Varieties of Buddhism [BACK]
Originally there wasn't even Buddhism, there was just the truth - the teachings of the Buddha. Since then, Buddhism has divided into a number of different systems. The main ones are
1. Theravada , 2. Mahayana[Pure Land, Tibetan, Zen, Korean Zen (Son)]
However all these accept many of the same fundamental teachings as correct, and there is little friction between any of these groups - much less than is found among different groups of many other religions.

The best way to regard the different types of Buddhism is as alternative paths to enlightenment. Another way is to realise that while each type is found in many countries, each is strongest in particular parts of the world.


Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). It is sometimes called "Southern Buddhism".

The name means the doctrine of the elders - the elders being the senior Buddhist monks.

This school of Buddhism believes that it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, it does not over-emphasise the status of these teachings in a fundamentalist way - they are seen as tools to help people understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own.

Theravada beliefs

The Supernatural: Many faiths offer supernatural solutions to the spiritual problems of human beings. Buddhism does not.

The basis of all forms of Buddhism is to use meditation for awakening (or enlightenment), not outside powers.

Supernatural powers are not disregarded but they are incidental and the Buddha warned against them as fetters on the path.

The Buddha: Siddhartha Gotama was a man who became Buddha, the Awakened One - much in the same way as Jesus became Christ.

Since his death the only contact with him is through his teachings which point to the awakened state.

God: There is no omnipotent creator God of the sort found in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Gods exist as various types of spiritual being but with limited powers.

The Path to Enlightenment: Each being has to make their own way to enlightenment without the help of God or gods. Buddha's teachings show the way, but making the journey is up to us.

Theravada life

Theravada Buddhism emphasises attaining self-liberation through one's own efforts. Meditation and concentration are vital elements of the way to enlightenment. The ideal road is to dedicate oneself to full-time monastic life.

The follower is expected to "abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind".

Meditation is one of the main tools by which a Theravada Buddhist transforms themselves, and so a monk spends a great deal of time in meditation.

When a person achieves liberation they are called a 'worthy person' - an Arhat or Arahat.

Despite the monastic emphasis, Theravada Buddhism has a substantial role and place for lay followers.

Monastic life

Most Theravada monks live as part of monastic communities. Some join as young as seven, but one can join at any age. A novice is called a samanera and a full monk is called a bikkhu.

The monastic community as a whole is called the sangha.

Monks (and nuns) undertake the training of the monastic order (the Vinaya) which consist of 227 rules (more for nuns). Within these rules or precepts are five which are undertaken by all those trying to adhere to a Buddhist way of life. The Five Precepts are to undertake the rule of training to:

-Refrain from harming living beings
-Refrain from taking that which is not freely given
-Refrain from sexual misconduct
-Refrain from wrong speech; such as lying, idle chatter, malicious gossip or harsh speech
-Refrain from intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness

Of particular interest is the fact that Theravadan monks and nuns are not permitted to eat after midday or handle money.


"Meditation is impossible for a person who lacks wisdom. Wisdom is impossible for a person who does not meditate. A person who both meditates and possesses wisdom is close to nibbana."

The Theravada tradition has two forms of meditation.

Samatha: Calming meditation
Vipassana: Insight meditation

This is the earliest form of meditation, and is not unique to Buddhism. It's used to make the mind calmer and take the person to higher jhanic states. (Jhanic states are hard to explain simply; states of consciousness is probably the closest easily understandable definition.) The effects of Samatha meditation are temporary.


This form of meditation is used to achieve insight into the true nature of things. This is very difficult to get because human beings are used to seeing things distorted by their preconceptions, opinions, and past experiences.

The aim is a complete change of the way we perceive and understand the universe, and unlike the temporary changes brought about by Samatha, the aim of Vipassana is permanent change.

Lay people and monks

The code of behaviour for lay people is much less strict than that for monks. They follow the five basic Buddhist principles that have already been mentioned.

