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You've heard of Zen; we all have. You may even have had moments of Zen, instances of insight and a feeling of understanding or that unexplained sense that seem to come out of nowhere. But what exactly is Zen?

It is a school of Mahayana Buddism that emerged in China about 15 centuries ago. In China, it is called Chan Buddhism which is the Chinese rendering of Dhyana that refers to a mind absorbed in meditation. Its ultimate aim is to achieve enlightenment and an inner calm through meditation. It is usual to be in a seated or kneeling position sometimes under the guidance of a teacher (or in martial arts, an instructor) using statements to transcend rational normal thought. An example of this is to imagine listening to the sound of one hand clapping or a more comprehensible thought of ripples on water.

Other things to meditate on are paradoxical thoughts such as those written by the revered Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who was born about the year 500 yet are still as relevant today as they were way back then. A couple of examples are, “When you realise there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you” or another, “Freedom from desire leads to inner peace”. Yet another thought provoking quote is “The soul loves to meditate, for in contact with the spirit, lies its greatest joy”. Deep words, but thought provoking.

Zen is the Japanese rendering of Ch'an. In any language, the name could be translated Meditation. Zen is a practice with many traditions. It began to emerge as a distinctive school of Mahayana Buddhism when Bodhidarma (the first known martial artist) taught at the Shaolin Monastery in China. There is a historic connection between martial arts, particularly kung fu, and Zen. Bodhidharma is known as the First Patriarch of Zen. His teachings tapped into some developments already in progress such as the philosophical thoughts related with Buddhism. The West took an interest in Zen after World War II, and now it is well established in North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

Bodhidharma said that Zen is 'direct pointing to the mind.' Understanding is gained through intimate experience, not through intellect or reading about it. Words may be used, but they are used in a presentational way, not a literal way. Wherever Zen has established itself, it has rarely been one of the larger or more popular aspects of Buddhism. The truth is that it's a very difficult path, for some incomprehensible, particularly for non-Buddhists. It is not for everybody. Zen has an impact on art and culture, especially in China and Japan. Beyond kung fu and other martial arts, Zen has influenced painting, poetry, music, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony. Karate has been referred to as moving Zen.

Ultimately, Zen is about coming face-to-face with yourself, getting to know yourself and coming to terms with yourself and your faults and deficiencies in a very direct and intimate way. This is achieved by searching internally, of self- analysis and correction of one’s character and flaws. Through our karate training, from the beginning, we study the Heian kata of which there are five levels. By the time one understands Heian Godan, peaceful mind level five, one should have arrived at the same understanding of oneself, one’s flaws and a better understanding of one’s character and personality.

The search for “Zen” is not an easy one but if you like a challenge, the journey must surely be worthwhile.


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