Zen is to Buddhism what yoga is to Hinduism. Buddha, the enlightened one, struggled long and apparently hard to attain his enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Buddha Gaya. His story, and that of his faith, is an interesting one, born from a disenchantment with his own religion, Hinduism. It contains an episode in the life of Buddha that is common to many religions. Son of a minor Rajah in Nepal, Buddha married a local princess and led a sheltered life. This is said to have been so because his father had heard from a soothsayer that his son would renounce the world. One day when out in the country he came for the first time among the poor and needy. Indeed, he met for the first time an old decrepit and sick man, and viewed a corpse. Such was his devastation when confronted with this experience of human mortality that Buddha forsook the world and went out alone to seek the meaning of life. Eventually he founded Buddhism.
When dying as an old man of 80, Buddha’s last words to his disciples were reminiscent of those uttered elsewhere in the history of religion, and one would think that they might seem unlikely to inspire the uninitiated: ‘Behold now brethren, decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence! Be a light unto yourselves, for there is no other light.
One of the things that Buddha tried to lose from his Hindu background in his search for truth was the Hindu emphasis on mystic trance. Nevertheless, his enlightenment and illumination came to him in a state of ‘abstraction’ (the relaxation response). This arose from a new rapport with Nature in which he saw that only by a destruction of a craving for life itself could sorrow and anguish be extinguished and a personal quietude obtained.
When Buddha died the Buddhist faith developed along different paths in different countries. One such path led to the concept of Zen, which means contemplation. Zen, which disclaims the canonical books of the rest of Buddhism, inspired the inhabitants of Japan, a country which today is strong in Zen Buddhism.
Zen is a form of self-contemplation. Probably the best-known apostle of Zen in the Western world was the late Judge Christmas Humphreys. In an attempt to explain Zen in a few words he was at pains to dissociate it from the classical ‘meditation schools, which he felt gave the impression of severe passivity. Instead he stressed the strenuous nature of work in a Zen monastery necessary for the ‘breaking down of the bars of the intellect so that the mind may be freed for the light of the Enlightenment. Even the ‘hours of meditation are intensely strenuous, Judge Humphreys emphasized.
Zen Buddhism is an intricate process, in which activity and a transcendental state known as satori are combined. In essence, satori is a formalized and carefully controlled form of breathing, and so we see once again the link between breath control (pendulum breathing) and the control of other physiological and emotional systems that are otherwise thought to be outside conscious control – or are part of the autonomic nervous system. Clearly, disciples of Zen experience the relaxation response, and with it, as Christmas Humphreys said, ‘a sense of certainty, of serenity, of clarity, and of unity with Nature and the Universe abound’ that is both intensely satisfying and therapeutic.