A strong relationship

The relationship between monks and lay people in Theravada Buddhism is very strong. This type of Buddhism could not, in fact, exist in its present form without this interaction.

It is a way of mutual support — lay people supply food, medicine, and cloth for robes, and monks give spiritual support, blessings, and teachings.

But this is not a tit for tat situation. Monks are not allowed to request anything from lay people; and lay people cannot demand anything from the monks. The spirit of it is more in the nature of open-hearted giving.

The system works well and is so firmly established in most Theravadan countries that monks are usually amply provided for, depending on the wealth or poverty of the local people.

Ceremonies and commemoration days

There are numerous ceremonies and commemoration days which lay people celebrate, such as Wesak which marks the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha, and for these events everyone converges on the local temples.


Monasteries often have facilities for lay people to stay in retreat. The accommodation is usually basic and one has to abide by Eight Precepts (to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, unskilful speech, taking intoxicating drink or drugs, eating after midday, wearing adornments, seeking entertainments, and sleeping in soft, luxurious beds).


The fundamental teachings were collected into their final form around the 3rd century BCE, after a Buddhist council at Patna in India.

The teachings were written down in Sri Lanka during the 1st century CE. They were written in Pali (a language like Sanskrit) and are known as the Pali canon. It's called the Tipitaka - the three baskets. The three sections are:

-the Vinaya Pitaka (the code for monastic life).
These rules are followed by Buddhist monks and nuns, who recite the 227 rules twice a month.
-the Sutta Pitaka (teachings of the Buddha).
This includes the whole of Buddhist philosophy and ethics. It includes the Dhammapada which contains the essence of Buddha's teaching.
-the Abhidamma Pitaka (supplementary philosophy and religious teaching)

Although these texts are accepted as definitive scriptures, non-Buddhists should understand that they do not contain divine revelations or absolute truths that followers accept as a matter of faith. They are tools that the individual tries to use in their own life.


Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia.

Mahayana Buddhism is not a single group but a collection of Buddhist traditions: Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

Theravada and Mahayana are both rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha, and both emphasise the individual search for liberation from the cycle of samsara (birth, death, rebirth...). The methods or practices for doing that, however, can be very different.

The Bodhisattva

Mahayana talks a great deal about the bodhisattva (the 'enlightenment being') as being the ideal way for a Buddhist to live.

Anyone can embark on the bodhisattva path. This is a way of life, a way of selflessness; it is a deep wish for all beings, no matter who they are, to be liberated from suffering.

The Boddhisattva Vow

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.

However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

The Trikaya - the three bodies of Buddha

Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya):

Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent - he is the same thing as the ultimate truth.

Sambhogakaya: Buddha's body of bliss, or enjoyment body.

Nirmanakaya: Buddha's earthly body - just like any other human being's body.



Pure Land Buddhism offers a way to enlightenment for people who can't handle the subtleties of meditation, endure long rituals, or just live especially good lives.

The essential practice in Pure Land Buddhism is the chanting of the name of Amitabha Buddha with total concentration, trusting that one will be reborn in the Pure Land, a place where it is much easier for a being to work towards enlightenment.

Pure Land Buddhism adds mystical elements to the basic Buddhist teachings which make those teachings easier (and more comforting) to work with.

These elements include faith and trust and a personal relationship with Amitabha Buddha, who is regarded by Pure Land Buddhists as a sort of saviour; and belief in the Pure Land, a place which provides a stepping stone towards enlightenment and liberation.

Pure Land Buddhism is particularly popular in China and Japan.


Pure Land Buddhism as a school of Buddhist thinking began in India around the 2nd century BCE.

It spread to China where there was a strong cult of Amitabha by the 2nd century CE, and then spread to Japan around the 6th century CE.

Pure Land Buddhism received a major boost to its popularity in the 12th century with the simplifications made by Honen.

A century later Shinran (1173-1262), a disciple of Honen, brought a new understanding of the Pure Land ideas, and this became the foundation of the Shin (true) sect.

