An Introduction to Zen

By: John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
Zen Buddhism claims to be the best or truest path to satori (enlightenment), and to represent “true” Buddhism.

An Introduction to Zen

Info at a Glance

Name: Zen Buddhism.

Purpose: The attainment of satori (enlightenment).

Founder: Unknown; popularly believed to be Bodhidharma.

Source of authority: Zen master’s interpretation of Buddhism; the experience of satori.

Claim: Zen is the best or truest path to satori and representative of true Buddhism.

Theology: Monistic, syncretistic.

Occult dynamics: Zen meditation produces makyo or psychic phenomena.

Attitude toward Christianity: Rejecting.


“I truly follow God’s will if I forget about God.”[1]The World of Zen

“But after all, Zen teaches nothing. All cosmological and psychological theories of original Buddhism are regarded, according to the phrase of Hui-Hai as arguments which are of the order of nonsense…. As Tao-Yi (Matsu) says, ‘We speak of enlightenment in contrast to delusion.’ But since there is originally no delusion, en-lightenment also cannot stand. This is what is known as ‘obtaining which is not an obtaining’; and also ‘in the last resort nothing gained.’”[2] —Lit-sen Chang, former Zen Buddhist

“Smash the Buddha, Patriarchs and Arhats, if you come across them; smash your parents and relations, if you come across them. You will be in real emancipation…. Anything that has the resemblance of an external authority is rejected by Zen. Absolute faith is placed in a man’s own inner being. Zen wants to live from within, not to be bound by rules, but to be creating one’s own rules.”[3] —Dr. D. T. Suzuki

Note: For the interested reader, our chapter on Buddhism has additional relevant material. It should be noted that Zen has many similarities with the religion of Taoism and that Zen influence in the West appears indirectly in numerous places, e.g., Erhard Seminars Training/The Forum is, in many respects, essentially a Zen message. (See our Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs.)

Zen philosophy is inherently contradictory and confusing. We have attempted to spare the reader from as much irrationalism as possible while simultaneously illustrating Zen for what it is.

Doctrinal Summary

God: The Absolute, Tao, beyond thought and description.

Jesus: Most Zenists would respect Jesus as a great man but interpret His life and teachings through the philosophical assumptions of Zen.

Salvation: Escaping duality by zazen (meditation) and satori (enlightenment).

Man: In inner essence or reality people are one with the Absolute; ultimately the body and personality are illusions.

Sin: Ignorance of reality.

Heaven and Hell: Mental states or temporary conditions of existence.

Introduction and History

In The Way of Zen, the late influential writer Alan Watts described Zen as follows:

But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like “Why is a mouse when it spins?”[4]

This question is a “koan,” a nonsense formulation allegedly pointing to absolute truth. The title of one Zen book, Selling Water by the River, says a great deal about Zen. As Zen masters admit, Zen is paradoxical at best and nonsense at worst: in effect, the “theatre of the absurd” of religion, and koans are an essential element.

As an undergraduate student, John Weldon once encountered a Zen practitioner and asked the student what Zen was all about. The response was, “Why is the meaning of Zen the legs on a snake?” with the emphasis on “why.”

Of course, no one knows and there are no true answers.

Some people view Zen as merely an odd little Eastern sect of little or no import. They could not be more mistaken. Millions of people in the United States have been influenced by Zen directly or indirectly, and there are millions more adherents and sympathizers worldwide. Zen temples currently accept Zen worship in numerous American cities. Over one-half million people to various degrees have had a clandestine experience with Zen through Erhard Seminars Training (est/The Forum) which is predominantly a Zen teaching (see our Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs). Brief research on the Internet indicates that Zen is active in at least 50 countries around the world; there are some 400 Zen centers in the U.S. alone.

Millions of people have been exposed to Zen through its Western popularizers, such as Alan Watts and Christmas Humphreys. Dr. Daisetz Teitaro (D. T.) Suzuki was responsible for bringing Zen to the West in 1906[5] and was often called “the greatest living authority on Zen.” He alone has influenced millions through his books and travels.[6]

In the last 50 years, hundreds of Zen teachers (Roshis) have taken up residence in the United States, leaving a large literary legacy on Zen. For example, Yasutani Roshi alone wrote nearly a hundred volumes before he died. [7] Many popular Zen writers have translated Zen works into English, among them John Blofeld (Chu Ch’an) and Charles Luk (Upasaka Luk’uan Yu). (Zen masters often take several names; there are also Japanese and Chinese equivalencies.)

