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Throughout its history, Buddhism has flowed from one culture into another, fluidly taking the shape of the vessel that contains it. As inviting as this image is, it tells only half the story: while Buddhism has indeed conformed to these different cultural shapes, it has at the same time transformed the substance of the vessel itself -- the changer and the changed. Nevertheless, the pivotal teachings that first coursed through Asia and now are surging into the West have themselves remained remarkably constant.
Buddhism -- the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha -- emerged about 2,500 years ago when a Himalayan prince, Siddhartha Gautama (d. fifth century B.C.E.), began his teaching career. Unlike founders of other world religions, the historical Buddha considered himself neither a god nor a messenger of a god. Rather, he saw himself as a teacher who for forty years taught "one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering." His teachings were carried throughout India, and beyond, by his disciples. The oldest tradition, Theravada ("Teachings of the Elders"), spread primarily to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Another major school, Mahayana ("The Great Vehicle"), spread northward and eastward, often carried by traders along the Silk Road, and eventually became the foundation of the other two major traditions of Buddhism: Zen and Tibetan.
Although the earliest Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist sutras, or discourses, were done at the end of the second century C.E., the legendary founding of Chinese Ch'an (Zen) occurred when Bodhidharma arrived from India in about 520 C.E., had a notable encounter with Emperor Wu, andestablished the Shaolin temple, focusing on silent illumination through meditation. Throughout China, Buddhism was affected by and affected both Confucianism and Taoism, as is evident from writings and works of art. From this beginning arose the other major expressions of Zen. The history of Buddhism in China is so vast and so complex that it is difficult to limit to a few names those who had great impact on Ch'an. Certainly during the Tang dynasty (617-907), we must note such powerful figures as Chih-i, founder of the T'sien-t'ai school; Fa-tsang, architect of the Hua-yen school; Hui-neng, whose Platform Sutra changed Ch'an in southern China; and Lin-chi, founder of the Lin-chi (Japanese, Rinzai) school. During the years that followed, there was political turmoil, after which Ch'an and T'sien-t'ai were the two largest remaining sects. Buddhism and Confucianism held power in a delicate balance for centuries, until the Communists took power in 1951. Today one of the leading figures of Chinese Buddhism is the nun Cheng Yen, who founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Love and Mercy Foundation in Taiwan in 1966.
Indian traders may have introduced Buddhism to Vietnam as early as the third century B.C.E., but it was when Vietnam fell under the power of China's Tang dynasty in the seventh century C.E. that Buddhism became a "national" religion. There continued to be ties between Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism for centuries, though the powerful king Tran-Nhan-Ton (1258-1308) had founded his own national school. Despite the unrelenting periods of invasion and war in Vietnam, as many as 80 percent of its people may be Buddhists. Today, the best-known Vietnamese Zen Buddhists -- especially the monk Thich Nhat Hanh and the nun Chan Khong -- live in exile.
The form of Buddhism that flowered in Korea in the seventh century C.E. was a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism from China blended with native shamanistic practices. During the follow ing centuries, other schools that were primarily split between those who focused on text study and those who focused on practice were imported and arose. Chinul (1158-1210) was a key figure in Korean Zen, shaping Korean Son according to Chinese Ch'an and thus laying the foundation for modern Korean Zen. Today, the most influential Korean Zen teacher in the West is Zen Master Seung Sahn, who has founded more than fifty groups of his Kwan Um School since 1983.
Korean immigrants probably brought Buddhism to Japan with them in the sixth century C.E., but its greatest impact was felt after the Japanese prince Shotoku (576-622) incorporated Buddhism into Confucianism and the native animistic kami beliefs and formalized this union in the constitution. He then brought nuns and monks as well as builders from Korea to create and staff the temples for this religion. While there, they introduced Chinese writing and other elements of culture to the Japanese. Some centuries later, two figures stand out as founders of Zen religion as it exists in Japan today. Eisai Zenji (1141-1251) visited China in 1168 and 1187-91; on his return, he introduced Rinzai Zen and thus is considered the founder of Zen in Japan. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) visited China in 1223-27 and returned to found the Soto Zen sect. Although there are today twenty-two independent lineages in Japan, these two are by far the largest and most influential.
Interest in Buddhism in the West actually began during the -- ironically named -- Enlightenment of the eighteenth century in Europe and America. Both Eastern texts and archaeological sites were eagerly explored by those seeking The Answer. Some of that "answer" was brought to the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 by Rinzai delegate Soen Shaku, who returned to the United States in 1905 to teach. Soen Shaku and three of his disciples -- Nyogen Senzaki, who founded Zen groups in California in the 1920s; Sokeian, who founded the First Zen Institute in America in New York in 1930; and D. T Suzuki, who articulated Zen Buddhism for Westerners in the 1950s and 1960s-along with the brilliant teacher Shunryu Suzuki in the 1960s were the Japanese teachers who really brought Zen to the West.
When Zen reached the West -- especially the United States -- it once again took the cultural shape of its vessel. And this container had some bulges and hollows that had not been found in Asia. First, the tradition in Asia of monastic life, supported by laypeople, exists in the West but on a much smaller scale. Zen Buddhism in the West is primarily lay practice…365 Zen. Copyright © by Jean Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.