Pure Land Buddhism took off in Japan when the monk Honen (1133-1212) simplified the teachings and practices of the sect so that anyone could cope with them.

He eliminated the intellectual difficulties and complex meditation practices used by other schools of Buddhism.

Honen taught that rebirth in the Pure Land was certain for anyone who recited the name with complete trust and sincerity. Honen said that all that was needed was...

"saying "Namu Amida Butsu" with a conviction that by saying it one will certainly attain birth in the Pure Land."
The result was a form of Buddhism accessible to anyone, even if they were illiterate or stupid.

Honen didn't simplify Buddhism through a patronising attitude to inferior people. He believed that most people, and he included himself, could not achieve liberation through any of their own activities. The only way to achieve buddhahood was through the help of Amitabha.

The Shin Sect

A century after Honan, one of his disciples Shinran (1173-1262) brought a new understanding of the Pure Land ideas. Shinran taught that what truly mattered was not the chanting of the name but faith. Chanting on its own had no value at all.

Those who follow the Shin school say that liberation is the consequence of a person achieving genuine faith in Amitabha Buddha and his vow to save all beings who trusted in him.


The Pure Land sect emphasises the important role played in liberation by Amitabha (which means Immeasurable Light) who is also called Amitayus (which means Immeasurable Life).

People who sincerely call on Amitabha for help will be reborn in Sukhavati - The Pure Land or The Western Paradise - where there are no distractions and where they can continue to work towards liberation under the most favourable conditions.

The nature of Amitabha is not entirely clear. Encyclopedia Britannica describes him as "the great saviour deity worshiped principally by members of the Pure Land sect in Japan." Another writer says "Amitabha is neither a God who punishes and rewards, gives mercy or imposes tests, nor a divinity that we can petition or beg for special favours".

The mystical view of Amitabha regards him as an eternal Buddha, and believes that he manifested himself in human history as Gautama, or "The Buddha".

Amitabha translates as "Amito-fo" in Chinese and "Amida" in Japanese.

The story of Amitabha

Once there was a king who was so deeply moved by the suffering of beings in the world that he gave up his throne and became a monk named Dharmakara.

Dharmakara was heavily influenced by the 81st Buddha and vowed to become a Buddha himself, with the aim of creating a Buddha-land that would be free of all limitations.

He meditated at length on other Buddha-lands and set down what he learned in 48 vows. Eventually he achieved enlightenment and became Amitabha Buddha and established his Buddha-land of Sukhavati.

His most important vow was the 18th, which said:

"If I were to become a Buddha, and people, hearing my Name, have faith and joy and recite it for even ten times, but are not born into my Pure Land, may I not gain enlightenment."
Since he did gain enlightenment, it follows that those who do have faith and joy and who recite his name will be born into the Pure Land.


This means concentration on Buddha and his virtues, or recitation of the Buddha's name.

No special way of reciting the name is laid down. It can be done silently or aloud, alone or in a group and with or without musical accompaniment. The important thing is to chant the name single-mindedly, while sincerely wishing to be reborn in the Pure Land.


The Pure Land scriptures include The Infinite Life Sutra, The Contemplation Sutra and The Amitabha Sutra.


Chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha does not do anything at all to help the person to the Pure Land. Chanting is nothing more than an expression of gratitude to Amitabha Buddha and an expression of the chanter's faith.

But it's not possible to do away with the chanting: Shinran wrote "the True Faith is necessarily accompanied by the utterance of the Name".


Shin Buddhists say that faith in Amitabha Buddha is not something that the believer should take the credit for since it's not something that the believer does for themselves. Their faith is a gift from Amitabha Buddha.

And in keeping with this style of humility, Shin Buddhists don't accept the idea that beings can earn merit for themselves by their own acts; neither good deeds, nor performing rituals help.

This has huge moral implications in that it implies (and Shinran quite explicitly said) that a sinner with faith will be made welcome in the Pure Land - even more welcome than a good man who has faith and pride.


