The Essence of Zen

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Legends and stories (continued)


What's the relevance of stories of ancient China?

In his Zen's Chinese Heritage, an extensive record of the words of the Chinese masters, Andy Ferguson points out:

By our conventional understanding, the Zen ancients lived in a society so far from us in content, space, and time that we risk quickly dismissing their relevance. But Zen, in its greatest definition, is not less relevant today than it was in feudal China. It remains important precisely because the enlightenment of the historical Buddha and his Zen descendants does not depend on considerations of culture, behavior, social relationships, intellect, or gods and goddesses. . . . According to all the old masters, this realization is not to be achieved through analysis, but must be directly experienced.

Andy Ferguson also reminds us that from its earliest formative days in China, Zen took root and then flourished as a monastic system.

Though there were highly regarded masters living and teaching outside the institutions, Zen's most characteristic geniuses moved freely among the temples and monasteries, and followed a highly prescribed lifestyle. The strength and tradition of monastic life provided the loom on which the spare, elegant, witty, deadly serious, and humorous fabric of Zen could be woven. Though it would be wrong to say monastic life was essential to all Zen, it has been essential to a great deal of the best of it so far.

Because the records we have come from this monastic tradition of transmission, our stories necessarily follow this monastic line. That said, we will in this course meet a few inspirational and influential practitioners who lived outside this system.

Legends and scholarship

How can we know what is history and what is legend? Can we know if one of the protagonists invented the dialog we're reading?

Although this course presents the story of Zen chronologically it is not meant to be "a history." While political and societal forces certainly had a tremendous affect on the evolution of Zen, we focus here on the masters who created what is now Zen. Rather than present timelines and dates we offer the words of Zen's most influential teachers, along with a few what we hope are helpful commentaries on the talks, poems and anecdotes that have come down to us.