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What is Zen Psychology?



If people are confronted with the words "Zen" and "Psychology" in the same sentence, many will envision visiting some sort of guru meditating on a mountain top, while thoughts of "oneness with the universe" float through his head. People may also foresee a client in East-influenced therapy turning into a Birkenstock and bead-wearing "granola" who, at the hair salon, won't stop talking about her "mystical visions while in a transcendental state." Warping the stereotypes further, people may associate "Zen and Psychology" with Dianetics, Moonies, Hare Krishna, or any one of the unsettling cults they heard about on "Oprah" and "Hard Copy." Are these stereotypes warranted? Is there any truth to them? What is Zen, anyway? Please, read on...

Is Psychology a Science?

What Is Zen?

Is Zen a Religion?

Zen Psychology

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What Is Zen?


Zen: Japanese; Ch'an (Chinese); a branch of Mahayana Buddhism which developed in China during th e sixth and seventh centuries after Bodhidharma arrived; it later divided into the Soto and Rinzai schools; Zen stresses the importance of the enlightenment experience and the futility of rational thought, intellectual study and religious ritual in attaining this; a central element of Zen is zazen, a meditative practice which seeks to free the mind of all thought and conceptualization.
--from a long forgotten page on the Tricycle magazine website

"Zen Buddhism", commonly called "Zen," developed from Buddhism which originated in India around 600 BC. As Buddhism gained popularity and moved eastward through China and to Japan, local philosophies and religions, notably Taoism (pronounced "Daoism"), were mingled together with Buddhism. New schools were formed in China, such as "Chan", which became "Zen" in Japan. Retaining the original message of the Buddha, stress was put on meditative practice, downplaying rational thought and the study of scripture and ritual.

The keystone of Buddhism is the "Four Noble Truths:"

  1. Existence is suffering.
    Our typical road in life is to maximize pleasure and minimize unpleasantries, but we often find that eliminating all pain and discomfort is not possible. Around 600 B.C., a prince in India named Siddhartha Guatama lived a sheltered life in a palace. As the story goes, Prince Siddhartha saw sickness, pain, and death one day as he stole a peek at the world outside the palace. The Prince decided to search for the cause of such suffering in the world, as well as a cure.
  2. Suffering is caused by desires and attachments.
    We all start forming attachments to things before the day we are born. The moment we are separated from these things, we feel loss, anxiety, sadness. We develop cravings for things: wealth, prestige, cars. Cravings and desires create suffering if not met. Even when we possess the items, we covet them and protect them jealously for fear of losing them (and these don't have to be tangible things- pride, status, even happiness itself are included). The world is an ever-changing, impermanent place- the more things we cling to, the more we lose when they change or go away.
    There is another aspect to attachment- that is, the way certain attributes are unnaturally associated with things. For example, advertising companies try associate beer with "sexy," "sophisticated," or "something friends share." We are constantly fooling ourselves with these types of false perceptions of the world.
    Before reading on, think about the answer to this question: What comes to mind when you think about eating at a McDonald's(tm)?


What are you saying!

Often a Zen master would pass on certain items to his successor, such as a robe, bowl or sutra (scripture book) as representative proof. However, the transmission of the teaching is truly a matter of a heart to heart understanding, not a formal token or ritual. Master Shoju reminded us of that:

Zen master Mu-nan had o ne successor, Shoju. "I am an old man, Shoju, and as for as I can see, you will be the only one to pass on my teaching. This book has been passed down for seven generation of masters. I have added many points myself concerning my understanding of the W ay. Please take this valuable book as a symbol of your successorship."
"If it is so important," Shoju replied, "then you should keep it. I received your teaching without writing and am satisfied."
"Even so, please take this so all can understand your position. Here."
As soon as Mu-nan had placed the book in Shoju's hands, he immediately cast it into a flaming brazier. He felt no need for such possessions.
Mu-nan became angry for the first time in his life and demanded, "What are you doing!"
Shoju shouted without anger, "What are you saying!"

Did you consider the word that starts with an "h?" My guess is that you thought about golden arches, the orange and yellow colors of the wrapper, Ronald, children, wacky orange bug juice (if you're old enough to remember) or jingles from commercials before you thought about hamburgers and fries.
It's not probable that harm will come from associating a Big Mac with ketchup stains on your car seat, but sometimes these unconscious associations are. In the classic movie, Twelve Angry Men, a juror has a steadfast, opinion that the young defendant is guilty of murdering his father. The juror curses and gets mad, makes excuses and gives illogical explanations for his stance. After repeated pressure by the other jurors, he finally breaks through a wall of repressed anger and finds that his disdain for the boy is rooted in his poor relationship with his own son. This type of "association" will be further discussed in the "Zen Psychology" section.
Prince Guatama, in seeing how attachments lead to suffering, renounced all physical attachments: his wealth, his title, even his family, and went out into the world to find an end to all attachments.
  1. There is a way to end worldly suffering.
    Siddhartha wandered around for many years, alone or with the sadhus (Hindu holy men) who also lead meager lives. Through meditation, he was finally able to rid himself of all attachments to the world, in the experience called "satori" (awakening or enlightenment).
  2. The way to end all worldly suffering is to follow the "Eightfold Path" to satori.
    The "Eightfold Path" is the code of moral conduct for Buddhists to follow. Following the Path helps to clear the mind and body of the "dust" of the world, being the attachments and desires that keep us suffering and away from satori. As we gain insight, the path becomes easier and more natural to follow. Zen emphasizes the 8th part of the path, "right concentration," or on the meditative aspect of the Path, but all parts are intertwined together.

What is "Satori?"

Satori ("Samadhi" in Sanskrit) translates as "Enlightening" or "Awakening." It is the moment when one's view of reality is stripped of all attachments and ignorance, and things are seen as their true selves. The unconscious becomes one w ith the conscious, so never do you have unseen forces controlling your moods, dislikes, or actions. This state is called "Nirvana" in Sanskrit, but it is not to be mistaken for a higher plane of existence or state of mind. The only thing that changes during satori is your perception of the world.
Some claim the path to satori is a gradual one, some claim a sudden experience, and others say Nirvana cannot truly be reached. What are called "breakthroughs," "peak experiences," "symbolic growth experiences," and "moments of clarity" in psychology and pop culture are debatably examples of "mini-awakenings." These usually are characterized by a sudden realization about a facet of a person's life. They can be fleeting, but usually, in some way, the person is changed for life. Usually it happens after prolonged concentration on an issue or problem, and/or during a time of high stress or anxiety. These are the conditions that Zen monks and nuns live under, focusing on a koan (sort of an illogical riddle) or one's breath in one's waking and meditative times. Satori is like these small breakthroughs, but culminates as insight into every aspect of life, and certainly existence.

Part of the problem of explaining Zen is that it doesn't really have a definition in the usual sense. Zen is a method, an action, not an ethereal matter floating through the universe or a spirit which manifests itself in all material things. Trying to explain satori is like trying to explain a flavor- you can explain the flavor as "tasting like this or that," but a person can never understand the taste until she tries it for herself. And when she does, she may describe the taste differently from you. If Zen (the Eightfold Path, meditation, the sutra scriptures, etc.) is explaining the "flavor" of enlightenment, satori is tasting it.

Below are links to others' "tastes" of Zen.


Buddhist Basics
Tricycle's ABC's of Buddhism
Zen Stories
Stories like these transmit the zen philosophy
better than anything else
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The text on this page (c)December, 2000. All images are thought to be public domain. If you feel an image infringes on a copyright, please e-mail me at the address above.