Zen Buddhism was formed in the 6th century as a result of a Chinese alteration of Indian Buddhism. The first contact China had with Indian thought happened in the first century ad through Buddhist teachings. Being more practical and down to earth than Indians, the Chinese couldn't appreciate all of Buddhism’s aspects, such as transcendentalism and life-denying tendency. Nevertheless, it had a certain appeal to contemporary thinkers.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late sixth century (Asuka period) via the Korean peninsula, and rooted itself in the 7th cent. Zen, as a form of Buddhism, was brought in from China in the thirteenth and fourteenth century (the kamakura period). At first, Zen teachers, like eisai and dÅgen, were not welcomed by the representatives of the ruling faith. One of the reasons was probably the teacher’s opposition to aristocratic priesthood. Zen, however, managed to establish itself under the patronage of the Hojo family in kamakura. Since then it has spread all over Japan and retained a strong influence which is present to this day.
The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the old Chinese word dzyen (modern mandarin chán) which was derived from the Sanskrit dhyÄna, meaning absorption or meditative state.
Other schools of Buddhism have influenced the spiritual life of Japanese people, while Zen’s impact is present in every aspect of their cultural life.
Indian Buddhism and Zen both strive towards enlightenment (satori in Japanese), but unlike in Indian Buddhism, abstraction and conceptualization have no place in Zen teachings. Zen compares the grasping of truth by means of the intellect with catching a catfish with a gourd. This is the main reason that disciplines like European logic and oration are not very highly valued - they needlessly make plain and straightforward things abstract.
Perhaps the most important thing Zen teaches is that satori is not something added from the outside, but grown from within and thus best attained through experience and bringing reality to consciousness. That is why the aim of a Japanese Buddhist should be to be able to find inner strength and peace without the need of the material world.
An area of Japanese culture in which Zen is most prominent is art. Art is a creative process and an expression from within, and as such it has always been more compatible with the teachings of Zen than, for example, morality, which is based on intellectual endeavors.
The artists influenced by Zen did their work in moments of inspiration with a minimum of contemplation and brush strokes. They focused more on the direct experience of perception than on expressing ideas (which is a result of contemplation and as such incompatible with the spirit of Zen).
Two common features in Japanese art are wabi and sabi. Wabi can loosely be defined as asymmetry, simplicity, naturalness, calmness etc. and sabi is a certain restrained refinement. wabi has a wider cultural meaning. It is „poverty“, which is to say not being dependant on worldly things and yet feeling the presence of something truly valuable. Simply put, it is being satisfied with what you have.
Modernization and technology - areas that have seen rapid growth in Japan in recent years - are known to detach people from basic values. They, among other things, mean the multiplication of possibilities, making it harder for a person to keep his life simple. Still, the teachings of Zen are alive and present, influencing a large number of aspects in Japanese culture and everyday life.