It is a Japanese form of Buddhism in which the student is given mental problems, that have no solution, to meditate or think about. The idea is to exhaust the analytical skills of the person so that they can get in touch with their senses and feelings. Very popular on the West Coast under the influence of Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and many others.
(This might be longer than you want, but at least it’s accurate.)
Zen is a type of Buddhism that emphasizes wisdom and compassion in the midst of everyday life.
Zen appeared in China about 1,500 years ago. From China, Zen spread to Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Teachers from all four of these countries now teach in the West.
At its core, Zen teaches that everyone can attain enlightenment in this lifetime.
Further, Zen teaches that anyone can awaken right now – in this very moment. (While most Buddhist schools say that enlightenment can be attained, they don’t teach the immediacy of the experience.)
Zen training has five components:
– Direction. Zen practitioners say vows on a daily basis to re-orient their lives toward helping others.
– Bows. Zen practitioners engage in prostrations (bows) every day to help let go of accumulated karma.
– Chanting. Zen practitioners chant sutras daily to open their hearts in compassion.
– Meditation. Zen practitioners sit in meditation to provide stability in their lives.
– Wisdom training. Zen students listen to formal talks, read selected books, and engage in koan training in order to develop wisdom.
Of these five practices, koan training is unique to Zen. Koans function to help us perceive the reality of our lives. Most of us live in a dream created by our storytelling. We say to ourselves things like, “I’m not very good looking,” or “I’m disorganized,” or “He likes me.” Koans, because they cut through the storytelling, help us see the truth of life, as it actually is, in this very moment.
By doing this, koans create the opportunity for a breakthrough, a transformational shift of awareness. When this occurs, we no longer live in self-obsession, but can dedicate our lives to helping ease the suffering of others. What could be more important?