Buddhism is a widespread and varied religion with many sects and schools. Since its history is perceived somewhat differently among the various schools, I will use the dates and accounts of the formation of Buddhism accepeted by most scholars. The line of Buddhism that leads to Zen will be emphasized and other paths will be discussed.
Gautama Buddha lived from about 563 to 483 BCE. (Some scholars place his life as much as a century later.) He was born a prince in present-day Nepal. As a member of the ruling class he lacked nothing, but like many in our present age he found that material wealth did not guarantee satisfaction. He left the life of a prince and became a wandering ascetic, studying with various teachers. Six years later, he found enlightenment after spending the night meditating under a ficus tree. For the next forty-five years he wandered the Ganges Valley of North India, teaching what he had realized.
The basic teachings of the Buddha can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The essence of the Four Noble Truths is as follows:
1. Dissatisfaction is endemic to life.
2. The root of dissatisfaction is grasping.
3. Cessation of dissatisfaction (Nirvana) is possible.
4. The way to Nirvana is by following the Noble Eightfold Path:
This is a history and not a philosophy, so I won't detail the teachings of the Buddha. I will only quote his final words: "Look not for a refuge in anyone besides yourselves."
Like many great teachers, the Buddha built up a following during his lifetime, primarily ascetic monks and nuns with a surrounding community of supporters. During the first rainy season after the Buddha's death, his followers met to standardize the oral transmission of his teachings. The Sutras (Sanskrit) or Suttas (Pali) contained the stories and teachings of the Buddha; the Vinaya consisted of the code of conduct for monks and nuns; and the Abhidharma contained philosophical analysis of his teachings. The First Council of Buddhism also established the Sangha.
Over the following centuries Buddhism spread throughout India. The great Indian king Asoka, who lived in the third century BCE, became a supporter of Buddhism after witnessing the gruesome carnage in one of his battles. He sent out Buddhist missions to countries in Southeast and Central Asia. Wandering monks also helped spread Buddhism throughout Asia. By means of the great trade routes of Central Asia, Buddhism made its way into China.
As Buddhism developed there were doctrinal changes in its interpretation. During the last century BCE and the first century CE, Mahayana Buddhism began to arise. Mahayana is characterized by its emphasis on the concept of sunyata (emptiness) and its ideal of a bodhisattva, a Buddhist "saint" who forgoes final entry into Nirvana to help the suffering world.
In the first century CE, Mahayana Buddhism arrived in China, where its in-depth philosophical analysis appealed to the intellectual class. Emperor Wu (502-529 CE) took the five vows of the Buddhist layman and supported the foundation of temples and monasteries. During the reign of Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma is said to have brought Zen Buddhism from India to China. There is some doubt of Bodhidharma's existence, since there is no record of a separate Zen sect in India. Zen also has a distinct Taoist influence. It is probable that Zen arose as a reaction against attempts to understand Buddhism through analysis of texts and philosophical debate. Unlike such methods, Zen attempts to get at the heart of Buddhism through meditation alone under the guidance of a teacher.
An important figure in the development of Zen was Hui-neng (637-713), who believed that we should not strive for enlightenment since "our own nature is fundamentally clear and pure." After the time of Hui-neng, Zen split into several different lines including the Lin-chi (Jp., Rinzai) School and the Ts'ao-tung (Jp., Soto) School. Lin-chi emphasized ko-an practice under the guidance of a Zen master. The adherents of the Ts'ao-tung School emphasized meditation only as the means to Satori.
Zen was by no means the only type of Buddhism in China. T'ien-Tai (Jp., Tendai) was based on the Lotus Sutra. It taught that every sentient being has Buddha-nature and the potential for enlightenment. The Hua-yen (Jp., Kegon) School was based on the Flower-Garland (Avatamsaka) Sutra. Adherents believed that all objects in existence are interdependent. The Pure Land School, similar in some ways to Christianity, holds that individuals who live a good life are reborn after death in the Pure Land of Bliss of Amida Buddha. Since meditation is not required in the Pure Land School, this sect appealed to the common folk. One only has to chant the name of Amida Buddha, the Namu Amida Butsu, to bring about rebirth in the Pure Land.
Beginning in the sixth century CE, Buddhism began to make its way into Japan from Korea and China. In 1191 the monk Eisai brought Rinzai Buddhism to Japan and established monasteries at Kyoto and Kamakura with the help of the emperor. The monk Dogen introduced the Soto sect into Japan in 1227. He emphasized sitting in meditation as a way of enlightenment.
Europeans first became aware of Buddhism through the work of translators and scholars of the British Raj in India and Sri Lanka during the nineteenth century. In America Transcendentalists, including Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, read early translations of Buddhist works, which influenced their poetry and philosophy.
During the 1950s and 1960s many Americans found they lacked satisfaction in their lives, as Gautama Buddha did 2500 years before, and they looked to the East for answers. Zen offered an alternative way of looking at life. In the early 1950s, writer Phillip Kapleau traveled to Japan to study with a Zen master because he could not find one in the United States. Today, thanks to the work of Zen masters from Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam and the help of their followers, there are hundreds of Zen temples, groups, and retreat centers in America. One of these pioneers of American Zen was Shunryu Suzuki, who became the roshi of the Soto Zen Temple in San Francisco, in 1959. He later opened the San Francisco Zen Center and it soon attracted seekers from the nearby Haight-Ashbury District, mecca of the 1960s counterculture. Another Zen Master, Seung Sahn, traveled from Korea to America in 1972 and started a Zen center in Providence, Rhode Island which became the Kwan Um School of Zen.
Zen also became known to Americans through the work of writers such as Alan Watts, who wrote The Way of Zen and included Zen themes in his other works. The Japanese Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki used modern philosophical concepts to explain Zen to Westerners. Through the efforts of these people and many other supporters and practitioners, Zen Buddhism has become an established institution in America. Often meditation groups are small and able to meet only a few times a week or on occasional weekend retreats. Zen has had to change from a monastic tradition to one in which practitioners have families and careers. Yet the original spirit of Buddhism has been preserved even as it has adopted to different cultures in its travels from India, through China, Tibet, Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan and to modern America and the Western World.