The sect's teachings brought it huge popularity in Japan, since here was a form of Buddhism that didn't require a person to be clever, or a monk, and that was open to the outcasts of society.

It remains a popular group in Buddhism - and the reasons that made it popular 700 years ago are exactly the same ones that make it popular today.

A new understanding

On the surface Pure Land Buddhism seems to have moved a very long way from the basic Buddhist ideas, and it's important to see how it might actually fit in. The way to do this is to tackle each issue and see what's really going on.

Amitabha Buddha is treated as if he were God.
On the surface, yes. But perhaps chanting Amitabha Buddha's name is not praying to an external deity, but really a way of calling out one's own essential Buddha nature. However some of Shinran's writings do speak of Amitabha Buddha in language that a westerner would regard as describing God.

The Pure Land appears to be a supernatural place.
On the surface, yes. But perhaps the Pure Land is really a poetic metaphor for a higher state of consciousness. Chanting the name can then be seen as a meditative practice that enables the follower to alter their state of mind. (This argument is quite hard to sustain in the face of the importance given to chanting the name in faith at the moment of death - when some supernatural event is clearly expected by most followers. And the chanting is not regarded solely as a meditative practice by most followers. However gaps between populist and sophisticated understanding of religious concepts are common in all faiths.)

There is no reliance on the self to achieve enlightenment.
On the surface, yes. But in fact this is just a further move in the direction that Mahayana Buddhism has already taken to allow assistance in the journey to liberation. And the being still has much work to do when they arrive in the Pure Land. (Shinran however taught that arriving in the Pure Land was actually the final liberation - the Pure Land was nirvana.)



Tibetan monastery
Tibetan Buddhism is a religion in exile, forced from its homeland when Tibet was conquered by the Chinese. At one time it was thought that 1 in 6 Tibetan men were Buddhist monks.

The best known face of Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since he fled Chinese occupation of his country in 1959.

Tibetan Buddhism combines the essential teachings of Mahayana Buddhism with Tantric and Shamanic, and material from an ancient Tibetan religion called Bon.

Although Tibetan Buddhism is often thought to be identical with Vajrayana Buddhism, they are not identical - Vajrayana is taught in Tibetan Buddhism together with the other vehicles.


Buddhism became a major presence in Tibet towards the end of the 8th century CE. It was brought from India at the invitation of the Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen, who invited two Buddhist masters to Tibet and had important Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan.

First to come was Shantarakshita, abbot of Nalanda in India, who built the first monastery in Tibet. He was followed by Padmasambhava, who came to use his wisdom and power to overcome "spiritual" forces that were stopping work on the new monastery.

Groups within Tibetan Buddhism

Nyingmapa: Founded by Padmasambhava, this is oldest sect, noted in the West for the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Kagyupa: Founded by Tilopa [988-1069), the Kagyupa tradition is headed by the Karmapa Lama. Important Kagyupa teachers include Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa.

Sakyapa: Created by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034-1102) and his son Gunga Nyingpo (1092-1158).

Gelugpa: (The Virtuous School) Founded by Tsong Khapa Lobsang Drakpa (also called Je Rinpoche) (1357 - 1419), this tradition is headed by the Dalai Lama.

Special features of Tibetan Buddhism

the status of the teacher or "Lama"

preoccupation with the relationship between life and death

important role of rituals and initiations

rich visual symbolism

elements of earlier Tibetan faiths

mantras and meditation practice
Tibetan Buddhist practice features a number of rituals, and spiritual practices such as the use of mantras and yogic techniques.

Supernatural beings are prominent in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhas and bodhisattvas abound, gods and spirits taken from earlier Tibetan religions continue to be taken seriously. Bodhisattvas are portrayed as both benevolent godlike figures and wrathful deities.

This metaphysical context has allowed Tibetan Buddhism to develop a strong artistic tradition, and paintings and other graphics are used as aids to understanding at all levels of society.

