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Influence of Zen Buddhism in Japan

Updated on September 14, 2014

Zen in Japan

Zen Buddhism is an integral part of Japanese culture and social life even today, in spite of the fact that modern day Japanese people are not very religious. It is an example of how religious philosophies are not always about dogmas, rituals and fanaticism, and how instead, they can and should become part of parcel of one's life and being. The Japanese owe their harmony, serenity and the ability to calmly withstand the greatest of natural calamities to the impact of Zen.

Zen: An Introduction

Even in today's globalized society, if there is one developed country, whose people stand out as significantly distinct and unlike anybody else on this planet, it is Japan. In spite of the prosperity, highly industrialized economy which is inseparably integrated with the rest of the developed world, any first hand interaction with Japanese society and people will immediately make you feel that you are in a different place. One of the reasons for this uniqueness is the influence of Zen Buddhism.

Bodhidharma: Yoshitoshi, 1887

(from Wikipedia)
(from Wikipedia)

Zen Buddhism in Japan

The word 'Zen' derives itself from the Sanskrit word 'Dhyan' which means meditation. An integral part of all ancient religious philosophies in India, meditation has always been an important means of self realization in Buddhism. In 475 A.D., BODHIDHARMA, a Buddhist master, travelled to China and propagated Buddhism there. His teachings lead to the acceptance of 'Dhyan', which came to be called there as 'Chan', and gave rise to the Ch'an school of Buddhism that became one of the popular religious faiths in China. Around 1200 A.D., Ch'an spread to Japan, where it was called 'Zen'. In time, this school of philosophy became an essential part of Japanese religious practices. More importantly, it was embraced as a way of life, and influenced many aspects of Japanese culture and tradition.

Origin & History of ZEN

What is Zen ?

Zen as a religious philosophy is unique, and very different from not only Western religions like Islam and Christianity, it is also quite different from other Buddhist sects because of its emphasis on self realization as the essence of Zen. Much like Sanatan Dharma, which is usually referred as Hinduism, Zen undermines the importance of words in scriptures and religious texts, with a view that words are always open to interpretation and their meaning invariably depends upon the person making use of them. As we so often observe, this is a limitation that affects all written words of law, including statutes, religious texts and other rules - they can all be interpreted differently and lead to disputes.

Zen emphasizes on developing an understanding about one's own self and the universe, and then being able to discern the duties of the individual as well as his or her code of conduct. The initial reliance of these philosophies is derived from ancient Buddhist texts like the MAHAPRAJNAPARAMITA-SUTRA; which emphasizes the doctrine of emptiness, the LANKAVATARA-SUTRA which describes the doctrine of Consciousness and the teachings of the Buddha in the AVATAMSAKA-SUTRA. These teachings have been analyzed and described in great detail by many Japanese Zen masters, who in the process, also developed many practices that are unique to Zen in Japan.

Another aspect of Zen is its importance on meditation, and the aasana or the positions of the body to be used by those entering such meditation. While Zen can be described as being equivalent to an intuitive understanding, ZAZEN is sitting meditation referring to the different positions in which body is maintained, and includes a number of manners and etiquette on which great emphasis is placed. These include the way one greets the master, the mannerism in entering the Zazen room, the calm and serene posture that are maintained and the ability to win over one's restlessness by way of meditation.

Influence of Zen on Japanese Culture & Life

One of the most significant influences of Zen in Japan is the tolerance to religious practices. The undermining of written texts and emphasis on self realization ensures that a practitioner or follower can never be a fanatic as he depends not on his religious identity but his self actualization as means of fulfillment. This has allowed the different religious practices like Shinto and even Christianity to easily coexist with Zen. It is not uncommon to find Japanese people who go to the Zen temple, the Shinto shrine and also the Church. During my stay in Tokyo I came across persons who got married in Church, regularly took their children to Shinto shrines as per tradition, but held funerals as per the Buddhist tradition.

The other great impact of Zen on Japanese psyche is the great emphasis on self discipline. A Zen practitioner is supposed to understand himself and have control over his actions. The kind of self discipline you can observe in Japanese workers is to some extent an offshoot of this idealism. The medieval Samurai tradition that placed a great emphasis on 'honour' of the Samurai was also influenced by the emphasis of self actualization.

