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Zen Buddhism Essay

Buddhism has grown from the flowing of a single man in his path to nirvana to a religion that spans the globe and has shaped many cultures. This paper will first present the history of Buddhism and the life of the man known as Buddha. Then, the fundamental teachings of Buddhism will be discussed. Finally, the unique aspects of Zen Buddhism will be examined.

History of Buddhism and Life of Buddha

Although the truths are ultimately unknown, Michael Molloy, in Experiencing the World’s Religions (2013), presented the details of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would come to be known as Buddha. Around 500 B.C.E., Siddhartha was born to a prince of the Shakya tribe in modern day Nepal. Siddhartha’s mother died a week after childbirth, leaving him in the care of a father whom, on the advice of a sage, ensured Siddhartha would leave an extremely sheltered but pleasant life. Upon Siddhartha’s first excursion into the world, he witnessed suffering and was so moved by it that he left home and went in search of a path to enlightenment.

After attempting to gain insight through asceticism, Siddhartha rejected this way as inadequate and sought a path based on moderation instead. Legend speaks of Siddhartha meditating under a tree now knows as a Bodhi tree, resolved to not leave until he had reached the understanding that he sought. At dawn, Siddhartha achieved nirvana or enlightenment and became known as Buddha. Buddhism is a rejection of the Hindu gods, Vedic priesthood, and rituals.

Fundamental Teachings of Buddhism

Among Buddha’s teachings are three primary concepts: The Three Marks of Reality, The Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path. The Three Marks of Reality  Buddha taught that all reality bore three characteristics; Change, No Permanent Identity, and Suffering (Molloy, 2013). Change is the idea that all of reality, every facet and as a whole, is in constant flux, and turmoil. No permanent identity is the belief that all of reality, both living and non-living, has a permanent aspect; that no soul or spirit exists that resists the changes of time. The last mark of reality is suffering, the concept that, because reality is ever changing, all contentment most pass and bring misery in its wake.

The Four Noble Truths

The first truth is that to live is to suffer, meaning that in every stage of life, change will occur and that change will bring suffering and discontent. The second truth is that suffering comes from desire. This truth states that desire, in all of its aspects, binds mankind to illusions that reality will disprove and replace with suffering. The third truth is that to end suffering, one must end desire; that suffering will not cease when all desires are met, only when all desires are extinguished. Lastly, the fourth truth taught by Buddha is that release from suffering is possible and can be attained by following the noble eightfold path (Molloy, 2013). T

he Noble Eightfold Path

According to Molloy (2013), the Noble Eightfold Path is a set of eight practices, taught by Buddha, to allow the follower to “to face life objectively, to live kindly, and to cultivate inner peace” (pg. 134). The first part of the Path is Right Understanding, to recognize and understand the 3 marks of reality. The second part is Right Intention, maintaining a purity of thought and motives, untainted by desires and emotions. The third part of the path is Right Speech, the understanding that what if said can cause harm and that lies, exaggerations, and harsh words must be avoided. The fourth, Right Action, is to remember that there is already enough suffering in the world and that the actions of the follow should not contribute to that pain, even to animals.

The fifth part is Right Work that one’s work does not cause additional suffering, even to one’s self. The sixth, Right Effort, is the understanding that, while maintaining moderation in one’s life, steps to improve should be taken when they can. The seventh step is Right Meditation that the follower uses meditation to examine the depths of reality. Finally, the last part is the Right Contemplation, actively striving to obtain states of blissful inner peace in one’s life. Buddha did not teach that the eight steps were like a ladder, taken one after another, but all at the same times, to lead his followers closer to the state of nirvana.

Zen Buddhism

As the school of Mahayana developed, and traveled to China, it experienced pushback from its complex rituals and ceremonies. This pushback led to the forming of the school of Chan, with a simplification of Buddhist life and focus on singular meditation. As the school of Chan traveled to Japan, it further blended and developed into Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism developed it simplicity by examining the meditation and enlightenment of Buddha directly, and the teaching if Buddha that ritual does not directly lead to enlightenment.

Zen has blended with Japanese society, and culture, influencing thought, art, and expression. Because of the influence of Zen Buddhism, Japanese arts have developed around the ideals of simplicity, practicality, and emptiness. An example of the ideals of Zen Buddhism can be found in the practice of the koan. A koan is a question that cannot be easily answered with logic, meditated on and answered in a way that demonstrated the understanding of the principle lesson of the koan, rather than explaining it (Molloy, 2013).


The paper has examined the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man known as Buddha. Also, the Buddha’s teachings concerning reality and achieving inner peace have been described. Finally, the uniqueness of the school of Zen Buddhism has been explained.

Molloy, M. (2013). Experiencing the world’s religions: Tradition, challenge, and change (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Inc..

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