Visual aids to understanding are very common in Tibetan Buddhism - pictures, structures of various sorts and public prayer wheels and flags provide an ever-present reminder of the spiritual domain in the physical world.

Tibetan Buddhism is strong in both monastic communities and among lay people.

The lay version has a strong emphasis on outwardly religious activities rather than the inner spiritual life: there is much ritual practice at temples, pilgrimage is popular - often including many prostrations, and prayers are repeated over and over - with the use of personal or public prayer wheels and flags. There are many festivals, and funerals are very important ceremonies.

Lay people provide physical support to the monasteries as well as relying on the monks to organise the rituals.


A lama is a teacher. They are often a senior member of a monastic community - a monk or a nun - but lay people and married people can also be lamas. They are very often reincarnations of previous lamas.

As well as being learned in Buddhist texts and philosophy, lamas often have particular skills in ritual.

The Dalai Lama

"Dalai" is a Mongol word meaning "ocean", and refers to the depth of the Dalai Lama's wisdom.

The first Dalai Lama to bear the title was the 3rd Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso. (The two previous incarnations were named "Dalai Lama" after their deaths.)

The current Dalai Lama (2002), Tenzin Gyatso, was born in Amdo, Tibet in 1935 and is the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The Karmapa Lama

"Karmapa" means "one who performs the activity of a Buddha". The current incarnation (2002) is the 17th Karmapa, H.H. XVII Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje.


Tibetan Buddhism was much influenced by Tantra, and this has brought in a wealth of complex rituals and symbols and techniques.

Tantra originated in India and appears in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It brings Tibetan Buddhism a magical element and a rich portfolio of heavenly beings. It also brings a wide variety of spiritual techniques such as mantras, mandalas, ceremonies, and many varieties of yoga.


Rituals and simple spiritual practices such as mantras are popular with lay Tibetan Buddhists. They include prostrations, making offerings to statues of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, attending public teachings and ceremonies.

Tibetan temple ceremonies are often noisy and visually striking, with brass instruments, cymbals and gongs, and musical and impressive chanting by formally dressed monks. It takes place in strikingly designed temples and monasteries.

Advanced Practices

Tibetan Buddhism also involves many advanced rituals. These are only possible for those who have reached a sophisticated understanding of spiritual practice.

There are also advanced spiritual techniques. These include elaborate visualisations and demanding meditations. It's said that senior Tibetan yoga adepts can achieve much greater control over the body than other human beings, and are able to control their body temperature, heart rate and other normally automatic functions.


A mantra is a word, a syllable, a phrase or a short prayer that is spoken once or repeated over and over again (either aloud or in a person's head) and that is thought to have a profound spiritual effect on the person.

It's common to use prayer beads to mark the number of repetitions of a mantra.

Mantras may also be displayed on a prayer wheel and repeated by spinning the wheel, or written on a prayer flag - in which case the prayer is repeated each time the flag moves in the wind.

Prayer wheels can be tiny things that a Buddhist carries with them or enormous objects up to nine feet high found in monasteries.

These physical prayer devices are very common in Tibetan Buddhist communities.

A very well known mantra is the mantra of Avalokiteshvara: om mani padme hum. This is sometimes said to mean "Behold! The jewel in the lotus!", but this translation isn't much help - the phrase isn't really translatable because of the richness of meaning and symbolism it contains.


One of the richest visual objects in Tibetan Buddhism is the mandala.

A mandala is a symbolic picture of the universe. It can be a painting on a wall or scroll, created in coloured sands on a table, or be a visualisation in the mind of a very skilled adept.

Living and dying

Tibetan Buddhism emphasises awareness of death and impermanence. Everything is always dying - the cells of our bodies are dying even while we live, reminding us of our own impermanence. And all the living things around us are dying, too.

This awareness should not produce sadness or despair, nor should it cause a Buddhist to start a frantic pursuit of the impermanent pleasures of life. Instead, it should lead the Buddhist to see the value of every moment of existence, and be diligent in their meditation and other religious practice.

