?”

And he also said: “It is not necessary for speech to come from the tongue.”


“Basho’s Staff”

Basho said to his disciple:

“When you have a staff, I will give it to you. If you have no staff, I will take it away from you.”


The ten “Bulls” of Zen were adapted in the 12th century from earlier Tao works – their version being changed to pure Zen, and going deeper than before.

The bull represents the eternal principle of life, and truth in action. The ten bulls represent a sequence of experiences concerning the realization of one’s own true nature. They show understanding of the creative principle, and a revelation of spiritual unfoldment, with the progressive steps of awareness which lead closer to the instant of enlightenment.


  1. The search for the bull.

“In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside

tall grasses in search of the bull.”

The bull has never been lost, but because of separation

from my own true nature, I fail to find him.


  1. Discovering the footprints.

“Along the riverbank, under the trees, I discover foot prints.”

Not yet having entered the gate, nevertheless,

I have discerned the path.


  1. Perceiving the bull.

“What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

When one hears the voice, one can sense its source.

The slightest thing is not apart from its source.


  1. Catching the bull

“I seize him with a terrific struggle.”

If I wish him to submit, I must raise my whip,

for his mind still is stubborn and unbridled.


  1. Taming the bull

“The whip and rope are necessary.”

When one thought arises, another thought follows.

Hold the nose ring tight. Do not let in one single doubt.


  1. Riding the bull home

“Mounting the bull, the voice of my flute

intones a rhythmic melody.”

This struggle is over. Onward I go, no matter who may

wish to call me back. Those who “hear” will follow.


  1. The bull transcended.

“Astride the bull, I reach home. The bull too can rest.”

 I have abandoned the whip and rope. All is one Law, not two.

One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.


  1. Both bull and self transcended.

“Whip, rope, person, and bull – all merge in No-Thing.”

Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment,

neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists.


  1. Reaching the source.

“Too many steps have been taken returning

to the root and the source.”

Poised in silence, I observe the forms of integration

and disintegration. Everything “is.” One who is not

attached to “form” need not be “reformed.”


  1. In the world.

“I am every blissful, though clothed in rags: I use no magic to

extend my life; now, before me, the dead trees become alive.”

Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs?

I go to the market place of the people of the world,

and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.

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