Zen and Social Harmony

The discipline and mannerism practiced in Zen and Zazen have also created a great impact on the Japanese society. The image of a cool and calm Zen master meditating in the SODO, the informal hall used for meditation and other activities has created an ideal that influences all actions in daily life. All aspirants in Japanese society respect the calmness of the Zen master and follow it one way or the other. This has allowed the acceptance of 'harmony' as an important social virtue, not only in daily life but also in the corporate world. It may be surprising for many to know that since the mid-seventies, when the corporate practice of consultative decision making involving managements and labor unions became common, there has not been a single case of nationwide strikes in Japan.

While Zen has had many positive influences, there has also been some criticism. Many Zen masters today feel sorry for the fact that Zen is not practiced by the Japanese Buddhist with the same vigour and passion that many other religions are practiced in other countries. However, that may just be the way in which Zen is different from other religions, and also partly responsible for the fact that Japanese people remain somewhat unique even today.

Experience Zen

© 2011 vkumar05

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    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 4 years ago

      Had a uni lecturer who was into this and she was always sick. I think it is one religious ideal that bends the mind too far and some of the exercises, as explained by her, are positively life threatening. Blessed and featured on Religious Myths - Why Do They Exist?

    • dixiebliss profile image

      dixiebliss 5 years ago

      Love this! I've always been a fan of Zen.

    • sponias lm profile image

      sponias lm 5 years ago

      Meditation is a practice that leads the human being to a higher level of consciousness. This lens deserves to be blessed!

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image

      Bellezza-Decor 5 years ago from Canada

      I don't know much about Zen Buddhism, but I will say that enchanting peace and tranquility is exhibited in a Zen garden.

    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 5 years ago

      peace to all men (including women) and blessings to this charismatic lens.

    • TLRaghavan profile image

      TLRaghavan 5 years ago

      Very nicely portrayed picture of India's contribution to Zen.

    • Andy-Po profile image

      Andy 5 years ago from London, England

      fascinating subject

    • CherryTriggerCola profile image

      CherryTriggerCola 5 years ago

      Loved the article! Thanks for sharing. I find Zen Buddhism to be spiritually cleansing and perhaps the best fit for my religious beliefs if I were to actually classify myself but I wish to remain open so that I can learn, understand and appreciate all walks of life regardless if I might be a "sinner" or not.

    • davidangel profile image

      davidangel 5 years ago

      Very well written, I especially like your correlation between meditation/self mastery and the productiveness/harmony in the Japanese culture. Thanks for sharing.

    • sorana lm profile image

      sorana lm 5 years ago

      I like the emphasis on one's self, the univers and tolerance in Zen. Meditation is also something I believe brings us peace and harmony within ourselves. Great lens. Blessed.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

      A well written and presented lens, I hope to be reading more about this topic it is something that has caught my imagination, thanks. Blessed.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

      A well written and presented lens, I hope to be readiing more about this topic it is something that has caught my imagination, thanks. Blessed.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      So much wisdom in this lens.

    • kathysart profile image

      kathysart 5 years ago

      This lens is a true blessing and so beautiful. Thumbs up and blessed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Lovely work here on Zen and the art of meditation. Like your work here especially in connection with 'dhyan'! :)

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 6 years ago

      I learn a couple of things about Zen, so thanks for a great lens.

    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 6 years ago

      excellently explained. thanks for sharing. practicing zen would help anyone regardless of race and religion

    • pramodbisht profile image

      pramodbisht 6 years ago

      thanks for the details about zen. well written article, thanks for sharing

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 6 years ago

      Nice presentation of zen, thank you for sharing! :)

    • bangcool profile image

      bangcool 6 years ago

      Nice share guys, i love historical lense like these

    • profile image

      VoodooRULEs 6 years ago

      Great Lens! I really liked the video! Thank you!

    • Krafick profile image

      Krafick 6 years ago

      Well presented lens. I like it. Rafick

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 6 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      thanks for the details about zen. well written article.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 6 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      thanks for the details about zen. well written article.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      An exquisite video. Thank you for helping me discover more about Zen and its influence.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      Buddha preached one "Dhamma" however, we can see the influence of Zen over Buddhism, very interesting and educational read on this seemingly diverse topic.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 6 years ago from San Francisco

      The video is perhaps the most eloquent and understandable explanation of Zen I have ever seen. Thank you.