When the Chinese mind came in contact with Indian thought in the form of Buddhism, around the first century A.D., two parallel developments took place. On the one hand, the translation of the Buddhist sutras stimulated Chinese thinkers and led them to interpret the teachings of the Indian Buddha in the light of their own philosophies. This arose an immensely fruitful exchange of ideas which culminated, as already mentioned, in the Hua-yen (Sanskrit:Avatamsaka) school of Buddhism in China and in the Kegon school in Japan.
On the other hand, the pragmatic side of the Chinese mentality responded to the impact of Indian Buddhism by concentrating on its practical aspects and developing them into a special kind of spiritual discipline which was given the name Ch’an, a word usually translated as meditation. This Ch’an philosophy was eventually adopted by Japan, around A.D. 1200, and has been cultivated there, under the name of Zen, as a living tradition up to the present day.
Zen is thus a unique blend of the philosophies and idiosyncrasies of three different cultures. It is a way of life which is typically Japanese, and yet it reflects the mysticism of India, the Taoists’ love of naturalness and spontaneity and the thorough pragmatism of the Confucian mind.
In spite of its rather special character, Zen is purely Buddhistic. In its essence, because its aim in no other than that of the Buddha himself: the attainment of enlightenment, an experience known in Zen as satori. The enlightenment experience is the essence of all schools of Eastern philosophy, but Zen is unique in that it concentrates exclusively on this experience and is not interested in any further interpretations. In the words of Suzuki, ‘Zen is discipline in enlightenment.’ From the standard point of Zen, the awakening of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching that everybody has the potential of attaining this awakening are the essence of Buddhism. The rest of the doctrine, as expounded in the voluminous sutras, is seen as supplementary. The experience of Zen is thus the experience of satori, and since this experience, ultimately, transcends all categories of thought, Zen is not interested in any abstraction or conceptualization. It has no special doctrine or philosophy, no formal creeds or dogmas, and it asserts that this freedom from all fixed beliefs makes it truly spiritual.
More than any other school of Eastern mysticism, Zen is convinced that words can never express the ultimate truth. It must have inherited this conviction from Taoism, which showed the same uncompromising attitude. ‘If one asks about the Tao and another answers him,’ said Chuang Tzu, ‘neither of them knows it.’