Awareness of death, combined with the understanding of the impermanence of everything, leads the Buddhist to realise that only spiritual things have any lasting value.

Preparing for death

Tibetan Buddhists use visualisation meditations and other exercises to imagine death and prepare for the bardo. They work towards a holistic understanding and acceptance of death as an inevitable part of their journey.

Another way of preparing for death is to take part in helping those who have died through their experience in the bardo. This not only aids the dead, but enables the living practitioner to gain a real experience of the bardo, before they themselves enter it.

Even those who cannot gain the spiritual awareness to have a consciousness of the bardo are helped by achieving a greater experience of the impermanence of everything.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

This is one of the great texts of Tibetan Buddhism, and a big seller in the west. The English title is not a translation of the Tibetan title - the book's true name is Great Liberation through hearing during the intermediate state, commonly known in Tibet as Liberation through hearing.

The book deals with the experiences of a person as they pass between death and rebirth.


Bardo is the state between death and rebirth. The different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have different understandings of this state which is regarded as lasting for 49 days.

The experience of a person during bardo depends on their spiritual training during life. An untrained person is thought to be confused as to where they are, and may not realise that they have died. People are often unwilling to give up attachment to their previous life - and their negative emotions may cause their rebirth to be less good than it would otherwise have been.

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, the dead person is helped through bardo by a lama who reads prayers and performs rituals from the Book of the Dead, advising the deceased to break free from attachment to their past life and their dead body. In some schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the lama will actively help the dead person to transfer their consciousness from their body, in preparation for rebirth.

Many Tibetan Buddhists believe that it is possible for those left behind to assist the dead person on their journey by doing spiritual work that increases the merits of the deceased and thus helps them to a better rebirth.

During the 49 day period the dead can see clearly into the minds of those left behind, which allows the living to help the dead by thinking good thoughts, meditating on Buddha and other virtuous beings, and engaging in spiritual practices.



Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It began in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century.

The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought, or language.

Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and are often used, for example, by Christians seeking a mystical understanding of their faith.

Read about various methods of practising Zen

Zen often seems paradoxical - it requires an intense discipline which, when practised properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.

"Zen" - the word

"Zen" is the way the Chinese word "Ch'an" is pronounced in Japan. "Ch'an" is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word "Dhyana", which means (more or less) meditation.

Zen - the essence and the difficulty

Christmas Humphreys, one of the leading poineers in the history of Buddhism in Britain, wrote that "Zen is a subject extremely easy to misunderstand." He was right.

Zen is something a person does. It's not a concept that can be described in words.

Despite that, we'll use words on this site to help you get some idea of what Zen is about. But always remember, Zen does not depend on words - you have to experience it in order to "understand" it.

Enlightenment is inside

The essence of Zen Buddhism is that all human beings are Buddha, and that all they have to do is to discover that truth for themselves.

All beings by nature are Buddhas, as ice by nature is water. Apart from water there is no ice; apart from beings, no Buddhas.
Hakuin Ekaku
You who are reading this now are Buddha. Just find out the truth of your own true nature...

Zen sends us looking inside us for enlightenment. There's no need to search outside ourselves for the answers; we can find the answers in the same place that we found the questions.

Human beings can't learn this truth by philosophising or rational thought, nor by studying scriptures, taking part in worship rites and rituals or many of the other things that people think religious people do.

The first step is to control our minds through meditation and other techniques that involve mind and body; to give up logical thinking and avoid getting trapped in a spider's web of words.


Zen Buddhism was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE. It was called Ch'an in China.

Zen's golden age began with the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), and ended with the persecution of Buddhism in China in the middle of the 9th century CE.

Most of those we think of today as the great Zen masters came from this period.

Zen Buddhism survived the persecution though it was never the same again in China.

Zen spread to Korea in the 7th century CE and to Japan in the 12th century CE.

Zen Buddhism was popularised in the West by the Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870 - 1966); although it was found in the West before that.

