12 Roots of Zen

The Buddhist Roots of Zen

There is a legend that the Buddha was once handed a flower and asked to preach on the law. The story says he received the blossom without a sound and silently wheeled it in his hand. Then amid the hush, his most perceptive follower, Kashyapa, suddenly burst into a smile… and thus was born the wordless wisdom of Zen.

The understanding of this silent insight was passed down through the centuries, independent of the scriptures, finally emerging as the Chinese school of Ch’an, later called Zen by the Japanese. It is said the absence of early writings about the school is nothing more than would be expected of a teaching which was, by definition, beyond words. The master Wen-yu summed it up when he answered a demand for the First Principle of Ch’an with, “If words could tell you, it would become the Second Principle.”

This version of Zen’s origin is satisfying, and for all we know it may even be true. But there are other, considerably more substantive, sources for the ideas that came to flower as Ch’an. Taoism, of course, had plowed away at the Confucianist clutter restraining the Chinese mind, but it was Buddhism that gave China the necessary new philosophical structure — this being the meta¬physical speculations of India. Pure Chinese naturalism met Indian abstraction, and the result was Ch’an. The school of Ch’an was in part the grafting of fragile foreign ideas (Buddhism) onto a sturdy native species of understanding (Taoism). But its simplicity was in many ways a re-expression of the Buddha’s original insights. (17)

The Buddha

The historic Buddha was born to the high-caste family Gautama during the sixth century B.C. in the region that is today northeast India and Nepal. After a childhood and youth of indulgence, he turned to asceticism and for over half a decade rigorously followed the traditional Indian practices of fasting and meditation, only finally to reject these in despair. However, an auspicious dream and one final meditation at last brought total enlightenment. Gautama the seeker had become Buddha the Enlightened, and he set out to preach.

It was not gods that concerned him, but the mind of man and its sorrowing. We are unhappy, he explained, because we are slaves to our desires. Extinguish desire and suffering goes with it. If people could be taught that the physical or phenomenal world is illusion, then they would cease their attachment to it, thereby finding release from their self-destructive mental bondage.

The Buddha neglected to set down these ideas in written form, however, perhaps unwisely leaving this task to later generations. His teachings subsequently were recreated in the form of sermons or sutras. In later years, the Buddhist movement split into two separate philosophical camps, known today as Theravada and Mahayana. The Theravada Buddhists — found primarily in southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and Burma — venerate the early writings of Buddhism (known today as the Pali Canon) and tend to content themselves with practicing the philosophy of the Buddha rather than enlarging upon it with speculative commentaries. By contrast, the followers of Mahayana — who include the bulk of all Buddhists in China, Japan, and Tibet — left the simple prescriptions of the Buddha far behind in their creation of a vast new literature (in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese) of complex theologies. Chinese Ch’an grew out of Mahayana, as of course did Japanese Zen. (17)


After the Buddha, perhaps the most important Buddhist figure is the second-century A.D. Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. Some call him the most important thinker Asia has produced. According to Tibetan legends, his parents sent him away from home at seven because an astrologer had predicted his early death and they wished to be spared the sight. But he broke the spell by entering Buddhist orders, and went on to become the faith’s foremost philosopher.

Today Nagarjuna is famous for his analysis of the so-called Wisdom Books of Mahayana, a set of Sanskrit sutras composed between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. (Included in this category are The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, as well as the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, both essential scriptures of Zen.) Nagarjuna was the originator of the Middle Path, so named because it strove to define a middle ground between affirmation of the world and complete negation of existence.

Reality, said Nagarjuna, cannot be realized through conceptual constructions, since concepts are contained inside reality, not vice versa. Consequently, only through the intuitive mind can reality be approached. His name for this “reality” beyond the mind’s analysis wassunyata , usually translated as “emptiness” but sometimes as “the Void.” ( Sunyata is perhaps an unprovable concept, but so too are the ego and the unconscious, both hypothetical constructs useful in explaining reality but impossible to locate on the operating table.) Nagarjuna’s most-quoted manifesto has the logic-defying ring of a Zen: “Nothing comes into existence nor does anything disappear. Nothing is eternal, nor has anything any end. Nothing is identical or differentiated. Nothing moves hither and thither.”

As the Ch’an teachers interpreted the teaching of sunyata , the things of this world are all a mental creation, since external phenomena are transient and only exist for us because of our perception. Consequently, they are actually “created” by our mind (or, if you will, a more universal entity called Mind). Consequently, they do not exist outside our mind and hence are a void. Yet the mind itself, which is the only thing real, is also a void since its thoughts cannot be located by the five senses. The Void is therefore everything, since it includes both the world and the mind. Hence, sunyata .

As a modern Nagarjuna scholar has described sunyata , or emptiness, it is a positive sense of freedom, not a deprivation.

“This awareness of ’emptiness’ is not a blank loss of consciousness, an inanimate space; rather it is the cognition of daily life without the attachment to it. It is an awareness of distinct entities, of the self, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and other practical determinations; but it is aware of these as empty structures.”

