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In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses Zen.
Many of the ideas and principles that we’ve considered in the last two sessions about Buddhism, have been drawn from the so called Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Which is the tradition historically found mostly in South and Southeast Asia, and focused on the ancient Pali Canon. In fact, the majority of Buddhists today would probably identify themselves with the other major Buddhist vehicle, so called Mahayana Buddhism which has been associated mostly with East Asia. And in fact, Tibetan Buddhism, a type of Vajrayana, is usually seen as a subset of Mahayana.
In this session today we’re going to take a brief look at what happens to the concept and practice of mindfulness in the Mahayana tradition, focusing in particular on it’s formation within Zen, partially due to its interactions with Daoism in China. As we’ve already seen in previous sessions, Japanese Zen had a major impact on representations of Buddhism and mindfulness in the West, especially in the period after World War II through to the 1980s. And today these representations are rather muddled and blurred into each other. One of the major Buddhist themes that is emphasized with great clarity in the Zen tradition, is the idea that much of human suffering is caused by faulty ways of looking at the world around us.
That is our way of observing and understanding the world is one of the causes of our suffering in it. As we’ll see in the next session, this diagnosis was shared by the early Daoists in China, who argued that true insight into how things really are is obscured by the artifice, cleverness, and cultivated rationality of human civilization. Humanity literally divorces itself from it’s true nature through the exercise of willful, instrumental reason. Because of our preoccupation with doing, we forget how to be, hence the only way to see through to the truth of the world is for us to shed our clever discriminations and judgments and just allow reality as it really is to arise within and around us.
Partially in dialogue with ideas like this, Ch’an or Zen Buddhism expounded the position that the human mind is naturally pristine and clear. Indeed that all humans, indeed all life, contain the perfected Buddha nature itself. But that our minds are clouded, sullied, and distorted by delusional discriminations and judgments that we incorporate as we live our lives. Our ordinary, everyday thinking distracts us from and prevents us from seeing the truth of things. This doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha, that is that the essence of our mind is always already the Buddha nature, is associated with the controversial idea of original enlightenment.
While apparently quite different from the frameworks for practice that we have looked at in our last couple of sessions, Zen meditation also emphasizes a form of mindfulness or Nen in Japanese. The basics of such practices involve allowing mental events and activities to arise and pass without involving ourselves with them by engaging thoughts, judgments or discriminations about them. Such discriminations are the activities of our everyday, diluted minds. A common saying about this is, there’s nothing wrong with thoughts coming to visit. Just don’t invite them in for tea.
By allowing such mental events to pass without allowing inviting them in or engaging with them, such events eventually settle and cease by themselves. And as such disturbances cease, so our minds settle into peace. What is left is the undisturbed mind, or the true mind, like an unsullied and pristine surface of water, perfectly reflective, which we experience as our intrinsically pure nature. This is right mindfulness or Shonen. And it is this that we should cultivate and protect during meditation practices. Perhaps the most iconic meditation practice in Zen is Zazen, which is really a broad term to include various forms of sitting Zen or sitting meditation which is really all it means. And then the more specific Shikantaza.
Where Shikantaza is closely associated with the Japanese Monk Dogen and the Soto School he originated in the 13th Century. Dogan emphasized Shikantaza or just sitting practice or nothing but meditation as a form of silent illumination. Unlike other schools of Buddhism, and even other schools of zen, Dohan insisted that just sitting should be enough as a practice without the need for other supplementary activities. In practice, Shikantaza shares much in common with those practices we saw in the Satipatthana Sutta in earlier sessions. And just like we saw in the case of the cultivation of Sati, so it’s also the case that Shikantaza seems to incorporate elements of both Samatha, concentration, and Vipassana, insight.
In general, Shikantaza is less structured than Sati practices, and certainly less structured than we see in modern mindfulness interventions, like MBSR and MBCT. Where a teacher carefully guides us through the various foundations of mindfulness, as you’ve experienced a lot by now in our meditation labs. Shikantaza is typically silent and practitioners discipline themselves to observe whatever arises from what we’ve called a meta-cognitive or meta-aware standpoint. One of the controversial issues arising from this kind of practice, and some of those we’ve considered in earlier sessions too, is the way in which judgement and discrimination appear to be seen as irredeemable problems for humans.
That is, the end point of the practice is the dropping away of mind and body themselves in the accomplishment of freedom from the arising of events and phenomena which constitutes suffering. As we saw earlier, this sounds like the attainment of a form of non-self or non-mind, Mu-shin in Japanese, which may be a wonderful spiritual destination, but which might not be suitable as a goal in modern therapeutic context. Given Zen’s unusually powerful and explicit emphasis on the realization of this original enlightenment or true mind, it has also found itself at the heart of many controversies. In Zen, it’s not only the case that right mindfulness enables us to operate more skillfully from a more spacious standpoint of meta-awareness.
In Zen, there’s also the sense that the objects of awareness are themselves delusions or blemishes that should be polished away. Hence an important controversy concerns how we can sustain morality if all of our judgments, even our moral judgments, are delusions. If we should not discriminate between good and bad, because the act of discrimination already involves us in an unnatural attachment to events of phenomenon which is therefor bad in itself, how can we act well? In other words, what is the connection between right mindfulness and moral action? How can this conceptive practice of Mindfulness contribute to improving society around us?
Of course Zen has all kinds of answers to these questions, many of which appeal directly to the experience of right mindfulness itself. In a manner that we also see in the context of Daoism in the next session, Zen literature is full of appeals to the inadequacy of language and discriminatory reason to account for what is found in the sight of right mindfulness or non-self. The only way we can know about it is to experience it. As we’ve already seen, this appeal to the essential value of experiential knowledge essential to all the systems of mindfulness that we’ve encountered, including construct mindfulness itself.
In our next session we’ll take the step to consider a non-Buddhist tradition in the form of Daoism to see how that might enrich our understanding of the meaning and practice of mindfulness today.

In this video, I discuss the Mahayana tradition within Zen.

Lets Discuss

Purpose: To evaluate and reflect upon the different meanings and practices of mindfulness in Buddhist traditions, and to consider whether we recognize ourselves in them.

Task: Critically examine the construction of mindfulness in various Buddhist lineages and sincerely reflect on our level of identity with them in our practice.

Respond: Write a short comment to share with your peers how you feel about your relationship with Buddhism now.

Time: 10 minutes for your comment; 5 minutes each for 2 replies. You can also like other people’s comments.

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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