What is Zen?

Many people are confused because they are unaware that the term “Zen” has a few meanings. Basically, the word “Zen” means meditation. Sometimes it may refer to a transcendental glimpse of cosmic reality, or even the transcendental reality itself. Often Zen is used as a short form for Zen Buddhism. The following examples illustrate the use of “Zen” in these four meanings:

I sat cross-legged on a hard pillow, closed my eyes gently and practised Zen.My teacher came in and hit my head to test if I had a Zen experience.I was shocked when he said he did not hit me, but years later I realized my kind teacher was trying to make me aware that there was no hitting, and no nothing, in Zen.Lacking a deep understanding, many people may think Zen masters are mad.

Is Zen Japanese?No, it is universal, irrespective of which meaning of Zen you refer to. Zen was first transmitted from master to master in India, brought to China by Bodhidharma, and later spread to Japan and the world. But the word “Zen”, not its meaning or concept, is Japanese. It is derived from the Chinese word “Chan”, which is a short form for “Chana”, and which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word “Dhyana”, which means meditation.

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