Essentially, “zen” that is established/shared stands to be more derivative and even degenerative rather than original. Derivative practices serve social/psychological perceptions rather than the original intent that challenges social/psychological perceptions, and can even degenerate into negative, exclusive vs. inclusive, practices.
Buddhist sects associated with “Zen” prioritize a “radical dismissal for the need for intermediaries—whether Indian texts, local religious adepts, or supramundane bodhisattvas.”* This grows out of a sense of the practice as “demonstration—not explanation” that advocates a personal and direct experience of the awakening experience that is credited to Siddhartha Gautama, “outside the teachings.”*
The written record of the words of Siddhartha comes after centuries of oral tradition that reinterpret the original experience in not just one way but in diverse Buddhist orthodoxies and diverse schools within those orthodoxies. How much Siddhartha literally said and how much others interpreted and embellished and how much was favored and how much was lost tends to suggest that there is nothing reliably coming directly from Siddhartha. Even centuries later by the time of Hui-neng, when Indian sutras were being diligently copied, the historical accuracy of his Platform Sutra is debated.*
The record of the original experience of Siddhartha is cultural lore, not fact. And lore has the sweetness of accommodation that has allowed Buddhism to spread. “Accommodation” [i.e., comfort/familiarity] equates with melding with pre-existing cultural values or political values of the time that supported it. Pre-Siddhartha Indo-Asian orientations such as karma, reincarnation, nirvana and dominant cultural mores were added to post-Siddhartha cultural values in the outspread in Asia such as ancestry, literacy, and the value of communal/societal/familial connection.
Paradoxically, there may be more written about Zen that favored demonstration rather than explanation than about other Buddhist sects. In its many cultural expressions, “zen,” being “outside the teachings” raises sutras to “canonical status.”* And as lore rather than “history,” Zen practice embellishes and favors. The foundational, “rock-solid” genealogy of specific transmission from patriarch to patriarch is not rock-solid, not coherent for centuries after Siddhartha and then for centuries after Bodhidharma.* Perhaps most bothersome is the attribution of special birth and magical/psychic powers to Siddhartha and subsequent patriarchs and the God-like reverence to his image when, paradoxically, his awakening deals with seeing a true nature that experiences interpenetration rather than personhood.
Whether generally Buddhist or specifically Zen sect, culture tends to reboot Siddhartha’s experience to an individual self-nature that survives individual death. Meditation, clothing and images and Zen aesthetics become distinctive and “correct practice.”
In established centers, practices of Zen Buddhism are typically appealing when they address psychological and social suffering, offering simplicity and calmness that can distract from and even obstruct realization. Meditation and social gathering and social action may become a system of social support than self-realization, even incorporating aspects that have nothing to do with Buddhism, such as appeasement of traditions of folk demons or prophesy that fund built structures and priests in Japan and contemporary global activities that link Zen with activities such as writing, yoga, diet, and daily habits.
Siddhartha’s awakening experience offers the resolution of a deeper existential suffering, involving the direct experience of all as true body, experiencing ultimate (yet everyday) reality, where there is no Buddha, no birth/death.
Buddhism has housed Zen through centuries, but Siddhartha’s awakening experience is not unique to Buddhism. That experience is a dimension of human experience that precedes Siddhartha. Zen pops up from time to time when someone breaks through broad cultural barriers to awaken, including rather extensive barriers present in Buddhist practice. Zen involves “an awareness that does not rely on anything.”*