What is Zen Buddhism?

This article is from Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book—Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008)
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Though Zen Buddhism did not catch on in the West until the 1950s, it has now virtually cornered the meditation market. Phil Jackson even used Zen to prepare his teams to win nine NBA championships. Because of its growing popularity I’ve developed the acronym Z–E–N to help us understand it.

First, the dominant discipline of Zen Buddhism is zazen. Through zazen (literally, “sitting in meditation”) Zenists seek to stamp out the self and become one with the impersonal cosmic consciousness of the universe (the only mind). Postures, breathing techniques, and chants are variously utilized in an attempt to free the mind from meaningful thought and achieve a state of absolute emptiness.

Furthermore, the stated objective of Zen is enlightenment—the inner perception that all of reality is one and duality is an unenlightened illusion (satori). Enlightenment is said to be the key to extinguishing individual identity and the doorway to nirvana (“blown out”). As the golf mantra goes: “Be the ball.”

Finally, enlightenment is achieved through nonsensical riddles. Nonsensical riddles or koans are used to attack reason and logic in order to achieve the alternate reality that the universe is an interdependent whole and that each individual is that whole. Zen literally utilizes hundreds of nonsensical riddles to dismantle the mind—the most famous of which is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zenists seek to stamp out the self and become one with the impersonal cosmic consciousness of the universe . . . by freeing the mind from meaningful thought and achieving a state of absolute emptiness.

In sharp distinction to Zen, biblical meditation seeks to center one’s self on the personal Creator of the universe. And it does so through a singular focus on Scripture. Far from emptying our minds, Christians are called to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Ephesians 5:18; Romans 12:1–2).

For further study, see J. Isamu Yamamoto, “Zest for Zen: North Americans Embrace a Contemplative School of Buddhism” Christian Research Journal 17, 3 (1995): 8–15, available through the Christian Research Institute (CRI) at www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/.


“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Romans 12:2

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