All Taoists are Zen Buddhists

Zen Buddhism - Philosophy and Meditation

The name Zen simply means meditation, so dhyana. Zen meditation or Zen Buddhism are very popular around the world today. Many people seek a balance to the demanding everyday life in silent meditation and the ceremonies of Zen.

Behind Zen, which is traditionally widespread especially in China and Japan, hides a fascinating and strange way of life. A complete focus on the here and now, on the power of intuitive decisions and actions. The classic sitting meditation is only part of a philosophy of life that encompasses all areas of everyday life. [1]

The forefather of Zen - The Legend of Bodhidharma

According to legend, around the year 480 AD, the monk Bodhidharma set out on a journey from his native India to China. He is usually depicted as a grim-looking guy with a full beard and penetrating look, but in whom the expression of a slight wink can always be recognized. In a Chinese monastery he developed the basic philosophy of Zen Buddhism together with the local monks.

Bodhidharma confuses the emperor

A somewhat strange conversation with Emperor Liang Wu Di has come down to us from Bodhidharma. He asked Bodhidharma how he had advanced the practice of Buddhism and what merit could be expected from it in the next life. Because according to the traditional Buddhist view, good deeds in a cycle of rebirth lead to better and better lives and ultimately to nirvana, the redemption from all earthly suffering, the all-encompassing nothingness.

Bodhidharma replied in his gruff manner: "No merit." Surprised, the emperor persisted: "What is the first principle of the sacred teaching?" : "Then who are you that you are standing here in front of us?" "I don't know," answered Bodhidharma.

Bodhidharma helps the monk Hui-k’o to achieve enlightenment

After this conversation, Bodhidharma is said to have retired to a monastery for nine years to stare at the wall in a cave. He stayed there until one day the monk Hui-k’o (Shenkuang) came to ask him questions. However, Bodhidharma ignored him and so Hui-k’o waited in meditation in front of the cave for a long time. In desperation, he eventually cut off his leg and presented it to Bodhidharma as a sign of his sincerity.

Finally he was allowed to present his request. “I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind. ”“ Bring your mind here before me, ”answered Bodhidharma. “I'll pacify him.” Hui-k’o replied, “But if I look for my own mind, I won't find it.” “There!” Cried Bodhidharma. "I pacified him." At that moment Hui-k’o had his enlightenment (satori). [2]

The philosophy of Zen

The stories about Bodhidharma give a first glimpse into the point of view of Zen. In Zen Buddhism, traditional Buddhist elements combine with the philosophy of the ancient religious and philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Taoism.

The influence of Confucianism

For example, Zen adopts the practical and humanistic approach from Confucianism. Zen monks often work to feed the residents of their monastery, while classical Buddhist monks live on donations from the population. Work is just as much a part of zen as sitting meditation (zazen). [3]

The Tao and the influences of Taoism

The idea of ​​the Tao as the source of all being comes from Taoist philosophy. It is limitless and timeless, empty and yet intuitively creates the world from within itself. Like a plant that grows from a seed.

If you want to learn more about the Tao and Taoism, you can find all the information in our knowledge article: Taoism - the philosophy of spontaneity.

Intuition in Zen

The followers of Zen Buddhism have adopted the central values ​​of Taoism, naturalness and intuition, as their supreme principles. The enlightenment, which in other Buddhist teachings stands at the end of a long meditative path, is usually a spontaneous event in Zen, as we have seen in the story of Hui-k’o. It arises from the spontaneity of a situation in which a person detaches himself from all earthly goals, from all intentions and from all tension and thus becomes one with the Tao. [4]

Enlightenment in Zen - Experience the Tao

The Zen master Sokei-an Sasaki (1882-1945) described the moment of his enlightenment and his experiences with the Tao as follows:

“One day I wiped all the ideas out of my head. I gave up every need. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in silence. I felt a little strange - as if I was being carried into something, or as if I was touching a force unknown to me ... and Ztt! I entered.

I lost the limitation of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt that I was in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people walking towards me, but they were all the same person. All of them were myself! I had never known this world. I believed I was created, but now I have to change my mind: I was never created; I was the cosmos; there was no individual Mr. Sasaki. " [5]

The self in the flow of the Tao

In our western world we perceive ourselves, our body and mind, as a unit separate from the world. We are the subject that interacts with objects and experiences joy and sorrow. As the experiencer, we are separate from our experiences. We try to wrest as many positive experiences as possible from the world. And once we have a sense of achievement, we immediately chase the next one.

In Zen, on the other hand, we are part of the Tao. The duality between subject and object is dissolved. Likewise the duality between good and bad, between joy and suffering. Because opposites are mutually dependent, are closely related and do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. They are like the two sides of a coin. As the experiencer, we are not separate from our experiences. There is no self other than those things that we are aware of. We don't sweat because it's hot. The sweating is the heat. [6]

Samsara, the cycle of life

So why should we chase after the positive experiences. We'd act like fleas on a hot stove. If they jump, the next moment they fall again and have to jump again. This is samsara, the eternal cycle of life, of birth, death and suffering, from which all Buddhists try to break out. This can only be achieved through enlightenment or awakening. Enlightened followers of Buddhism reach nirvana, which could also be described as a great void. [7]

However, Zen differs from other Buddhist currents in that enlightenment is not at the end of innumerable lives or the result of decades of study and meditative practice. But, as we have already seen, a spontaneous event arising from the situation.

