Zen is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The word Zen comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chan(禅), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as “meditation” or “meditative state”.
Zen emphasizes experiential Wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment. As such, it de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct realization through meditation and dharma practice. The teachings of Zen include various sources of Mahāyāna thought, including the Prajñāpāramitā literature and the teachings of the Yogācāra and Tathāgatagarbha schools.
The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century CE. From China, Zen spread south to Vietnam, and east to Korea and Japan. As a matter of tradition, the establishment of Zen is credited to the Persian or South Indian Pallava prince-turned-monk Bodhidharma, who came to China to teach a “special transmission outside scriptures, not founded on words or letters”.
Zazen is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen, that functions centrally as the very heart of the practice. In fact, Zen Buddhists are generally known as the “meditation Buddhists.” Basically, zazen is the study of the self.
The great Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and the ten thousand things.
Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For two thousand five hundred years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It’s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, it takes doing in order for it to happen.
One tends to see body, breath, and mind separately, but in zazen they come together as one reality. The first thing to pay attention to is the position of the body in zazen. The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How one positions one’s body has a lot to do with what happens with one’s mind and breath. Throughout the years of the evolution of Buddhism, the most effective positioning of the body for the practice of zazen has been the pyramid structure of the seated Buddha.