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Zen Buddhism Religion in Japanese Culture Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2020


Zen Buddhism is one of the most spread religions in the world as millions of people follow its principles and norms. The uniqueness of Zen is in rejecting the importance of doctrines and emphasizing the role of the spiritual growth of the person through the practice of meditation. Currently, Zen Buddhism is popular in not only China and Japan where it is highly influential but also in the Western world (McDaniel 54). Although having the origins in China, Zen Buddhism became an important part of the Japanese vision, culture, and the way of living as it is grounded on the idea of developing personal spirituality and achieving the union with the Cosmos.

How Zen came to Japan

Zen Buddhism became known in Japan in the seventh century. However, despite being taught in the Japanese temples, Zen was not spread in the country until the late part of the twelfth century (Heine 368). The interest in Zen among the Japanese people increased, and the main Zen schools emerged. The first Zen Buddhism school was Rinzai School, and it was founded by Eisai (1141-1215) who visited China several times in order to learn more about the principles of Zen. One more school of Zen in Japan was Daruma School. It was founded by Nonin in the 1190s, and it was based on the Rinzai teachings (Heisig and Knitter 112). In spite of sharing the vision of Zen Buddhism and its main principles, monks followed different paths in teaching, and the other Zen movement was Soto School founded by Dogen (1200-1253) (McDaniel 83-85). All these schools were established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and their teachings originated from the founders’ interpretation of Zen ideas and principles learned in China. Therefore, these schools differ in their vision of reaching enlightenment or satori as the desired goal (Anderl 22). The followers of Eisai believed that it is possible to achieve satori every moment of life without the additional concentration. On the contrary, the followers of Soto School shared the idea that only the complete concentration and meditation could lead to satori.

In order to spread their teachings and visions of Zen Buddhism, the heads and followers of different schools paid much attention to building temples according to the patterns viewed in China. In these temples, the monks declared their own interpretations of Zen Buddhism that were often discussed as even more ‘true’ than the principles of the traditional Chinese Buddhism (McDaniel 112). Having received the experience in the Chinese temples, the representatives of Rinzai, Soto, and Daruma schools believed that their visions of Buddhism could be more related to the philosophy of Zen (Baskind 312). As a result, the variants of Zen Buddhism that came to Japan in the seventh century were completely based on the Chinese interpretations, but those teachings that spread with the establishment of first schools in Japan differed significantly from the traditional Chinese practice of Zen.

The development of Zen visions in Japan that was associated with the growth of the main schools of Buddhism resulted in the accentuation of the key ideas, elements, aspects, and norms of this religion and philosophy. The major idea of Zen Buddhism is the achievement of satori or enlightenment with the help of the continuous practice of meditation (McDaniel 38). It is expected that each person has a specific spiritual nature, and he has the potential of achieving enlightenment. However, the ways to satori differ in Zen schools spread in Japan, and the followers of Zen Buddhism accept the possibility of being enlightened through the impulsive visions or flashes, or as a result of the prolonged meditation. In this context, the other key elements of Zen Buddhism are mushotoku, zanshin, fundoshi, and mushin in addition to the mentioned satori.

Mushotoku is known as a specific state when a person does not think about personal profits, does not think about objects around, and does not think about the material factors. Zanshin is a specific state when a person is clearly and fully aware of the environment and objects around, but he is not related to them. In this state, the mind remains to be detached in spite of understanding all the events and processes around. Fudoshin is the next important stage of the person’s mind that can lead to satori (McDaniel 138). While being one of the basic elements of the philosophy of Zen, fundoshi means the state when a person feels to be complete, stable, and peaceful as nothing can disturb a person practicing Zen (Anderl 67). Through all these states and concepts, a person seems to come to satori, but the final stage before achieving the enlightenment is mushin. This concept is used in Zen Buddhism in order to explain the state when a person does not feel any emotion, and he is close to uniting with the Universe. All these elements provide the fundament for the religion and philosophy of Zen Buddhism, and these mental states can be reached only through meditation.

The key elements of Zen Buddhism

From this point, one of the key principles of Zen Buddhism is that the actual satori is usually a result of prolonged spiritual practices, and the reading of religious texts cannot guarantee such outcomes as the meditation can. In order to have the mind that is unoccupied with the problems and emotions, it is necessary to develop the awareness of the person’s internal spiritual world and Zen around him. Thus, Zen can be viewed as the person’s spiritual journey to understanding the illusory nature of the material world and developing the awareness of self (Heisig and Knitter 28). One of the main principles of Zen states that a person should achieve the holistic vision of the world in which the person’s mind and the surroundings are united, and any anxiety or fears cannot disturb this process of enlightenment through following the Universe’s knowledge. These principles influenced the Japanese culture in all its main forms.

Aspects of the Japanese culture affected by Zen Buddhism

The major effect of Zen Buddhism on the Japanese culture is the focus on the idea of interconnectedness. A person who lives according to the principles of Zen tries to achieve the state of enlightenment and the union with the Cosmos through the process of noticing and understanding the spiritual nature of all material objects in the world. According to the Zen norms, these objects are connected, and the Japanese regard each object being the part of the large world that should be respected (McDaniel 53). The establishment of Zen in Japan influenced the development of ideas that the focus on the process is important for understanding the rules of the world. As a result, Zen influenced the Japanese people’s focus on arranging rock gardens to accentuate the connection of all elements; arranging flowers in the form of ikebana; arranging letters in the form of calligraphy (Anderl 114). Moreover, such important elements of the Japanese culture as the tea ceremony is also associated with Zen because of the focus on the process that is rather meditative in its nature and having the spiritual meaning for all participants.

Zen Buddhism influenced the Japanese culture in terms of identifying the purpose of developing arts in this country. The philosophy of Zen based on the ideas of the personal progress, spiritual development, calmness, and respect provided the grounds for the Japanese arts (Ahn 179). According to the Japanese people’s visions, while developing the art skills, persons also enhance their spirituality and become more concentrated and peaceful. In addition, applying the principles of Zen in the culture and arts, the Japanese people achieve harmony with the surrounding world and nature.


Even though Zen Buddhism came to Japan only in the seventh century and remained unrecognized during more than four centuries, the key elements and principles of this religion influenced the Japanese culture. The well-known patterns of the Japanese arts such as gardens, calligraphy, and ikebana are closely associated with the philosophy of Zen. The reason is in the fact that Zen cannot be regarded only as the religion. It should be discussed as a way of living when a person tries to achieve harmony with the world and the peaceful state of mind. Therefore, finding the new meditative practices, the Japanese followers of Zen developed the arts that need the high concentration and calmness.

Works Cited

Ahn, Juhn. “Zen and the Art of Nourishing Life: Labor, Exhaustion, and the Malady of Meditation.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 35.2 (2008): 177-229. Print.

Anderl, Christoph. Zen Buddhist Rhetoric in China, Korea, and Japan. New York: BRILL Publishing, 2011. Print.

Baskind, James. “The Matter of the Zen School: Fukansai Habian’s Myotei Mondo and His Christian Polemic on Buddhism.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39.2 (2012): 307-331. Print.

Heine, Steven. “Yes! We Have no Buddha-Nature: Three Recent Publications on Zen Dialogues.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 37.2 (2010): 367-376. Print.

Heisig, James, and Paul Knitter. Zen Buddhism: Japan. New York: World Wisdom, 2005. Print.

McDaniel, Richard. Zen Masters of Japan: The Second Step East. New York: Tuttle Publishing, 2014. Print.

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