Zen has influenced many famous individuals. Noted psychoanalyst and occultist Carl Jung was rather sympathetic to Zen.[8] The book he was reportedly reading on his deathbed was Charles Luk’s Chan and Zen Teachings: First Series; he asked his secretary to write the author, acknowledging his enthusiasm and personal rapport with Zen ideas. [9] Martin Heidegger, the mentor of Jean Paul Sarte and famous German existentialist philosopher, once stated, “If I understand [Dr. Suzuki] correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.”[10] The influential neo-orthodox theologian Paul Tillich also admired Zen. Today we find books like James H. Austen’s Zen and the Brain (MIT: Cambridge Press, 1998), a 900 page “neuroscience” study on Zen states of consciousness and brain physiology. So whatever one thinks of Zen, it is nevertheless a modern force to be reckoned with. Christians especially should take note of its influence on mainline Christianity and the growing movement of so-called “Zen Christians,” which we will critique.

Zen and the Major Schools of Buddhism

There are two principal schools of Buddhism: the Hinayana, or Theravada (usually considered the earliest tradition and therefore the most accurate), and the Mahayana, generally thought to be a later tradition which “deified” the Buddha and which represents a more mystical approach, hence one closer to Zen. (Many scholars accept Tibetan Buddhism as a third school.) Most scholars regard Zen as Mahayanist, some as Hinayanist, while a few consider it apart from all schools. Zen could also be said to represent a blend of both major schools with additional elements originated during its diverse geographical and historical development.

Zen claims to be the “true” Buddhism, but since no one can prove what true (original) Buddhism is, the claim means little. In Buddhism, generally, four factors have contributed to this uncertainty over the earliest Buddhist teachings: (1) the late nature of the Buddhist manuscripts, (2) their contradictory teachings, (3) Buddhism’s long-standing emphasis on subjectivism and (4) Buddha’s mixture of legend and history. In the end, Zen is simply one of innumerable conflicting schools of Buddhism, no more no less. Even within its own ranks there are many sub-schools claiming that they alone constitute the “highest truth” of Zen, and some even claim that conventional Zen cannot offer true enlightenment (such as Zenmar’s so-called “Dark Zen”).

Because Zenists claim to be the original Buddhism, Zen Roshi Jiyu Kennett attempts to trace the basic doctrines of the earlier Hinayana school to their later development in Zen.[11] And in Blofeld’s opinion it is difficult to be dogmatic on the origin of Zen as being strictly Mahayanist, because he argues that the truth of Buddhism is determined subjectively not historically:

Nevertheless, quite apart from the fact that up-to-date research, coupled with closer contacts between Western scholars on the one hand and Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese monks on the other, has demonstrated how impossible it is to be sure that either Mahayana or Hinayana is the more “orthodox” of the two, the folly of such narrow-mindedness is clearly demonstrated by the Blessed One’s own words; for, even according to the Theravadins, he seems to have declared soundly that whatsoever is conducive to the welfare of sentient beings is right doctrine and that whatsoever is harmful to their welfare cannot be true Buddha-Dharma. While it is true that some of the schools and sects within the Mahayana are of comparatively later origin than either the Theravadin or the ancient Mahayanist sects, it is also true that they differ only as to method and never as to the Goal.[12]

This is assuming we know what the Buddha himself said. In fact, Buddhist scholars, such as Edward Conze, Edward J. Thomas and others, have stated that we do not know and cannot know what he said, due to the four points mentioned previously.

D. T. Suzuki illustrates the problem when he claims: “If the Mahayana is not Buddhism proper, neither is the Hinayana, for the historical reason that neither of them represents the teaching of the Buddha as it was preached by the Master himself.”[13] But Suzuki himself is not certain what Buddha said and even admits that Buddhism “refuses to be objectively defined.” [14] As a result, he also interprets “true” Buddhism mystically rather than objectively or doctrinally. Suzuki claims to teach a Buddhism “stripped of all its historical and doctrinal garments,”[15] a Buddhism that is “the inner life and spirit of the Buddha” structured around his inmost consciousness.

