The word “Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “Ch’an,” which means “meditation.” Ch’an came to Japan and became “Zen” around the eighth century. Today, the word “Zen” is in more general use in the West.
Zen Buddhism is a stripped-down, determined, uncompromising, cut-to-the-chase, meditation-based Buddhism that takes no interest in doctrinal refinements. Not relying on scripture, doctrine or ritual, Zen is verified by personal experience and is passed on from master to disciple, hand to hand, ineffably, through hard, intimate training.
Though Zen recognises — at least loosely — the validity of normative Buddhist scriptures, it has created its own texts over the generations. Liberally flavoured with doses of Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese poetry, and written in informal language studded with Chinese folk sayings and street slang, much of classical Zen literature is built on legendary anecdotes of the great masters. The Buddha is rarely mentioned.
Here are four Zen dicta, ascribed to Zen’s legendary founder Bodhidharma, which are always quoted to illustrate the essential Zen spirit:
- A special transmission outside the scriptures.
- No dependency on words and letters.
- Pointing directly to the human mind.
- Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.
This shoot-from-the-hip Zen spirit appeals to the modern mind, which is as iconoclastic and anti-authoritarian as it is religious. It has also appealed, over many generations, to millions of Buddhist practitioners in the Far East, who, conditioned by the Taoism and Confucianism that had been imported everywhere from China, could relate to the Zen message and style.
In the Zen monastery, life is entirely organised around sitting in the meditation hall. But zazen is also understood to be something more than this sitting. It is conceived of as a state of mind or being that extends into all activities. Work is zazen; eating is zazen; sleeping, walking, standing, going to the toilet — all are zazen practice.
In Soto Zen, the Japanese school practiced extensively in the West, there is an especially strong emphasis on this “moving Zen.” Soto monastic life tends to be highly ritualized, so as to promote concentration in all things. There is, for instance, a special elegant and mindful practice, called oryoki, for eating ritualised meals in the meditation hall.
Although Zen Buddhism eventually developed traditions of study and ritual, its emphasis on personal experience has always made it a practice-oriented tradition. The practice is meditation.
As a major world religion, Zen Buddhism is practised in Africa. Though there have been some conversion amongst Africans, most of the Buddhists in Africa, are of Asian, mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan or Japanese descent.
South Africa holds the largest Buddhist population in the continent. According to 2010s estimates, Buddhist adherents (included Taoism and Chinese Folk Religion) are increasing to between 0.2% – 0.3% of the South African population, or between 100 and 150 thousand people, however, the number of practising Buddhists maybe lower.
The African countries and territories in the Indian Ocean are also having significant Buddhist minorities. Mauritius has the highest Buddhist percentage (between 1.5 to 2% of the total population) among African countries due to high number of Chinese people.