What is Zen? A branch of Chinese Buddhism

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Chinese painting of a Zen master, Bodhidharma, sitting in a red robe

Zen master Bodhidharma sitting alone

Bodhidharma: the first Zen master

In Zen Buddhist traditions (but nobody really knows), the first Zen master was a Brahman man called Bodhidharma. According to these stories, Bodhidharma came to China from India about 425 AD. Possibly Bodhidharma was fleeing the Guptan kings. They were Hindus and not Buddhists, so they didn’t like Buddhists.

Buddhism in China
What was going on in China at this time?
Lots more China articles

What is Zen Buddhism?

The main point of Zen Buddhism was that people should learn from direct experience and not from being told facts or having ideas explained to them. The best way to find out why you should meditate was to meditate. The best way to appreciate a flower was to look at a flower, not to study about flowers.

A Zen story

In one story about Bodhidharma, Bodhidharma met with Emperor Wu of the kingdom of Liang. Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma what he had gotten out of all the money Emperor Wu had given to the Buddhists.

Who was Emperor Wu?

The Zen master Bodhidharma replied “Nothing at all.” The Emperor asked “Then what is the truth of the teachings?” Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” So the emperor asked “Then who are you standing in front of me?” Bodhidharma replied “I don’t know,” and walked out. This story shows how Zen masters refused to explain their ideas in words.

(It also shows how Zen masters didn’t care about history, because the real Emperor Wu lived a couple of hundred years before Bodhidharma.)

Other Zen koans
More about Buddhism in China
Learn by Doing – Buddhism Projects

Bibliography and further reading about Zen:

Buddhism in China
Or Buddhism in India
Bodhisatvas
Ancient China
Quatr.us home

By |2018-10-12T08:23:18+00:00June 7th, 2017|China, Religion|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is Zen? A branch of Chinese Buddhism. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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