Buddhism: Zen and Vajrayana

Mahayana Buddhism itself has split into various forms, two major ones being Zen (in Japan) and Vajrayana (in Tibet).

Zen Buddhism has a very interesting (and as Smith puts it, bizarre at first sight) way of attaining enlightenment. Zen Buddhists believe that reason is limited, for it cannot help us to think about the unseen, spiritual world beyond us.

For Zen, if reason is not a ball and chain, anchoring mind to earth, it is at least a ladder too short to reach to truth’s full heights.

With this idea, they extend this to the limited value of words. As we all know, words cannot fully express how we feel inside, no matter how many metaphors we may use to describe it. Therefore Zen Buddhists reject the notion of using words to describe the true nature of enlightenment. Smith says that even speaking the name Buddha will earn a young novice a slap.

Zen has an interesting form of contemplation. Zazen is seated meditation, in lotus position. Koan is probably the most unique aspect of Zen, as Smith describes in depth its interesting process and aims. Koans are riddles or stories that sound exceptionally illogical and absurd. Smith gives various kinds that will make your head spin. Here’s couple:

A master, Wu Tsu, says, “Let me take an illustration from a fable. A cow passes by a window. Its head, horns, and the four legs all pass by. Why did not the tail pass by?”

What was the appearance of your face before your ancestors were born?

So what is the purpose of using koans in the first place? As I mentioned earlier, Zen Buddhists believe reason and words to be very limiting. By using koans, reason is weakened, torn to pieces. The ultimate goal is to weaken the hold reason has on us. Answering koans is not easy, and requires guidance through a master. Such teaching is called sanzen.

The result of all these processes leads one to kensho, or satori.

Satori is Zen’s version of the mystical experience…brings joy, at-one-ment, and a sense of reality that defines ordinary language…Zen training begins with satori….there must be further satoris as the trainees learns to move with greater freedom in this realm.

Satori is a sudden experience. Using the river analogy, if nirvana is the river, satori is a sudden push from the river, or wave. One who reaches satori must return back to the world and reach more satories. This is in agreement with the larger Mahayana principle of teaching others how to reach nirvana.

Being’s amazingness must be directly realized, and satori is its first discernment. But until – through recognizing the interpenetration and convertibility of all phenomena – its wonder spreads to objects as common as the tree in your backyard and you can perform your daily duties with the understanding that each is equally a manifestation of the infinite, Zen’s business has not been completed.

Kinkaku-ji aka Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple that is actually covered in gold leaf


Vajrayana is known as “the Diamond’s way.” The name originally comes from the thunderbolt that the Hindu god Indra carries. This thunderbolt was changed to the diamond scepter, and is held by Buddha. The main core of Vajrayana is Tantra, which are texts that focus on interrelatedness in the world. It is interested in the forces and energies within us, and how we can channel them to reach nirvana. Smith states that the West’s fascination on sex has led to Tantra being equated with sex. Sex is a very important component of human beings lives, and is highly upheld in Tantra, for it is a way to spiritual ecstasy. But there are other ways, through mediations and chanting that uses rare forms of vocalization. Buddhists also make gestures, imagining the gods, and try to enact them, merge with them.

The Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. He has no doctrinal authority, but he is a figure of compassion for the people, and a guide for those who want to learn.

And thus ends my learning (for now) on the basics of Hinduism and Buddhism. As a Muslim myself, I can relate to their emphasis on letting go of illusion of this world, which is an extremely difficult task. Ultimately, both have similar goals of becoming one with an Infiniteness, but the two religions have different emphasis. Both realize that life has its downs. But why?

Hinduism says we fill our lives with things that ultimately cannot fill our emptiness. We must try to attain the highest good. Buddhism stresses suffering, something that happens to us due to events in our life, such as loss of loved ones and growing old. But there is a way to end suffering. It follow Hinduism’s idea of letting go of the material world.

Next up, I’ll use this newfound knowledge to learn about Ayurvedic medicine!


2 thoughts on “Buddhism: Zen and Vajrayana

  1. Pingback: Satori In Installments | Thoughtrepostrepository

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