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Japanese Zen

“Zen” is a widely known word overseas, similar to wabi-sabi. Owing to the influence of Steve Jobs, it is one of the Eastern spiritualities that continues to pique the interest of people in the Western world. When you hear the word “Zen,” often the first thing that comes to mind is “Zazen,” or seated meditation. Zen is short for “Zen Buddhism,” originally one of the sects of Mahayana Buddhism. However, because of its emphasis on sitting meditation and calming the mind, Zen is now also applied as a mindfulness practice and is being recognized as such by domestic and international companies as well as individuals. Although it has its origins in Buddhism, Zen can be practiced immediately by simply sitting in meditation, without getting bogged down in philosophical debates over “what is Zen.” This may be one reason why Zen is widely accepted in modern society.

The birth of Zen

Zen is believed to have originated from the teachings of Bodhidharma (known as Daruma in Japan), who was born in South India and brought his teachings to China. Zen later spread to Japan from China, where it became popular during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). In modern times, Zen was further disseminated from Japan to the world, due in part to the efforts of Buddhist scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki who wrote about Zen in English.

There are various sects of Zen, such as Soto and Rinzai, but what they share is the concept of “not relying on words” (furyumonji). Unlike other religions, Zen does not depend on written scriptures, and its main objective is to experience the same enlightenment as the Buddha through the practice of Zazen, or seated meditation. The emphasis on experiential learning has garnered attention not only as religious practice, but also as a way of cultivating one’s daily mindset, gaining support from entrepreneurs and professional athletes, among others.


Japanese Zen

Zen in Japan has been widespread since the Kamakura period (1185-1333), but in addition to its religious aspect, Zen monks have also spread Japanese cultural practices such as tea ceremony and kaiseki cuisine (a traditional multi-course meal showcasing seasonal ingredients). It has thus transcended the framework of religion and has become deeply ingrained in Japanese daily life. Moreover, Japan is known for its beautiful Zen gardens. While the dry landscape garden style known as karesansui is famous, these beautiful gardens have also played a significant role in conveying the principles of Japanese Zen both domestically and internationally, much like churches in Christianity or Buddha statues in Buddhism.

Zen and Japanese art

Zen has also had an influence on Japanese art, including calligraphy, painting, and other forms. Many Zen monks were skilled in painting and calligraphy, and their works include numerous national treasures and important intangible cultural properties. One famous example of a Zen-related work is the “Hyonen-zu,” a designated national treasure ink painting depicting gourds and ayu fish. Another example is the “Daruma-zu,” a powerful painting of Bodhidharma created by the Zen monk Hakuin Ekaku, which is unforgettable once seen.

One of the important elements in Zen paintings is the “enso,” a circular symbol. It is a common subject among many Zen monks’ paintings, with the circular shape representing the idea that there is no beginning or end, but that everything is both a beginning and an end. This concept has become a representation of Zen in paintings.

Zen and Japanese crafts

One famous craft related to Zen is the oryoki, or the Zen monk’s self-contained set of nested eating bowls. It is also called the teppachi and is characterized by its lack of a kodai, or raised foot. Originally, it was made of iron or clay, and the use of wood was strictly prohibited. However, wood coated with lacquer to resemble iron is considered acceptable, and is now commonly used in daily life.

Zen in diverse times

In modern times, Zen is awash in international attention, because as we live in an age of overflowing with goods and information, people increasingly seek to detach themselves from the mundane and focus on the essence of things. Japan, although blessed with four beautiful seasons, is also subject to natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, and from those people have naturally developed a disposition to seek the essence of things amidst constant changes. This is probably why Zen has been able to take root in Japan’s way of life. Thus, the Zen that has been nurtured in Japan is spreading its wings as “Japanese Zen” to the world.

Photo by Takuma Suda
Reference: Daisetz T. Suzuki, What is Zen? (Kadokawa Bunko Sophia).


Yusuke Shibata

Editor in Chief

Yusuke Shibata (born 1981) is CEO and founder of HULS Inc. Based in
Tokyo and Singapore, and specializing in the international promotion of
Japanese crafts, Shibata is experienced in the planning and execution of
both creative and business projects.