The Zen masters found ways to achieve the cognition without attachment postulated by Nagarjuna, and they paid him homage by making him one of the legendary twenty-eight Indian Patriarchs of Zen by posthumous decree. (17)


The Indian missionary who transmitted the idea of Emptiness to China was Kumarajiva (344–413) a swashbuckling guru who, more than any other individual, was responsible for planting sophisti¬cated Mahayana Buddhist ideas in Chinese soil. Before telling his story, however, it may be well to reflect briefly on how Buddhism got to China in the first place.

Although there are records of a Buddhist missionary in China as early as A.D. 148, historians are hard pressed to find the name of an out-and-out native Chinese Buddhist before sometime in the third century. Buddhism, which at first apparently was confused with Taoism, seems to have come into fashion after the Neo-Taoists ran out of creative steam. Shortly thereafter, around A.D. 209, intelligible Chinese translations of Indian Mahayana sutras finally began to become available.

There were many things about Buddhism, however, that rubbed Chinese the wrong way. First there were the practical matters: Buddhism allowed, if not encouraged, begging, celibacy, and neglect of ancestors — all practices to rankle any traditional Chinese. Then there were fundamental philosophical differences: Buddhism offered to break one out of the Hindu cycle of rebirth, something the Chinese had not realized they needed; and Indian thought was naturally geared to cosmic time, with its endless cycles of eons, whereas the Chinese saw time as a line leading back to identifiable ancestors. Early missionaries tried to gain acceptability for Buddhism by explaining it in Taoist terms, including stretching the two enough to find “matching concepts” or ideas with superficial similarity, and they also let out the myth that the Buddha was actually Lao Tzu, who had gone on to India after leaving China.

When barbarians sacked the Northern Chinese center of Loyang in the year 313 and took over North China’s government, many of its influential Confucianist scholars, fled to the south. These emigres were disillusioned with the social ideas of Confucianism and ready for a solace of the spirit. Thus they turned for comfort to Buddhist ideas, but using Neo-Taoist terminology and often treating Buddhism more as a subject for salon speculations than as a religion. By translating Buddhism into a Neo-Taoist framework, these southern intellectuals effectively avoided having to grapple with the new ideas in Buddhist metaphysics.

In North China, the Buddhists took advantage of the new absence of competing Confucianists to move into ruling circles and assume the role of the literate class. They preached a simple form of Buddhism, often shamelessly dwelling on magic and incantations to arouse interest among the greatest number of followers. The common people were drawn to Buddhism, since it provided for the first time in China a religion that seemed to care for people’s suffering, their personal growth, their salvation in an afterlife. Thus Buddhism took hold in North China mainly because it provided hope and magic for the masses and a political firewall against Confucianism for the new rulers. As late as the beginning of the fifth century, therefore, Buddhism was misunderstood and encouraged for the wrong reasons in both north and south.

Kumarajiva, who would change all this, was born in Kucha to an Indian father of the Brahmin caste and a mother of noble blood. When he was seven he and his mother traveled to Kashmir to enter Buddhist orders together. After several years of studying the Theravada sutras, he moved on to Kashgar, where he turned his attention to Mahayana philosophy. At age twenty we find him back in Kucha, being ordained in the king’s palace and sharpening his understanding of the Mahayana scriptures. He also, we are told, sharpened his non-Buddhist amorous skills, perhaps finding consolation in the illusory world of the senses for the hollow emptiness of sunyata .

In the year 382 or 383, he was taken captive and removed to a remote area in northeastern China, where he was held prisoner for almost two decades, much to the dismay of the rulers in Ch’ang-an, who wanted nothing more than to have this teacher (who was by then a famous Buddhist scholar) for their own. After seventeen years their patience ran out and they sent an army to defeat his recalcitrant captors and bring him back. He arrived in Ch’ang-an in the year 401 and immediately began a project crucial to the future of Chinese Buddhism. A modern scholar of Chinese religion tells what happened next.

“…Chinese monks were assembled from far and near to work with him in translating the sacred texts. This was a ‘highly structured project,’ suggestive of the cooperative enterprises of scientists today. There were corps of specialists at all levels: those who discussed doctrinal questions with Kumarajiva, those who checked the new translations against the old and imperfect ones, hundreds of editors, sub-editors, and copyists. The quality and quantity of the translations produced by these men in the space of eight years is truly astounding. Thanks to their efforts the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism were presented in Chinese with far greater clarity and precision than ever before. Sunyata — Nagarjuna’s concept of the Void — was disentangled from the Taoist terminology that had obscured and distorted it, and this and other key doctrines of Buddhism were made comprehensible enough to lay the intellectual foundations of the great age of independent Chinese Buddhism that was to follow.”

