The Essence of Zen, and a Trip to Kyoto

A train trip to Kyoto and back again in the course of a dull, cloudy, cold day with occasional showers. Not very easy travelling on an unfamiliar railway system, but well worth the effort to visit three quite different temples and gardens – Daitoku-ji, Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji.


Winter visitors –
Pilgrims to Ryoan-ji
Silent meditations.


“The Tsukubai, the stone wash basin for the tea room, has a unique inscription, “I learn only to be contented”. He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if he is materially wealthy. This concept is important to the Zen Spirit.”

From the brochure for Ryoan-ji Temple

At first you don’t even notice it. Then afterwards the realisation sets in . . . there was no Buddha.

In Zen Buddhism there is no Buddha. Or – at least – there is no physical reminder of the Buddha in Zen temples and Zen gardens.

Obviously this is no oversight, and nor is it a sign of disrespect for the Buddha. It’s just the realisation that the Buddha – as he himself knew – simply isn’t the point.

His efforts to achieve understanding and enlightenment were the real point. As they should be for all seekers of the truth, the Way, the ultimate wisdom.

In Zen Buddhism there is no worship, and there is no Supreme Being – which means there is no deity. Zen is, above all, a philosophy and spiritual intelligence – not a religion. Zen simply means meditation.

The founders of Zen seem to have realised that for some seekers of enlightenment the existence of images or idols of the Buddha were sometimes a distraction, and at worst led to the idealisation and the idolisation of a human being – a man who was unique and supremely gifted with spiritual intelligence, of course, but still – a human and not a ‘god’.

Personally I enjoy looking at well-made images and statues of the Buddha – they can sometimes induce feelings of calmness and relaxation and wellbeing. In that sense I have no quarrels with mainstream Buddhism. The Buddha himself is worthy of consideration and even reverence.

But still – would the Buddha have wanted idolisation rather than mere respect or veneration? Of course not. Therefore Zen decided to set aside the images and the statuary, in order to focus on simplicity, on minimalist beauty, on nature, on zazen – ‘just sitting quietly, doing nothing’.

Which is often much harder to achieve than it seems – this process of achieving stillness . . . even for a while. Many of us live busy, and sometimes quite hectic, lives. Confronting our busyness, our frantic thoughts, our striving for personal gain and achievement – does any of it really matter?

Seemingly these things matter to our egos, our sense of duty, our insecurities,our desire to do better – to BE better. Better than what? Better than whom?

We – the self-improvers, the dutiful strivers, the carers, the givers – we do what we do, often, from noble motives. Prince Siddharta – the Buddha – left the palace and set out to lend a hand to those who suffer, those who struggle, those that live in poverty and misery. But how to help all of them – not just a mere handful?

For Siddharta, a self-centred life of idleness – literally doing nothing – was pointless and wasteful and empty. Happiness – for the Buddha – was enlightenment followed by the life of a boddhisatva – one who re-enters the world of suffering in order to offer lovingkindness to those in need of it. Also – wherever possible – to help those who seek greater enlightenment with his support, guideance and encouragement.

Happiness comes from the expression and also the receipt of lovingkindness, and also from a quiet mind that experiences contact with awe and wonder, with reverence for life itself.

Beyond awe and wonder there is cheerfulness, laughter, productive living, contact with nature, appreciation, contentment, and freedom from all unreasonable fear. There is liberation and there is the possibility of happiness – with no reliance on anything or anybody or any divine agency. Not even the Buddha.


Fifteen rocks float
On a sea of raked gravel –
Pointing towards enlightenment.

“The rock garden consists of 15 rocks expertly laid out on a bed of white gravel. They express spiritual enlightenment of Zen Satori, and tell us infinite teachings”.

(Ryoan-ji Temple visitors’ welcome board)

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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1 Response to The Essence of Zen, and a Trip to Kyoto

  1. Pingback: In Zen Buddhism there is no Buddha « R E D _ R O C K _ C R O S S I N G

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