Freedom through intuition and spontaneity

The followers of Zen do not try to fight the world as an individual. According to the Zen philosophy, we can only achieve freedom if we let our mind rest in the moment, give up control and fully trust our actions and our intuition. Let's look at our breathing as an example. We can try to consciously control every single breath. However, it works best when we just let our breaths take place in our bodies. If we change our point of view, one could instead I breathe, as well It breathes me say. [8th]

The Zen Buddhist tries to get rid of all constraints, all goals, and all tension, to empty his mind and thus to enable intuition. This is the only way to have freedom at the moment as part of the Tao. Meditation can serve as an aid. However, it is not absolutely necessary. We can also find the freedom of Zen in everyday tasks, as long as we let it flow out of us spontaneously. The monk Yúnmén Wényan described the practice of zen as follows: “When you go, just go. When you sit, just sit. And above all, don't waver. " When Yúnmén was asked about the Tao, he simply replied: “Go on”. [9]

The teaching methods of the Zen masters

But how does a Zen master teach natural spontaneity to his students? Because one thing is certain. Anyone who tries desperately to empty their mind and be spontaneous will certainly fail. Characteristic conversations between master and student have been handed down in many of the stories of Zen. The teachers usually answer puzzling questions to specific questions. Rather, they try to put as many obstacles as possible in the way of their students.

The Japanese Zen master Takuan writes: When a monk asks, “What is the Buddha?”, The master can raise his fist; when asked: "What is the ultimate idea of ​​Buddhism?", he usually exclaims even before the questioner has finished his sentence: "A flowering plum branch" or "The cypress tree in the courtyard."

So the masters simply let the answers flow out of themselves spontaneously. Without worrying about the question or formulating a differentiated answer. Because the essence of the Tao is natural spontaneity. [10]

Meditation in zen

As institutions that are centuries old, Zen schools and monasteries have developed many rituals and processes that make their operation possible in the first place, despite the intuitive nature of Zen. In modern Zen communities like Soto and Rinzei, meditative sitting (zazen) is given a particularly high priority.

Why meditation?

One could certainly ask why so many strong people spend a large part of their lives sitting down. But cloudy water is also best cleared if you leave it alone. And so the spirits of the monks can also shake off agitation and clear their consciousness. Because acting without a clear awareness does not make sense. The core idea of ​​Zen is to see the world as it is. The monks try to go this way in meditation. You sit and watch without hanging around in any way. [11]

Meditation in the Zen monastery

In the monastery, sitting meditation takes place in the meditation hall, a long room with wide platforms on both sides. The monks sit opposite each other in rows of two. Two guards walk incessantly down the rows. When a monk falls asleep or takes a wrong posture, they bow down solemnly and hit him on the shoulder with a stick, the keisaku. However, striking with a stick is not a punishment. Rather, it is perceived as an invigorating massage.

The monks interrupt their meditation at regular intervals. In a quick march they walk through the hall on the floor between the two platforms. In this way you avoid indolence and fatigue.

The correct meditation posture

The physical posture in meditation is given great importance in the Zen monasteries. The monks sit in the lotus position, that is, with their legs crossed and the soles of their feet on their thighs, on padded cushions. Your posture is upright but not rigid. The eyes are open and the gaze is directed to a point on the floor a few meters in front of you.

Correct breathing

Particular attention is paid to breathing. The meditator should breathe slowly and effortlessly into the stomach. This shifts the body's center of gravity into the stomach, which gives the posture a feeling of solidity and solidarity with the ground. [12]

Zen exercise for beginners

Zen beginners are advised to familiarize themselves with stillness and idleness first. You should only concentrate on your own breathing, counting to ten over and over again. You complete this exercise until meditating and breathing work effortlessly and naturally on their own at some point. Just sit down and try it out! In our knowledge article 4 Breathing Techniques for Relaxation you will find further helpful tips and explanations.

Art in zen

Many Zen monks are artistic. In contrast to the art of other religions, the art of Zen contains little symbolism. The objects of their representation are mostly concrete objects. The typical Zen gardens, for example, with flowing design elements or the lively ink drawings by Zen artists are particularly well-known.

The dynamism of the works of art is no accident. They too flow from the natural spontaneity of the Zen artists. They are not only to be understood as images of nature, but also as a piece of nature. The artistic forms of Zen are not a pure coincidence. Zen sees no contradiction in the connection between spontaneity and control. [13] One of the main tenets of Zen art is that rush and all of its concomitants never lead to good results because they prevent you from perceiving the world with all your senses. [14]

What can we take away from Zen?

Zen is a philosophy of life that cultivates the area of ​​our life that is beyond our control. Any compulsive attempt to empty one's mind and embark on the path of zen will fail. Becoming a true Zen master is certainly difficult with our western way of life.

But we can orientate ourselves on some key statements of Zen. For example, by trying not to rethink everything a thousand times over and not overloading ourselves with constant controls and goals that only lead to the moment rushing by unnoticed. If we perceive the moment as an important part of our life and we don't always think about the future or the past, then we have already taken the path of zen.


1) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 77.
2) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 86.
3) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, p. 29.
4) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 88.
5) Quotation, Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, p. 121.
6) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 118.
7) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 137.
8) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 115.
9) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 140.
10) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, p. 139.
11) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 154 f.
12) Alan Watts: The Way of Zen, 1957, Kindle edition, page 156 f.
13) Alan Watts: Zen Buddhism: Tradition and the Living Present, 1957, p. 214.
14) Alan Watts: Zen Buddhism: Tradition and the Living Present, 1957, p. 216.