What are the differences between Soto and Rinzai Zen?

The main difference between the two schools is, as far as Rinzai Zen is concerned, the practice of the Koans. In Soto Zen the practitioners sit facing the wall, probably as a reference to the first Patriarch Bodhidharma who according to tradition, sat in this position inside a cave for nine years. Conversely in the Rinzai school the practitioners sit facing the center of the hall. The main difference between the two traditions is the practice of the Koans, which is a specific characteristic of the Rinzai school. It might be argued that, while Soto Zen states that it is sufficient to sit quite aimlessly (Shikantaza) to experience the fundamental nature of Buddha, in Rinzai the student is pushed to realize the awakening experience that can be arrived at only suddenly, i.e. the Enlightment cannot be the result of progressive work, but is an experience that happens suddenly. For this reason, Rinzai disciples define their practice as the School of Sudden Awakening.

What are the Koans?

The Koans are literally public cases, apparently without logic, proposed by the teacher to the student, who has to solve them. In the course of the practice there are moments prepared for these meetings (Sanzen) where the practitioner who has received the Koan goes to the teacher privately, following a strict and well-established protocol, to give his answer. According to his answer, he will receive useful indications to proceed in the investigation. The first Koan which is used is called Ken-Sho koan (Ken = see; Sho = nature). Then Kensho Koan is the Koan which allows the student to see, to experience the real nature of Buddha. Substantially, the Koans are structured in a way to put the practitioner in front of a contradiction which cannot be solved logically and whose aim is to bypass the rational-logical system through an understanding that overcomes logic. When the mind does not bear the tension anymore, induced by an incapability of solving the problem, a sudden event happens, a moment of clarity which encompasses and contains the whole being of the practitioner.

What is the Zen view as far as karma and reincarnation are concerned?

As far as we are concerned, karma and reincarnation are part of initial Buddhism. It has to be kept in mind that Buddhism was born in India, where a spiritual tradition whose beliefs are based on these two elements was and still is prevalent. But, if we applied them to our practice, we would find them a big obstacle, i.e. a justification to postpone or not face the fundamental issue, which consists in our own awakening, in taking our responsibilities on ourselves at this moment, during the time when we experience our life. The belief that our conditions come from actions performed in previous lives or the need to create the right conditions for a future life , would be far removed from the message that the teachers constantly put in front of our eyes each moment, i.e. “Wake up now!”.

What can Zen offer?

Simply the possibility to awaken, to understand who we are and what we are doing in this world. We should not get confused by believing that the practice makes us better or makes us feel better. For this reason there are methods which can simplify life for anyone who desires it, such as psychology . What Zen can substantially give us is the acceptance of ourselves as we are, without wishing to obtain improvements or advantages.

Is Zen a type of Eastern religion?

We can define it in this way if we focus on the ritual aspects of the practise. On the other hand religion is usually experienced as a belief in something superior, external to ourselves, that intervenes in our life. But, as Buddha said, it is not necessary to believe in anything else other than ourselves. In this sense we can say that Zen is an experimental method which is based on seeing our own nature up to the point where each doubt is solved and there is a direct experience of the universe.

What is the relationship between Zen and New Age?

We do not think that there is a relationship. We are comparing, in this case, a consolidated and “living” tradition of a thousand years with a movement that, to a certain extent, tends to create a synthesis of traditions in the spiritual field taking elements from here and there and which, as far as Zen is concerned, is more a “mental” obstacle rather than a really liberating method. Of course, at the same time we do not criticise any of the people who belong to the New Age movement.