This answer was thought to be Zen-inspired:

Yes it's wrong. Throw away your statues and burn your dharma books.

Zen has a reputation for being a bit iconoclastic.

But perhaps it is somehow based on dharma or suttas (see e.g. Publishing the sutras, and Korea has a Tripitaka)?

On the other hand I think I remember one user of this site writing that they had a Zen teacher initially, but didn't understand it so well until later, after they studied the Pali suttas a bit on their own -- as if the Zen were maybe not clear about explaining theory?

Some of the famous recorded dialogs (e.g. "Nothing Exists", or the poem contest which Huineng won) seem to be dhamma discussion -- as if they have learned some dhamma to discuss!

But the few popular modern English introductions to Zen that I might have read don't seem to mention dhamma much -- they talk about Zen customs or methods, like sitting and giving students a koan -- not the four noble truths, not the gradual or the threefold training, not the hindrances nor fetters nor the factors of enlightenment, perhaps not even the traditional story of the Buddha (i.e. the four messengers and his living home).

I think that Thich Nhat Hanh probably talked about the three or four characteristics of existence, at least -- I expect that, impermanence, is maybe a famous item of doctrine in the culture (of traditional Zen countries) at large.

What is Zen doctrine, what might be taught to a novice? Does it depend entirely on what the student might have learned already, no fixed curriculum, based on an interview between the student and the teacher?

Is the elementary dhamma -- e.g. as outlined in What teachings do all schools of Buddhism share? -- instead a body of knowledge which most laypeople would have learned at home or perhaps in elementary school, in countries where Zen is traditional, therefore something which doesn't need to be taught to adult students?

2 Answers 2


I found my way into Buddhism via Zen since the teacher 'who appeared when needed' was a Zen and Taoist practitioner. This was fantastically lucky since Zen cuts straight to the chase and I'm impatient with details. As a lazy person 'just sitting' was right up my street.

I started by reading 'Cultivating the Empty Field', a collection of poetry by Master Hongzhi. The preface and introduction are brilliant and from a philosophical perspective explained all I wanted to know. At the time these were by far the two best and most useful philosophical pieces of writing I had ever read.

The dharma in all its details is not especially important since Zen goes straight the heart of practice. But the situation is deceptive. The teachings and practices of Zen are grounded in the metaphysics of Nagarjuna. Thus Zen is iconoclastic as is Mahayana. Nothing really exists or ever really happens and all our mundane idea have to be knocked-down.

There is very little need for organised teaching. I was advised to sit down and give up everything. That's it really, the core of the method, supported by pondering on koans, the occasional touch of austerities and so on.

I would recommend the aforementioned book as a way into this topic. I have no patience with the 8 levels of this, the 43 levels of that, the 9 stages of the other and so on for to me they are merely didactic devices, albeit valuable where they are helpful. It won't suit everyone, but some prefer to burn their books and leap-frog all that.

I feel Zen is the best approach for anyone coming from scholastic philosophy since it is free of clutter and has an explicit, complete and well-formed metaphysical scheme. Whether it is best for you only you can know. It combines well with other simple-minded approaches like philosophical Taoism (not the later religious Taoism) and Sri Ramana's method of self-enquiry.

You ask what is Zen doctrine. It is the Mahayana doctrine stripped-down to its most-minimal practical essentials. One sits and waits for the dust to settle, and as it does ones realisation grows and life improves. No need to fight tendencies and attachments like a battling saint for they gradually fall away in the silence and peace. Also, koans are an effective method of unsettling ones usual way of thinking and getting to grips intellectually and 'intuitively' with non-duality.

Hope this helps. For more of an answer the question would have to be more specific.


Case 6 The Buddha Holds Out a Flower

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he held out a flower to his listeners.

Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.

The Buddha said, "I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa."

Mumon's Comment

Golden-faced Gautama really disregarded his listeners. He made the good look bad and sold dog's meat labeled as mutton. He himself thought it was wonderful. If, however, everyone in the audience had laughed, how could he have transmitted his True Eye?

And again, if Mahakashyapa had not smiled, how could the Buddha have transmitted it?

If you say the True Dharma Eye can be transmitted, then the golden-faced old man would be a city slicker who cheats the country bumpkin.

If you say it cannot be transmitted, then why did the Buddha approve of Mahakashyapa?

Mumon's Verse

Holding out a flower,
The Buddha betrayed his curly tail.
Heaven and earth were bewildered,
At Mahakashyapa's smile.

If I had a registered account, I'd upvote PeterJ's answer as it is absolutely correct. The only thing I would add is that Zen is entirely interested in personal discovery. The pedagogy that we use is to follow the blind path taken by the Buddha. The Buddha didn't have the dharma to go on. He didn't have the Four Noble Truths or the suttas or the commentaries. Everything he discovered he had to find for himself. That's harder, no doubt about it. But finding those things himself meant that he absolutely saw them - plain as the nose on his face. There were no concepts mediating his experience.

When we come at the way with conceptual baggage - ideas like the factors of enlightenment, the jhanas, the eightfold path, etc. - we invariably and often unwittingly either file our experience away in those little boxes or worse, impose those concepts on our experience. The dharma we are after is our own dharma. Some of it will look like what the Buddha found and taught and some of it will be uniquely our own but all of it will point at the same thing.

Ultimately, there is no teaching. There is only knowing. How we know is uniquely our own. We can hold up a flower or we can order at the Wendy's drive thru. Cheeseburgers can be the unsurpassed true dharma eye and the marvelous mind, and subtle dharma gate. In Zen, we'd say that cheeseburgers are better for waking up than the entire Tripitaka.

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