Zen Buddhism, and Its Relation to Art

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and Its Relation to Art


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Books on the Far East often mention a sect of Buddhism called Zen. They say that it was a “school of abstract meditation” and that it exercised a profound influence upon art and literature; but they tell us very little about what Zen actually was, about its relation to ordinary Buddhism, its history, or the exact nature of its influence upon the arts.

The reason of this is that very little of the native literature which deals with Zen has yet been translated, perhaps because it is written in early Chinese colloquial, a language the study of which has been almost wholly neglected by Europeans and also (to judge by some of their attempts to translate it) by the Japanese themselves.

The present paper makes no attempt at profundity, but it is based on the study of original texts and furnishes, I hope, some information not hitherto accessible.

Before describing the origins of Zen itself I must give some general account of Buddhism. At the time when it reached China[1] there were two kinds of Buddhism, called the Lesser Vehicle and the Greater. The former, Primitive Buddhism, possessed scriptures which in part at any rate were genuine; that is to say, they recorded words actually used by Sh?kyamuni. The ordinary adherent of this religion did not hope to become a Buddha; Buddhas indeed were regarded as extremely rare. He only aspired to become an Arhat, that is “an ascetic ripe for annihilation,” one who is about to escape from the wheel of reincarnation—whose present incarnation is an antechamber to Nirv?na. To such aspirants the Buddha gives no assistance; he is what children in their games call “home,” and his followers must pant after him as best they can.

Those who found this religion too comfortless invented another, which became known as Mah?y?na, the Greater Vehicle. Putting their doctrines into the mouth of Sh?kyamuni, they fabricated ad hoc sermons of enormous length, preached (so they asserted) by the Buddha himself in his “second period” to those who were ripe to receive the whole truth.

The great feature of this new Buddhism was the intervention of the merciful Bodhisattvas, illuminati who, though fit for Buddhahood, voluntarily renounced it in order to help mankind.

The first Buddhist books to reach China emanated from the Lesser Vehicle. But the Greater Vehicle or Bodhisattva-Buddhism soon prevailed, and by the sixth century A.D. over two thousand works, most of them belonging to the Greater Vehicle, had been translated into Chinese.


There were already many sects in China, the chief of which were:

(1) The Amidists.

This was the form of Buddhism which appealed to the uneducated. It taught that a Buddha named Amida presides over the Western Paradise, where he will receive the souls of those that worship him. The conception of this Paradise closely resembles the Christian idea of Heaven and may have been derived from it.

(2) The Tendai Sect, founded at the end of the sixth century. Its teaching was based on a scripture of enormous length called the Saddharma Pundar?ka S?tra, which is translated by Kern in the Sacred Books of the East. It was perhaps the broadest and most representative sect. It laid great stress on the ethical side of Buddhism.

We now come to Zen.

In the year 520 A.D. there arrived at Canton a missionary from Southern India. His name was Bodhidharma and he appears to have been the younger son of an Indian Prince.

The reigning Emperor of China was a munificent patron of Buddhism. He had built monasteries, given alms, distributed scriptures, defended the faith. Hearing that a Buddhist prince had arrived from India he summoned him at once to his Capital. The following conversation took place in the Palace at Nanking:

Emperor: You will be interested to hear that I have built many monasteries, distributed scriptures, given alms, and upheld the Faith. Have I not indeed acquired merit?

Bodhidharma: None at all.

Emperor: In what then does true merit consist?

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