Why Zen Buddhism is Not True…




(Note: if you are not familiar with basic Buddhist history, my post “A Brief Introduction To Buddhism (Part One):仏教入門” will help the post below make more sense…).

I am often asked why I am not a Zen Buddhist, since I have spent so many years studying Zen in context of Japanese culture – Buddhist history, aesthetics, music, chant, and so on – even after spending a lot of time meditating at actual Soto and Rinzai Zen temples in Japan.

The answer is simple. Zen Buddhism is a fascinating religion, based on several interesting doctrines developed over time as they travelled from ancient India through China (and what would become Korea) to Japan. But it is not without many accompanying historical inconsistences that, to me, negate its efficacy as a vessel of ancient truth(s). Simply put, much of its foundational chronology is not based on fact, or is miscredited: it is simply not true that so and so said X, or that the Buddha said Y. Also, its doctrine is not efficacious; no one has ever been provably enlightened spiritually, ever, in the manner that Zen declares is possible.  The philosophical/religious Quietism of Zen is merely that. But I will focus on the historical for the moment.

I could write a simple refutation of Zen as a unified doctrine, but I think using references will give you a better idea of the basis for my lack of belief – I arrived at my decision as much academically as I did personally after my (mostly positive) experiences with Japanese Zen Buddhism in ‘real time.’

There is still much debate on what constitutes “Zen” or Zen Buddhism, who gets to explicate it, traditionalism vs. historical/cultural criticism and reform – what author Steve Heine describes as traditional Zen narratives (which I will label TZN) versus historical and cultural criticism (what I label HCC) (Heine 2008, 6). TZN argues that Zen is an idealistic, utopian vision of non-dual experience that by its very nature stands beyond contestation due to its indefinable nature and the impossibility of its explication. Its means of expression are merely heuristics (“skillful means”) that are part of its indirect communication through paradox and other literary techniques that point the way to silence as the ultimate truth (6). The HCC standpoint argues that exponents of TZN are apologists deliberately cloaking Zen in a shield of opaqueness for the sake of avoiding or claiming immunity from the scrutiny of historical examination, which would disclose these aforementioned inconsistencies, contradictions, and a number of basic flaws in the character of Zen as a social institution. Heine then states that for them there must be a war of ideas that challenges what is often the “cynical obfuscation and hypocrisy inherent in traditional Zen” (8).


鈴木 大拙

Zen historian and writer D. T. Suzuki stated that the Buddhist teachings of whatever school – Southern/Northern/Eastern, Theravāda or Mahāyāna, Tibetan or Japanese, Indian, Chinese, or South-Asian – all center around the question “What is the “I”?” or rather what is the true self, apart from the “psychological or empirical” ego? (Suzuki 1982b, 32), also stating that the essential discipline of Zen consists in emptying the Self of all its psychological contents (Suzuki 1982a, 15). But originally, the Buddhism set forth by the Buddha (Siddartha Gautama: c. 563-483 BCE) is essentially a practical doctrine, dedicated primarily to the negation of suffering, and the elucidation of philosophical issues is secondary to such concerns (Collinson et al 2000, 74). And as there are no entirely reliable sources for the facts of the Buddha’s life and teachings, we are left with accounts compiled by his followers (ibid: 74), marked by the statement “Thus I have heard…” to distinguish them as such. Written records began to be put together approximately 400 years after his death, and these were taken largely from the recitation of monks and oral pronouncements passed down from the original Buddha’s disciples; unverifiable and often conflicting (ibid: 74). Even The Four Noble Truths, the essential foundation for Siddartha’s Buddhism, does not center on Suzuki’s “I”, but rather the cause and cessation of earthly suffering, release from craving. This central, all-important doctrine does not posit the Self as illusion, or an “I” separate from the ego, but the transcendence that removes primacy from the ego.

Siddartha does not summarily dismiss all pleasure, happiness, and sensation, but rather “points out the transience of such things” (Prebish 1975, 29). Things are impermanent in this transient state, but not an illusion as Suzuki states. And since craving is firmly rooted in the senses, Suzuki’s transcendence would seem to gain no quarter in the doctrine of the original enlightenment of release from a one certain type of ‘sensing’ alone. Indeed, Suzuki’s positing of suffering, daily ego as “false” negates both the original Buddha’s wisdom as well as the possibility for Siddartha having come to a realization of the Four Noble Truths through contemplative reasoning during meditation rather than mystical illumination.