We do know that the founder of Zen is popularly considered to be Bodhidharma (perhaps a legend), who is said to have brought Zen to China around 520 A.D. Zen’s lengthy historical evolution makes its origin difficult to trace. However, the controversial theories of Buddhist monks such as Tao-Sheng (360-434 A.D.) clearly contributed to its development. (Some believe Tao-Sheng was “Zen’s actual founder.”) Nevertheless, once it arrived in China, the Chinese influence on Zen was crucial, as noted by Dr. Suzuki:

The traditional origin of Zen in India before its introduction into China, which is recorded in Zen literature, is so mixed with legends that no reliable facts can be gathered from it…. In fact, Zen Buddhism, as was already discussed, is the product of the Chinese mind, or rather the Chinese elaboration of the [Buddhist] Doctrine of Enlightenment…. Some scholars may, however, object to this kind of treatment of the subject, on the ground that if Zen is at all a form of Buddhism, or even the essence of it as is claimed by its followers, it cannot be separated from the general history of Buddhism in India. This is quite true, but as far as facts are concerned, Zen as such did not exist in India—that is, in the form as we have it today; and therefore… we must consider Zen the Chinese interpretation of the doctrine of Enlightenment, which is expounded in all Buddhist literature, most intensively in the Mahayana and more or less provisionally in the Hinayana.[16]

In China the two principal schools of Zen, the Rinzai and the Soto, were founded,[17] and from here Zen moved to Japan. In the twelfth century a Japanese Tendai Buddhist monk (Eisai, 1141-1215) went to China to study Zen and returned to found the Rinzai school. Myozen, a disciple of Eisai, initiated Dogen (1200-1253) into Zen, and Dogen became the founder of the Soto school. Today, Zen has a wide influence in Japan. The martial arts of judo, Karate and Kendo (fencing), together with Japanese gardens, architecture, poetry, painting and the tea ceremony all more or less reflect Zen influence.[18] And Dr. Lit-sen Chang observes that Zen “was used by Japanese militarists as an incentive for their aggressive wars.” [19]

According to Zen, its “doctrine” and essence were transmitted mystically or psychically from disciple to disciple. Allegedly the Buddha himself transmitted esoteric truth to Mahakasyapa, apparently the only disciple capable of receiving the transmission at the time. As the story goes, the Buddha had picked up a flower after a lecture and held it up for his disciples to see. Only Mahakasyapa understood the meaning and responded with a smile. “Later the Buddha called this disciple to him in private and mystically transmitted to him the wordless doctrine, or ‘with Mind transmitted Mind.’ Mahakasyapa, in turn, mystically transmitted the Doctrine to Ananda, who thus became second in the line of twenty-eight Indian Patriarchs. The last of these was Bodhidharma, who is said to have travelled to China in the sixth century A.D.”[20] Thus, ostensibly, “while all Buddhist sects present the truth in varying degrees, Zen alone preserves the very highest teachings of all—teachings based on a mysterious transmission of Mind which took place between Gautama Buddha and Mahakasyapa.” [21]

Again, all of this is unverifiable. Those who believe that Zen can be traced to the Buddha and his “highest” teaching do so on the basis of unsupported Zen claims, not documented history. Even comments by Zenists like John Blofeld are telling. In his translation of one of Hyang Po’s writings, Huan Po Ch’uan Hsin Fa Yao, he notes the similarity of the Zen experience to that of Plotinus, Meister Eckhart and other famous mystics, and then he illustrates that the story of the Buddha himself originating Zen is based in mysticism, not history:

Opinions as to the truth of this story naturally vary, but Masters like Huang Po obviously speak from some deep inner experience. He and his followers were concerned solely with a direct perception of truth and cannot have been even faintly interested in arguments about the historical orthodoxy of their beliefs…. So however slender the evidence for Zen’s claim to have been founded by Gautama Buddha himself, I do not for one moment doubt that Huang Po was expressing in his own way the same experience of Eternal Truth which Gautama Buddha and others, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, have expressed in theirs. [22]

