THERE IS AN unending cord that has come through the ages that had come to be termed “zen.” It has no origin and has presence before the appearance of Siddartha. It has been both strengthened and frayed by human endeavors.
For Siddartha, it was exposed in time spent with the reformist Apanasadists sense of Brahman, and ascetics and Paribbajakas, [H. W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha], and then refined by him as direct knowledge. Centuries later, it was expressed perhaps most lucid in written record of Ch’an where it was also colored by Taoism. The lucidity comes from the written record being closer to the practitioners’ lifespan whereas the written record of Siddartha appeared only through the filter of a multi-path, oral tradition after centuries that had to have expressed various author’s preferences).
Both before and after Siddartha and Ch’an, zen essence was/is frayed by reflecting cultural preferences. Zen can reference many things, even in its longstanding house as a sect of Buddhism, and clearly in myriad associations beyond Buddhism. In Zen Buddhism, Zen can reference practices other than monastic practices such as a “parish temple” Soto Zen system that proliferated to perhaps 17,500 temples in Japan in the 1700’s [Duncan Williams, The Other Side Of Zen]. In this system at that time, Soto Zen was very culturally-accommodating, offering funerary rites, exorcistic rites, faith-healing, inclusion of local folk deities, talismans for longevity and to prevent ailments such as smallpox as well as protect women from the dilemmas of menstruation [leading to their fall after death into Blood Pool Hell]. Gender and class discrimination and military aggression have also been reinforced in modern life [Steven Heine, Zen Skin, Zen Marrow]. The presence of “Gothic” folk deities and lay services continue in contemporary times in Asia and likely appear as more vague motifs in global “universal” practices [to some extent, first, in the presence of Buddhist statuary and secondarily, in their very stylized—almost “Gothic”—appearance rather than a “ Renaissance” likeness to Siddartha, for whom there were no images for centuries].
As with most longstanding religious practices, even in monastic temples in China and Japan, there is the sway across time of becoming culturally derivative and even degenerative and then reformist in an effort to “return” to the original source. In the written record, events may be absent [e.g., Dogen’s possible secondary status in his monastic experience in China] or de-emphasized by later generations [e.g., Dogen’s shift toward suggesting salvation in his later outreach to lay audiences] [Steven Heine, Did Dogen Go To China?]. Dogen is an example because of his extensive written record. As Steven Heine suggests in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow, there is always this tendency to ignore the historical in this literature. In fact, there is an effort to create pseudo-historical myth as fact, as well as carry forward archaic religious aspects such as magical powers and to elevate and venerate historical figures as reality and to find healing powers in their relics, which conflicts with core non-duality.
Still, there is a core experience that sustains and emerges in direct experience. There in an inherent wisdom that senses incompleteness in everyday life, and that senses an ineffable absolute that is vast and yet undistanced and inseparable. And there is a record in the Zen literature (but not exclusive to this literature) that unequivocally points to a direct experience that cannot ultimately be taught. This core experience survives all of the fraying of the cord. Zen practice is not housed in a conformist setting of ritual, scripture and commentary. The hunger to end suffering is to get to reality-as-it-is. As such, it is an inherent or natural process rather than a special process. It comes without agendas such as karma, rebirth and conceptualization. If there is a helpful process, it is that of letting go, nothing to teach.