John McRae as well, in his discussion of genealogy in the Chinese Ch’an (Jpn: Zen) Buddhism (the primary source of Japanese Zen) that eventually followed Siddartha’s insights centuries later states in his book Seeing Through Zen (2003) that:

  1. The contents of Zen texts should not be evaluated using a simple-minded criterion of journalistic accuracy, that is, “Did it really happen?” For any event or saying to have occurred would be “a trivial reality involving a mere handful of people at one imagined point in time, which would be overwhelmed by the thousands of people over the centuries who were involved in the creation of Zen legends. The mythopoeic creation of Zen literature implies the religious imagination of the Chinese people” (xix).
  1. Statements of lineage identity and “history” were polemical tools of self-assertion, not critical evaluations of chronological fact according to some modern concept of historical accuracy (xix).
  1. Numbers, dates, and other details lend an air of verisimilitude to a story, but the more they accumulate, the more we should recognize them as literary tropes (xix).
  1. Romanticism breeds cynicism. Storytellers inevitably create heroes and villains, and the depiction of Zen’s early patriarchs and icons cripples our understanding of both the Tang “Golden Age” and the supposedly stagnant formalism of the Song Dynasty (xx).

Considering that the Ch’an schools are the foundation of Japanese Zen sects, and the source of their foundational texts, already we see potential for both formal and non-sectarian misreading and appropriation of scripture, and a variety of ‘creative’ interpretations, such as the positing of Zen as a type of consciousness in the writings of the Kyoto ‘School’ of modern Buddhist thought.

None of the various details of the considered founder (First Patriarch) of Ch’an/Zen, for example, are true in the sense of being “journalistically accurate” (McRae 2003, 26). Rather, it is the overall fabric of creativity within which the Bodhidharma hagiography developed that is most impressive. If we could analytical cross-sections at different points in time, we would see that the members of the Ch’an sect(s) were reformulating Bodhidharma’s identity to fit their own conceptions of religious sainthood in each particular age (27).

The fundamental expression of Zen ideology, long attributed to Bodhidharma in countless Buddhist tracts, histories, and hagiographies, is his statement that Zen is:

A special transmission outside the Scriptures; not to depend upon books or letters; to point direct to the heart of man; to see (one’s own) nature and become Buddha (Pachow 1980, 8).

This statement, long unquestioned as a statement attributable to Bodhidharma, has been proven to be first found in the Tang Dynasty tract Tsu-t’ing shih-yüan (Japan: Sōtei jion) in 1108 AD, and a faint paraphrase of the first two lines of the Lankavatara Sutra (Dumolin 1994, 85/102).

Work by author W. Pachow has also revealed that: (1) Buddhist works and theories on meditation (Skr: dhyāna) translated by An Shih-kao (148-170 C.E) and Chih Yao (185 C.E) were known to the Chinese Buddhists quite early, several centuries before Bodhidharma’s arrival, (2) the tract Biographies of Eminent Buddhist Teachers (Ch: Kao-sêng chuan, 519 C.E) by Hui-chiao includes the names of twenty one dhyāna masters but no mention of Bodhidharma (Ch: Ta-mo), and (3) Bodhidharma is also not mentioned in the Second Series of the Biographies of Eminent Buddhist Teachers (Ch: Hsü kao-sêng chuan, 645 C.E) by Tao-hsüan, even though some of his immediate disciples are. This shows that Bodhidharma, who came to China sometime around 480 C.E is not the founder of dhyāna practices in China and his status as First Patriarch is better understood in light of the political and social machinations of the various Ch’an school/works McRae mentions.

The foundational socio-theological Zen Buddhism via Bodhidharma is not true. It is an invention. This does not mean that it does not have its practical and philosophical uses. And many people have had their lives bettered by the meditational practices associated with Zen. Bodhidharman mythology has delivered this knowledge… meaning that what one seeks and experiences has its rightful (if not arguable) place within a larger context of empirical evidence to the contrary, a context that I stand by.


Collinson, Diané, Kathryn Plant, and Robert Wilkinson. 2000. Fifty Eastern Thinkers. New York: Routledge.

Dumolin, Heinrich. 1994. Zen Buddhism: A History (Volume 1: India and China). Bloomington: World Wisdom.

Heine, Steven. 2008. Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up? New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

McRae, John R. 2003. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pachow, W. 1980. Chinese Buddhism: Aspects of Interaction and Reinterpretation. Lanham: University of America Press.

Prebish, Charles S. 1975. Buddhism: A Modern Perspective. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Suzuki, D.T. 1982a. Self the Unattainable. In The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, pp. 15-21.

Suzuki, D.T. 1982b. What is the “I?” In The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, pp. 31-46.



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