Guhn Kim


Zen Buddhism represents a movement within the Buddhist religion that emphasizes meditation as the means to enlightenment.  Zen is the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese root word “Chan” which means to meditate.  Through meditation, it is possible to identify the imbalance that exists within our world.  The struggle to be free is constantly hindered by our attachment to live under the social structure that the ruling class has modified over time.  Only by realizing the self, and through gaining the atman, can one then perceive the Brahman.  Compassion comes into your being, and reveals your calling.  Enlightenment follows only if one lives wholeheartedly to abide by his/her calling.

Zen’s roots may be traced to India, but it was in East Asia that the movement became distinct and flourished.  Like other Chinese Buddhist sects, Zen first established itself as a lineage of masters emphasizing the teachings of a particular text, in this case the Lankavatara Sutra.  Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch in China, who is said to have arrived there from India in 470 A.D., was a master of this text.  He also emphasized the practice of contemplative sitting, and legend has it that he himself spent nine years in meditation facing a wall.

Lineages became important, and Zen stressed the master-disciple relationship. Bodhidharma was followed by a series of patriarchs each of whom received the Dharma or religious truth, which is passed down directly from his predecessor and teacher.  Today, this relationship still exists, but with a new air that stresses Zen living.  Gong-An or questions that are mental stumbling blocks asked by the master to his student is a common way to help in attaining enlightenment.

The subsequent history of Zen in China was mixed.  The sect suffered from the great persecution of Buddhism around the year 845.  It recovered better than many Buddhist schools, partly because in contrast to other monastic communities, Zen monks engaged in physical labor.  The idea of “working Zen”, meditating through physical labor to become not attached to worldly actions made them less dependent on the state and drew support from the masses.  During the Song dynasty (960-1279), Zen again prospered and was a leading influence on the development of Chinese art and neo-Confucian culture.

It was during this period that Zen was first established in Japan.  Within 30 years of each other, two Japanese monks, Eisai and Dogen went to China, where they trained respectively in the Linji and Zaodong schools of Zen.  They then introduced Zen to Japan.  Rinzai emphasizes the use of the Kong-an, a mental stumbling block that the student must solve to his masters satisfaction.  Soto lays more stress on seated meditation without conscious striving for a goal, or jazen.  Both schools fostered good relations with the shoguns and became closely associated with the Japanese military class.  The class favored Zen because of its emphasis on discipline.  Rinzai in particular was highly influential during the Ashikaga period (1338-1573), when Zen played an important role in propagating neo-Confucianism and infusing its own unique spirit into Japanese art and culture.

The heart of Zen monasticism is the practice of meditation; it is this feature that has been most popular in Zen’s spread to the West.  Zen meditation highlights the experience of enlightenment, and the possibility of attaining it in this life.  The strict training of Zen monks, the daily physical chores, the constant wrestling with kong-ans, the long hours of sitting in meditation, are all directed toward this end.  I went on a 9 day trip to the lower parts of the TaeBaek Mountains last summer.  With a backpack carrying a compass, a change of clothes, and a lot of apples, I “hopped” temples, moving from one to the other, got lost for two whole days, and basically had a lot of fun.  Gradually, every action seemed like meditation, from climbing mountains, listening to sounds, and talking to monks.

Enlightenment is generally thought of as being sudden.  The meditator needs to be jolted awake, and the only one who can do this is his Zen master.  The master-disciple relationship often involves private interviews in which the master will not allow the student to respond referring to the Buddha or the sutras.  A direct answer is expected to the master’s assigned kong-an.  Conversely, the master may goad the disciple by remaining silent or compassionately help him out, but with the constant aim of trying to cause a breakthrough from conventional to absolute truth.  A perfect example of this can be found in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha:

When Dae Ju first came to Zen Master Ma-Jo, the Master asked him, “What do you want from me?”

Dae Ju said, “I want you to teach me the Dharma.”

What fool you are!” said Ma-Jo.  “You have the greatest treasure in the world within you, and yet you go around asking other people for help.  What good is this?  I have nothing to give you.”

Dae Ju bowed and said, “Please, Master, tell me what this treasure is.”

Ma-Jo said, “where is your question coming from?  This is your treasure.  It is precisely what is making you aske the question at this very moment.  Everything is stored in this precious treasure-house of yurs.  It is there at your disposal, you can use it as you wish, nothing is lacking.  You are the master of everything.  Why, then, are you running away from yourself and seeking for things outside?”

Upon hearing these words, Dae Ju attained enlightenment.

Similarly, it is believed that most others experience enlightenment at a crash course event.

Enlightenment is a word scholars throw around easily.  Nevertheless, the search for the true self is an interesting enough topic to be discussed in detail.  Self awakening, in my opinion is tailored to each individuals spiritual maturity, and his/her living environment.  The quest for self lays on the premise that the self is a part of the greater I, the Brahman, so by studying and meditating on the self wholeheartedly opens a window that allows one to take a glimpse of the whole world.  Only by understanding the world, and the self truthfully and unhindered by the ego, can the Zen student gain compassion that will reveal one’s calling in the world.  Only by wholeheartedly following the calling can one be enlightened.  Jesus, Siddartha, Gandhi, and others followed their calling so wholeheartedly that some of the figures met a tragic death from those who oppose their ideals.  They were the first to lead the counterculture movement.

Our society, and its outcome oriented, capitalistic characteristics mold many people to lose something important during the course of their professional pursuit.  After all, don’t we all witness left and right, no matter how much this liberal arts education inspire students the connectedness of humanities, no matter how hard the college help them see the mosaic created in joint effort by the teachings of various departments a picture of the world and its struggles, many youths leave here to hypocritically live against what Christians coin as their calling, or in a Buddhist term, awakening (I am not judging, we can’t help it a lot of times)?  Humanity’s constant war to gain a better paycheck in order to secure better shelter, food, water, clothing, and comforts are perpetuated by the ruling class and their desire to maintain their status.  As a result we pick up small weapons such as alcohol, drugs, and greed to help ourselves avoid the heat of the war.  Musicians (me) are unavoidably a part of this war, and they start to make music “in the name music”, but in sake of something else as well.

Zen inspires me to make music again for music sake.  On the surface level, it is about the discipline, and keeping mindful of the music and that alone, but in a deeper sense, it is reinforcing why I fell in love with music in the first place.  The expression of love, pain, hope, and so much more that inspire performers and audience their calling to pick up a bigger weapon, such as compassion, patience, and ideals for true justice/equality help connect with others and envision a fight to be put up collectively, not individually.  The Korean word for “human” is derived from the Chinese root character that looks like two people leaning against each other.  Individual’s struggle to live, gradually stunt humankind to see at a bigger picture, while a combined effort reminds us constantly the collective existence that we belong in.  As a musician, I think the most inspirational music comes from whole-hearted outpouring of ones love for the music.  Music then communicates to others.

The uniqueness of Zen is that it is not tied to any mass instruction, nor a set practicing ritual.  Everyone finds Zen in their own way.  They learn to realize their calling in accordance with their life.  Let it be the masses that are inspired by my music to find their own Zen, in effect realize their own self, which will ultimately lead to being one with the world in us.


Theodore de Bary, William (editor).  The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Seung Sahn.  Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. New York: Grove Press, 1976.

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