Please note that i have no idea about what Zen is, and I mean no disrespect to anybody with this question.

I have heard these words "Zen Buddhism", many times, and I'm curious: why it is called or attached to Buddhism, and how did it come to be?

Can someone explain?

4 Answers 4


'Zen' is the Japanese name of the school of Buddhism that originated in China around the 5th century AC, called (in Chinese) Chan Buddhism, and whose founder is thought to be Master Bodhidharma, an Indian monk. Later, in the XIIIth century, Master Dogen introduced this species of Buddhism into Japan, where it is mostly practiced today, alongide with the USA and Europe.

It is a form of Buddhism because, among other things, it acknowledges the Way of the Buddha as a way to Awakening; because there is a traceable heritage that links today's Zen Masters with the historical Buddha; and because it emphasizes the practice of sitting meditation ('Zazen') as a way to achieve 'Satori', the Awakening.

There are various schools among the Zen tradition, but the more important today are the Soto and the Rinzai schools. Each of these schools emphasizes different aspects of the Buddhist heritage, and though their ceremonies and mindsettings somewhat diverge, they converge in the emphasis they make on Zazen as a practice that provides, when constantly and earnestly taken upon, an insight into the nature of the Self and the ultimate unsubstantiality of reality.


I think the history is that at some point, people in China began to hear of "Buddhism".

From China it eventually moved/migrated to Japan (where it's called "Zen"). There were/are several schools or sects in Japan. My (not well-informed) impression is that an emphasis on meditation (or "sitting") might be partly in reaction/opposition to sectarian arguing over doctrine and intellectualisation.

As well as Japan, Zen also exists in Korea and Vietnam.

Some of the first Buddhists to arrive in the USA were Zen school, and "Zen" might be better known (I don't mean "well known", but known in the sense that "a lot of people will have at least heard of it") in Western popular culture than, for example, Theravada.

For example among the popular books on Zen that I read quite a while ago, The Three Pillars of Zen and Zen Flesh Zen Bones (both of which helped to popularize Japanese Zen).

One of the popular foundations in the West at the moment is Plum Village whose founder is, I read, from Vietnamese Zen.

And to try to begin to answer "Why is it called Buddhism?" there's Lineage and Dharma transmission .

I think that in theory or traditionally that's understood as an unbroken chain of transmission of Dharma from teacher to student, a chain going back to the earliest teachers and the Buddha himself. The historical reality might be more complicated than that. Even so I think there's an emphasis on studying with (learning from) a living and relatively enlightened teacher, perhaps instead of an emphasis (or an exclusive emphasis) on studying the earliest texts (e.g. the Pali suttas or the Chinese Agamas).

As well as suttas there's also the Vinaya which (I read) is apparently followed within some schools of Zen and not others.


'Zen' is a Japanese word from the Chinese 'chaan', which is from the Sanskrit 'dhyana' & the Pali 'jhana'. Thus, 'Zen' means 'meditative absorption' & refers to a school of Buddhism with a primary focus on meditation.

Zen is how Buddhism came to be after a long & centuries long journey across Asia to Japan.

Zen is generally included within 'Mahayana Buddhism' however, in my opinion, it is more 'Hinayana' ('individual focused') than Theravada (which has many teachings for laypeople).


the very thorough explanation of what Zen is:

  • This answer is presumably a reference to that-which-is-wordless being an aspect of Zen, see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flower_Sermon
    – ChrisW
    Aug 9, 2016 at 12:13
  • 1
    well, there is another one but, there is no way to use Keisaku via network =)
    – 2plusTwo
    Aug 9, 2016 at 13:44
  • Admin comments like that just further degrade the already horrible representation of Buddhism on this site. It is clear that the admins are only interested in the regurgitation of meaningless words rather than the fostering of real spiritual growth. Perhaps before making silly comments they should try to understand the topic themselves? Hmm?
    – Cameron
    Aug 11, 2016 at 6:45
  • @Cameron Two questions: 1) Is this a topic you want to start on Meta? There are already some topics e.g. this, also this. 2) Suppose an admin (or other user) were in some remote place (i.e. not near a Zen teacher), and not already acquainted with Zen. Can you suggest what they should do to "try to understand the topic themselves"?
    – ChrisW
    Aug 11, 2016 at 8:12

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