Other Zenists have extended the origin of Zen back far beyond Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) to earlier “Buddhas,” and even far beyond that into eternity past. Zen thus becomes the Eternal Truth that has always existed, and always will.[23] Shunryu Suzuki, a Soto Zen Master, asserts: “There is no Nirvana outside our practice…. This practice started from beginningless time, and it will continue into an endless future. Strictly speaking, for a human being there is no other practice than this practice. There is no other way of life than this way of life.” [24]

The claims of Zen as to its origin and superiority have not necessarily endeared Zen to other Buddhists, who make similar claims for their own teachings. Zenists accept virtually all Buddhism as representing the genuine teachings of the Buddha, but they distinguish between his “introductory” and “advanced” teachings. From their perspective, they relegate Theravadin teaching, also known as Hinayana, to Buddha’s introductory teachings, which were intended for “weaker” souls not up to the rigors of Zen. Roshi Kennett says that “the teachings of Hinayana were for the beginner and the Mahayana ones were for those who had made greater progress.” [25]

This approach harmonizes with the Zen belief that the experience of the Buddha was much more important than his teachings, which are essentially superficial. Theravadins, for their part, reject Zen as “heretical.” They cannot accept what they consider spurious Mahayanist revisions of the Buddha’s “true” teachings. If we read the following statement by Dr. Suzuki, we can see why the Theravadins are not content to accept Zen as a legitimate Buddhist school: “Zen claims to be Buddhism, but all the Buddhist teachings as propounded in the sutras and sastras are treated by Zen as mere waste paper whose utility consists in wiping off the dirt of intellect and nothing more.” [26]

A recent book title went, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. Those Buddhists who believe that the Buddha is irrelevant and his teachings dangerous can hardly expect sympathy from other Buddhists who reverence him and his words. Dr. Lit-sen Chang observes: “‘The Buddha cannot save us,’ says Hui-Hai, ‘strive diligently, practice the method for yourselves, do not rely on the strength of the Buddha.’ It is interesting to note that Buddha is often spoken of as a ‘dry stick of dung’ and it is also a very popular saying among Zen, ‘When you have mentioned Buddha’s name, wash your mouth!’”[27] Garma C. C. Chang observes: “If one understands that reality is neither pure nor impure, he finds the Buddha in the dung as well as in Heaven.”[28]



  1. Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), p. 252.
  2. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West (MA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., Co., 1969), p. 42.
  3. D. T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), pp. 40, 44-45, 64, 131 cited by Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, pp. 33-34.
  4. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Knopf, Inc. and Random House, Inc., 1957), p. x.
  5. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, p. 27.
  6. Suzuki was also involved with the occult Swedenborg Foundation for some time and colorfully referenced Swedenborg’s teachings as “Zen for Westerners” (Robert Ellwood, Alternative Altars, pp. 147-148.)
  7. Yasutani Roshi Memorial Issue, ZCLA Journal (n.d.), p. 26.
  8. He wrote the foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism and, with parallels to Swedenborgianism, Jung was also sympathetic to mediumism and attended séances. (See our The Facts on Psychology, the Sept. 1995 ATRI [Ankerberg Theological Research Institute] News magazine; Martin Ebon, “Jung’s First Medium,” Psychic, June 1976, pp. 42-47, and especially Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.)
  9. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. xl; cf. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, pp. 160-200.
  10. Ibid., cf. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, pp. 114-125.
  11. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972), pp. 24-34; Ernest Wood, Zen Dictionary (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1962), pp. 22-24, 78-79; Roshi Jiyu Kennett, Zen Is Eternal Life (Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1976), pp. xxiii-xxv, 85-86; John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, on the Transmission of Mind (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958), pp. 10-12.
  12. Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai, p. 250.
  13. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 57.
  14. Ibid., p. 51.
  15. Ibid., p. 52.
  16. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays in Zen, First Series, pp. 161-162.
  17. Ibid., p. 226.
  18. Ross, The World of Zen, section III.
  19. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, p. 27.
  20. Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 10.
  21. Ibid., p. 8.
  22. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
  23. Cf. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays, p. 168.
  24. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), pp. 46-47.
  25. Kennett, p. 15
  26. Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr, eds., The Gospel According to Zen, Beyond the Death of God (New York: The New American Library, 1970), p. 14.
  27. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism, p. 31.
  28. Garma Chang, The Practice of Zen (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1970), p. 175.

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