The Chinese rulers contrived to put Kumarajiva’s other devotion to use as well, installing a harem of ten beautiful young Chinese girls for him, through whom he was encouraged to perpetuate a lineage of his own. This genetic experiment apparently came to nothing, but two native Chinese studying under him, Seng-chao (384–414) and Tao-sheng (ca. 360–434), would carry his contribution through the final steps needed to open the way for the development of Ch’an. (17)


The short-lived Seng-chao was born to a humble family in the Ch’ang-an region, where he reportedly got his indispensable ground¬ing in the Chinese classics by working as a copyist. He originally was a confirmed Taoist, but after reading the sutra of Vimalakirti (which described a pious nobleman who combined the secular life of a bon vivant businessman with an inner existence of Buddhist enlighten-ment, a combination instantly attractive to the practical Chinese), Seng-chao turned Buddhist. In the year 398, at age fifteen, he traveled to the northwest to study personally under the famous Kumarajiva, and he later returned to Ch’ang-an with the master.

Conversant first in the Taoist and then in the Buddhist classics, Seng-chao began the real synthesis of the two that would eventually evolve into Ch’an. The China scholar Walter Liebenthal has written that the doctrine of Nagarjuna’s Middle Path, Sinicized by Seng-chao, emerged in the later Ch’an thinkers cleansed of the traces of Indian origin. He declares, “Seng-chao interpreted Mahayana, [the Ch’an founders] Hui-neng and Shen-hui re-thought it.”

Three of Seng-chao’s treatises exist today as the Book of Chao (or Chao Lun), and they give an idea of how Chuang Tzu might have written had he been a Buddhist. There is the distrust of words, the unmistakable preference for immediate, intuitive knowledge, and the masterful use of wordplay and paradox that leaves his meaning ambiguous. Most important of all, he believed that truth had to be experienced, not reasoned out. Truth was what lay behind words; it should never be confused with the words themselves:

“A thing called up by a name may not appear as what it is expected to appear; a name calling up a thing may not lead to the real thing. Therefore the sphere of Truth is beyond the noise of verbal teaching. How then can it be made the subject of discussion? Still I cannot remain silent.”

The dean of Zen scholars, Heinrich Dumoulin, declares, “The relationship of Seng-chao to Zen is to be found in his orientation toward the immediate and experiential perception of absolute truth, and reveals itself in his preference for the paradox as the means of expressing the inexpressible.” Dumoulin also notes that the Book of Chao regards the way to enlightenment as one of gradual progress. However, the idea that truth can be approached gradually was disputed by the other major pupil of Kumarajiva, whose insistence that enlightenment must arrive instantaneously has caused some to declare him the ideological founder of Zen. (17)


The famous Tao-sheng was the first Chinese Buddhist to advance the idea of “sudden” enlightenment, and as a result he earned the enmity of his immediate colleagues—and lasting fame as having anticipated one of the fundamental innovations of Zen thought. He first studied Buddhism at Lu-shan, but in 405 he moved to Ch’ang-an, becoming for a while a part of the coterie surrounding Kumarajiva. None of his writings survive, but the work of a colleague, Hui-yuan, is usually taken as representative of his ideas.

Tao-sheng is known today for two theories. The first was that good deeds do not automatically bring reward, a repudiation of the Indian Buddhist concept of merit. The other, and perhaps more important, deviation he preached was that enlightenment was instantaneous. The reason, he said, was simple: since Buddhists say the world is one, nothing is divisible, even truth, and therefore the subjective understanding of truth must come all at once or not at all. Preparatory work and progress toward the goal of enlightenment, including study and meditation, could proceed step-by-step and are wholesome and worthwhile, but to “reach the other shore,” as the phrase in the Heart Sutra describes enlightenment, requires a leap over a gulf, a realization that must hit you with all its force the first time.

What exactly is it that you understand on the other shore? First you come to realize — as you can only realize intuitively and directly — that enlightenment was within you all along. You become enlightened when you finally recognize that you already had it. The next realization is that there actually is no “other shore,” since reaching it means realizing that there was nothing to reach. As his thoughts have been quoted: “As to reaching the other shore, if one reaches it, one is not reaching the other shore. Both not-reaching and not-not-reaching are really reaching…. If one sees Buddha, one is not seeing Buddha. When one sees there is no Buddha, one is really seeing Buddha.”

Little wonder Tao-sheng is sometimes credited as the spiritual father of Zen. He championed the idea of sudden enlightenment , something inimical to much of the Buddhism that had gone before, and he distrusted words (comparing them to a net which, after it has caught the fish of truth, should be discarded). He identified the Taoist idea of wu-wei or “nonaction” with the intuitive, spontaneous apprehension of truth without logic, opening the door for the Ch’an mainstay of “no-mind” as a way to ultimate truth. (17)

The Synthesis of the Zen Experience

Buddhism has always maintained a skeptical attitude toward reality and appearances, something obviously at odds with the wholeheart¬ed celebration of nature that characterizes Taoism. Whereas Buddhism believes it would be best if we could simply ignore the world, the source of our psychic pain, the Taoists wanted nothing so much as to have complete union with this same world. Buddhism teaches union with the Void, while Taoism teaches union with the Tao. At first they seem opposite directions. But the synthesis of these doctrines appeared in Zen, which taught that the oneness of the Void, wherein all reality is subsumed, could be understood as an encompassing whole or continuum, as in the Tao. Both are merely expressions of the Absolute. The Buddhists unite with the Void; the Taoists yearn to merge with the Tao. In Zen the two ideas reconcile. (17)


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