Zen in its own words

"A special transmission outside the scriptures Without reliance on words or letters Directly pointing to the heart of humanity Seeing into one's own nature. "
Clues to the meaning of Zen

Because Zen is so hard to explain we're going to offer you a series of paragraphs that may help you get an idea of it:

The essence of Zen Buddhism is achieving enlightenment by seeing one's original mind (or original nature) directly; without the intervention of the intellect.
Zen is big on intuitive understanding, on just "getting it", and not so hot on philosophising.
Zen is concerned with what actually is rather than what we think or feel about what is.
Zen is concerned with things as they are, without trying to interpret them.
Zen points to something before thinking, before all your ideas.
The key to Buddhahood in Zen is simply self-knowledge.
To be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature – true human nature.
Zen is simply to be completely alive.
Zen is short for Zen Buddhism. It is sometimes called a religion and sometimes called a philosophy. Choose whichever term you prefer; it simply doesn't matter.
Zen is not a philosophy or a religion.
Zen tries to free the mind from the slavery of words and the constriction of logic.
Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom.
Zen is meditation.




Buddhism is highly significant in Korea. The latest figures (1991) show 26 Buddhist sects and 9,231 temples with more than 11 million followers in Korea.

The largest Son sect today in Korea is the Chogye Order which includes about 90% of Korean Buddhists.

The name `Chogye' is significant in that it was named after the mountain in south China where the great Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, had his temple. Koreans say that their tradition is derived directly from Hui-neng.


Buddhism arrived in Korea in the 4th century CE. It spread widely and became the state religion when the three kingdoms that made up the country were united in 688 CE.

Son was introduced there in approximately the 7th century CE by a Korean monk named Pomnang, said to have studied under the fourth Chinese patriarch, but little is known of him or of these early times.

During the 9th century CE, Son Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism in Korea as a result of a steady stream of Korean masters going to China to study Ch'an Buddhism and returning to Korea to teach.

The 13th century monk Chinul

One of the most outstanding figures in the history of Son was a man by the name of Chinul.

As a young monk he passed examinations necessary to bring him into the monastic hierarchy, but rejected such a lifestyle and instead retreated to the mountains. He devoted himself to study and contemplation, deeply penetrating the Buddhist texts.

In 1190, at the age of 32, Chinul formed a community called the Concentration and Wisdom Community which remained together in retreat for 7 years. Gradually, other monks joined him attracted by the seriousness of the group.

The community grew and moved to a place (later renamed Mount Chogye) in about 1200 CE, enlarging a small hermitage into a monastery complex. This temple, Songgwang Sa, exists to this day as an active and thriving Son community.

Buddhism retreats

Son remained significant in Korea until 1392 CE, when a revolt replaced the pro-Buddhist government with one that favoured Confucianism and regarded Buddhism as an un-Korean influence.

Buddhists were still allowed to practise, but official oppression drove them from the centres of power into remote mountain monasteries, changing Buddhism in Korea from a people's religion into a largely monastic practice.

This also changed the nature of Buddhism, and the Son tradition moved away from textual study to focusing on meditation practice with the aim of reaching the same state that the Buddha had reached.

The essence of Son

The following hints at the Buddha's truth to which they aspired:

"Heaven and earth cannot cover its body, mountains and rivers cannot hide its light. Nothing of it accumulates on the outside or the inside. Even the 80,000 texts cannot contain or make a record of it. No scholar can describe it, the intellectuals cannot know it, the literati and writers cannot recognise it. Even to talk about it is a mistake, to think about it is an error."
Nevertheless, Son Buddhists see a basic unity between truth as described in Buddhist doctrine and truth as experienced through meditation. In other words, they find the true meaning of the texts through personal experience.

Son Buddhism focuses on the enlightenment of a sudden awakening, but even if a person achieves the realisation that they are innately Buddha, that doesn't mean they cease to practise. On the contrary, the sentiment is "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual practise" -- the practice of enlightenment, or of being Awakened.