Zen is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The word Zen is from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chán (禪), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as "meditation" or "meditative state".
Zen emphasizes experiential Wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment. As such, it de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct self-realization through meditation anddharma practice. The teachings of Zen include various sources of Mahāyāna thought, including the Prajñāpāramitā literature and the teachings of the Yogācāra and Tathāgatagarbhaschools.
The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century CE. From China, Zen spread south to Vietnam, and east to Korea and Japan. As a matter of tradition, the establishment of Zen is credited to the South Indian Pallava prince-turned-monk Bodhidharma, who came to China to teach a "special transmission outside scriptures, not founded on words or letters".
Finding a Diamond on a Muddy Road
Gudo was the emperor's teacher of his time. Nevertheless, he used to travel alone as a wandering mendicant. Once when he was on his was to Edo, the cultural and political center of the shogunate, he approached a little village named Takenaka. It was evening and a heavy rain was falling. Gudo was thoroughly wet. His straw sandals were in pieces. At a farmhouse near the village he noticed four or five pairs of sandals in the window and decided to buy some dry ones.
The woman who offered him the sandals, seeing how wet he was, invited him in to remain for the night at her home. Gudo accepted, thanking her. He entered and recited a sutra before the family shrine. He then was introduced to the woman's mother, and to her children. Observing that the entire family was depressed, Gudo asked what was wrong.
"My husband is a gambler and a drunkard," the housewife told him. "When he happens to win he drinks and becomes abusive. When he loses he borrows money from others. Sometimes when he becomes thoroughly drunk he does not come home at all. What can I do?"
I will help him," said Gudo. "Here is some money. Get me a gallon of fine wine and something good to eat. Then you may retire. I will meditate before the shrine."
When the man of the house returned about midnight, quite drunk, he bellowed: "Hey, wife, I am home. Have you something for me to eat?"
"I have something for you," said Gudo. "I happened to get caught in the rain and your wife kindly asked me to remain here for the night. In return I have bought some wine and fish, so you might as well have them."
The man was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself down on the floor. Gudo sat in meditation beside him.
In the morning when the husband awoke he had forgotten about the previous night. "Who are you? Where do you come from?" he asked Gudo, who still was meditating.
"I am Gudo of Kyoto and I am going on to Edo," replied the Zen master.
The man was utterly ashamed. He apologized profusely to the teacher of his emperor.
Gudo smiled. "Everything in this life is impermanent," he explained. "Life is very brief. If you keep on gambling and drinking, you will have no time left to accomplish anything else, and you will cause your family to suffer too."
The perception of the husband awoke as if from a dream. "You are right," he declared. "How can I ever repay you for this wonderful teaching! Let me see you off and carry your things a little way."
"If you wish," assented Gudo.
The two started out. After they had gone three miles Gudo told him to return. "Just another five miles," he begged Gudo. They continued on.
"You may return now," suggested Gudo.
"After another ten miles," the man replied.
"Return now," said Gudo, when the ten miles had been passed.
"I am going to follow you all the rest of my life," declared the man.
Modern Zen teachers in Japan spring from the lineage of a famous master who was the successor of Gudo. His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back.
The Monk & the Prostitute
Buddha was staying in Vaishali, where Amrapali lived--Amrapali was a prostitute. In Buddha's time, in India, it was a convention that the most beautiful woman of any city will not be allowed to get married to any one person, because that will create unnecessary jealousy, conflict, fighting. So the most beautiful woman had to become nagarvadhu--the wife of the whole town. It was not disreputable at all; on the contrary, they were very much respected. They were not ordinary prostitutes. They were only visited by the very rich, or the kings, or the princes, generals--the highest strata of society. Amrapali was very beautiful. One day she was standing on her terrace and she saw a young Buddhist monk. She had never fallen in love with anybody, but she fell suddenly in love--a young man, but of a tremendous presence, awareness, grace. The way he was walking... She rushed down, she asked him, "After three days the rainy season is going to start..." Buddhist monks don't move for four months when it is the rainy season. Amrapali said, "I invite you to stay in my house for the four months." The young monk said, "I will ask my master. If he allows me, I will come." The young monk came, touched the feet of Buddha and told the whole story, "She has asked me to stay for four months in her house. I have told her that I will ask my master, so I am here... whatever you say." Buddha looked into his eyes and said, "You can stay." It was a shock. Ten thousand monks... There was great silence but great anger, great jealousy. After the young man left to stay with Amrapali, the monks every day started bringing gossips, "The whole city is agog. There is only one talk--that a Buddhist monk is staying with Amrapali." Buddha said, "You should keep silent. I trust my monk. I have looked into his eyes--there was no desire. If I had said no, he would not have felt anything. I said yes... he simply went. And I trust in his awareness, in his meditation. Why are you getting so agitated and worried?" After four months the young man came, touched Buddha's feet--and following him was Amrapali, dressed as a Buddhist nun. She touched Buddha's feet and she said, "I tried my best to seduce your monk, but he seduced me. He convinced me by his presence and awareness that the real life is at your feet." And Buddha said to the assembly, "Now, are you satisfied or not?" If meditation is deep, if awareness is clear, nothing can disturb it. And Amrapali became one of the enlightened women among Buddha's disciples.
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