Half-length Portrait of the Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma

Zen Buddhism

Zen” became a familiar word outside Asia in the 1970s thanks to Robert M. Pirsig’s bestselling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The word is often used colloquially to mean a sense of calmness and unflappable poise.

“I am Zen” is now even found on T-shirts and mugs. Meditation centres and martial arts schools use it in their advertising. 

Zen, in fact, refers to a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in 6th-century China and became widespread in Japan in particular. 

If you want to learn more about Zen Buddhism and why it has become so popular outside Asia, this story will give you the answers – and something to think about!

Bodhidharma Crosses the Yangtze River on a Reed


The Indian monk Bodhidharma is considered to be the founder of Zen Buddhism. Legend has it that he arrived in southern China in the 6th century.

The emperor in China promoted Buddhism in his lands through numerous foundations and was also a generous patron of Buddhist monks and nuns.He invited the famous monk to his court.


Bodhidharma explained to the emperor that none of his gifts would lead to awakening, however. Personal effort and experience alone would ensure his progress along the Buddhist path.

When the emperor reacted with incomprehension, Bodhidharma set out for the north. He sat down and meditated in front of a wall in a cave for nine years.

For many years Bodhidharma had no disciples. He resumed teaching only when a man hoping to study under him cut off an arm and offered it to him to show his determination.


The Beginnings of Zen

This story shows that the path embraced by the Zen School was both new and radical.

The focus of its religious practice was not reverence, rituals, or rules of moral conduct; instead it was personal effort, examination of the mind, and the attainment of insight.

The key exercise in this undertaking was meditation. Its practice even lent the school its name: zen – or chan in Chinese – means meditation.

Zen Garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto, Japan

Zen Today

As part of their day-to-day routine in a Zen monastery, monks and nuns spend much of their time in seated meditation, known as zazen.

All other actions required in the daily routine should also be performed with great concentration and mindfulness. Every task – even gardening, cleaning, and cooking – becomes a form of meditation.

Portrait of the Zen Priest Gemmon Doyu

Zen Buddhism is often described as “a special tradition outside the scriptures” because it does not prioritize long-established rules, and instead emphasizes the personal journey towards insight.

This is why the role of masters is important. They guide their pupils and give them individual, personalized exercises such as those using riddles known as “koans”.

Six Persimmons


Koans are questions or riddles that initially appear nonsensical and unintelligible. They cannot be solved by means of normal, rational thinking, and serve to highlight the limitations of thought and perception, and thus lead to greater insight.

Here is a famous koan devised by the Japanese master Hakuin (1685–1768):

“What does clapping with one hand sound like?”

Zen Priest in a Golden Wrap

It was largely the Japanese philosopher D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) who introduced Europe and North America to Zen Buddhism.

Its strong emphasis on the path of the individual and the novel mediation techniques it offered attracted great interest.

Many of its exercises are also practised in Christian communities as a means of training the mind.  

Today there are various types of Zen schools in Switzerland.

A monk asked: Daitsu Chisho spent three aeons meditating and still did not achieve Buddhahood. Why not?

The master replied: Good question.

The monk said: But he spent so long in meditation, why did he not become a Buddha?

The master replied: Precisely because he spent so long in meditation, he was unable to become one.

Zen Buddhism