What is Zen philosophy all about?

Written by Julia Ruston

Zen: have you ever wondered what this word means? Having become an umbrella concept for a kind of oriental lifestyle and aesthetic, the true meaning of Zen is much more profound and mystical than its use in the mainstream culture. For starters, Zen is a form of spiritual philosophy and means “meditation” in Japanese. The philosophy is part of a school of Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism which emphasizes practical and experiential wisdom instead of the study of philosophical and religious texts. The purpose of Zen is the realization of the self and its practice requires the direct experience of the self as the only viable way to manifest one’s nature.

This article will take you through the history and distinctive features of Zen philosophy. It will give you some ideas on how to apply its teachings to improve our mental and physical health and how to live a more fulfilling life.

The History behind Zen Philosophy

So… let’s go back to where the Zen philosophy started. Historically, Zen is a branch of Buddhism which developed in India around 2500 years ago and then came to China 500 years after. It received its name “Zen” once it arrived in Japan 1000 years later. Although its focus is on self-reflection and realization by transforming the psychological structure of the mind, it is also deeply rooted in the teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama.

The Principles of Zazen

You may be asking yourself: But how are you supposed to achieve self-realization? Well, Zen philosophy fundamental practice is zazen or as we commonly know it, meditation. Zazen is founded on the seated posture, where Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. It is also founded on the elements of mindfulness, which are part of the fundamental teaching of the Buddha known as the Eightfold Path. Zazen is a prioritized daily practice, but it is also important for Zen philosophy to practice as part of a group in order to communicate and grow from each other’s perceptions and points of view. Usually, this group experience centers around a Zen teacher who guides the pupils through meditations and scripture study as well as performing certain rituals.

Zen in the modern world

Now how does this tie in with Zen living nowadays and especially in modern society? 

Well, since Zen living is all about living in harmony with our true essence and cultivates intuitive wisdom, we should use this wisdom to bring peace and harmony to this world. As one renowned Zen teacher puts this: We should live life through Zen. Philip Kapleau refers to Zen as “a one-pointed aware mind; of a disciplined life of simplicity and naturalness as against a contrived and artificial one; of a life compassionately concerned with our own and the world’s welfare and not self-centered and aggressive. A life, in short, of harmony with the natural order of things and not in constant conflict with it.”

How to apply to our everyday life

To achieve this, take note of these small tips on how to create a more present and meaningful life! It will help you to stop and fully embrace your existence since we are usually just doing things non-stop and we find ourselves caught up in our heads with a million worries and thoughts at once.

  1. Live mindfully: Although mindfulness has been a buzz word recently, it truly is crucial and usually lacking in our current lifestyle. Being fully aware and present in each moment can help you cultivate this awareness and lead to living a more peaceful and harmonious life. It’s all about enjoying and fully living the moment, whether that having fun with our family or cleaning the toilet, as long as we are trying not to ruminate or worry about a future meeting at work.
  1. The more simple and natural, the better! Understanding that less is more and being aware of how this affects the state of our mind as well as accepting things fully as they come or “going with the flow of things” so to speak.
  1. Be compassionate and loving: We should be concerned for our own well-being as well as the well-being of all other beings and place this as a priority.

Now that you know a bit about the background of Zen philosophy and some small tips on how to incorporate this way of living into your life, I hope you can see that Zen philosophy is much more than just an aesthetic and is a truly powerful mindset. I’m sure we have all felt like we need a little more Zen in our life at some point and by that, I mean nearly every day!

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Shaolin Culture

The Shaolin Monastery was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. The three indispensable shaolin cultures, Chan Buddihism, Shaolin Kung Fu and medicine, have greatly contributed to its reputation in the world.


Chan Buddhism

Chan is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, also known as Zen (Japanese). This word is derived from the Sanskrit “dhyana”, which means “meditation”. The Shaolin Temple is considered the ancestral home of Chan Buddhism since Chan Buddhism was established by South Indian monk Damo (Bodhidharma) during his nine-year meditation in a cave on Mount Wuru behind the temple around 527 AD.

Chinese Kungfu

As the center of Chan Buddhism, the Shaolin Temple attracted many emperors’ attention in China’s history. The Empress Wu Zetian (AD 625-705) paid several visits to the Shaolin Temple discussing Chan philosophy with high monk Tan Zong; the founder of Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan(AD 1215-1294) ordered all Buddhist temples in China to be led by the Shaolin Temple; there were eight Princes during Ming Dynasty turned themselves into Shaolin monks.


Shaolin Kung Fu


Chinese Kungfu Chinese Kungfu

The Shaolin Temple is recognized as the originating site of the Shaolin Kungfu. Shaolin Kungfu was refers specifically to a martial art system developed within the Shaolin Monastery. It was established within the Buddhist culture and rooted deeply in the spiritual nature of Buddhism. It also reflects fully the inner wisdom of Zen Buddhism. The traditional cultural system is manifested through the martial arts demonstrations by the monks from the Shaolin monastery. The system has three characteristics, a complete fighting system, the sole heir of the unique Buddhist culture and the seeker and preserver of the indomitable Shaolin spirit.




Chinese Kungfu

As an indispensable part of Shaolin Culture, Shaolin Medicine offers herbal remedies and traditional Chinese therapy such as acupuncture. The origin of Shaolin medicine is from Damo as well. When the monks were weak after meditation, he began collecting folk remedies to help them. These treatments were developed across successive dynasties, peaking in the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644). The Shaolin Medicine Center was established around 1217 AD in the Buddhist spirit of “Mercy”. In the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), the Shaolin Medicine Center was expanded and strengthened for disciples, believers, followers and the poor. This merit has been passed down from that time on. In 2004, Abbot Shi Yong Xin revived the Shaolin Medicine Center and the ancient Shaolin Medicine is given a new life in the modern era.

by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com

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