Lecture on Zen and Calligraphy


The following is the text of a talk I gave on zen and calligraphy during the Open day of Hangarii Shorakukai.

(Translated from here)
Translated by Judit Simon


„Zen teaching is like  a window. At first we look at it, and see only a dim reflection of our own face. But as we learn, and our vision becomes clear, the teaching becomes clear. Until at last it is perfectly transparent. We see through it. We see all things: our own face.”

 (from the book Dropping ashes on the Buddha by zen master Seung Sahn)




Zen (禅, Chinese: chan, classical Chinese: 禪)

Etymology: the word is derived  from the sanskrit word dhyāna or the pali jhāna , both meaning „absorption” or meditative state.

According to zen tradition, when Shakyamuni Buddha (Japanese: Shaka釈迦 or Shakyamuni Butsu) stayed at Vulture Peak in Grdhrakuta mountain, he twirled a flower in his finger and held it before his congregation. Everyone was silent. Only Mahākāśyapa  (Japanese: Daikashou 大迦葉 or Maka Kasho Sonja) wholeheartedly smiled. Buddha said, ‘I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the formless form, the mysterious gate of Dharma. Beyond the words and beyond all teachings to be transmitted, I now pass this on to Maha Kashapa. This famous teaching later became one of the four key principles of zen.


The Four Key Principles of Zen:

1.    an independent transmission apart from written scriptures (教外別傳, kyōge betsuden)
2.    not relying on words and letters (不立文字, furyū monji)
3.    directly pointing to the human mind, in order to realize the Buddha-nature (直指人心, jikishi ninshin)
4.    awakening to one’s original Nature and thus becoming a Buddha (見性成佛, kenshō jōbutsu)

The historical Bodhidharma (known as Daruma  達磨 in Japan) who lived  in the sixth century AD.  is commonly considered the founder of  Chan (Zen) Buddhism. He was the 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism and the 1st patriarch of zen buddhism.

Lineage of patriarchs:

1.    Bodhidharma (達磨) ( 440 – 528 A.D.) (Jp. Daruma Daishi)
2.    Huike (慧可) (487 – 593 A.D.) (Jp. Niso Eka Daishi)
3.    Sengcan (僧燦) (? – 606 A.D.) (Jp. Sanso Kanchi Zenji)
4.    Daoxin (道信) (580 – 651 A.D.) (Jp. Doshin Dai’i Zenji)
5.    Hongren (弘忍) (601 – 674) A.D. (Jp. Gunin Daiman Zenji)
6.    Huineng (慧能 vagy慧能) (638 – 713 A.D.) (Jp. Eno Daikan Zenji)

By the eighth century, the early chan school had been split in two: Northern chan and Southern chan (zen). Huineng is considered the founder of the „Sudden Enlightenment”or Southern Chan school of Buddhism. As opposed to the Southern School or Rinzai-shū (臨 済宗) which uses kōan introspection (公案) in its practice, the Northern School  Sōtō-shū (曹洞宗) focuses on the gradual attainment of enlightenment through meditation.


Zen in Japan

Dōgen Zenji  (道元禅師; also known as Dōgen Kigen 道元希玄, or Eihei Dōgen 永平道元, or Koso Joyo Daishi 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253 A.D.) introduced the sōtō school to Japan after his return from China in 1227 or 1228 A.D. The  rinzai school was established by Eisai Zenji (栄西禅師, or Myōan Eisai 明菴栄西, 20 April 1141 – 5 July 1215 A.D.) after finishing a seven-year zen practice in China in 1191.


Zen Practice zazen (坐禅)

Zen meditation ( zazen 座禅 or 坐禪) is a „seated” meditation. It can be practised either facing the wall of the zendō  or turning away from it, depending on the given school’s practice. The school following the rinzai (臨済宗) lineage, led by Shōdō Harada rōshi [Harada Shōdō rōshi (1940-) 原田正道] uses the practice of  susokkan or breath-counting as a meditation technique.

Traditionally the following practices form part of the zen monastic life: sanzen (参禅) personal discourse with the master, kōan (公案) studying, samu (作務) work, sesshin (接心/摂心/攝心) intensive practice period, teisho (提唱) teachings given by the master, takuhatsu (托鉢) alms gathering.


Clear Mind or Mindlessness

„Clear mind” or mindlessness”, is a key notion of buddhist philosophy and  zen practice. We can often read or hear that through practising zazen the aim is to reach mindlessness and attain kenshō (見性)  or satori (悟 り) – enlightenment. Here we need to point out that a clear mind is not a mind without thoughts. There are thoughts, but the mind does not cling to any of these. There is no judgement, there is no good or bad. The mind is free and open, not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion. Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭) calls this the „Unfettered mind” (Fudōchi Shinmyōroku, 不動智神妙録), where the mind is like a still pond, clearly reflecting everything  without attaching itself to thoughts or emotions.


Takuan teaches the same idea of „no-mind” in martial arts where the swordsman also needs to attain this state. An unmoved/impartial mind has no form thus it ceases to be „mind”. Mind becomes „no-mind”.

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