ZEN Teachings and PracticeZen Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, and, as such, its teachings are deeply rooted in those of the Buddha. It draws primarily on Mahāyāna sutras composed in India and China, particularly the Heart Sutra; the Diamond Sutra; the Lankavatara Sutra; the Samantamukha Parivarta, a chapter of the Lotus Sutra; and the Platform Sutra of Huineng. The body of Zen doctrine also includes the recorded teachings of masters in the various Zen traditions.
The Zen schools, like other Buddhist sects, teach the fundamental elements of Buddhist philosophy, including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, pratitya samutpada, the five precepts, the five skandhas, and the three dharma seals: non-self, impermanence, and dukkha. Zen philosophy also includes teachings specific to Mahayana Buddhism, including the Mahayanan conception of the paramitas and the ideal of the bodhisattva's universal salvific power. Mahayana Buddhist religious figures such as Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, Mañjuśri Bodhisattva, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, and Amitabha Buddha are venerated in Zen temples along with Śakyamuni Buddha, although Amitabha takes a less prominent role than in many other forms of Mahayana. This is particularly true in the Japanese Soto and Rinzai schools, which conceive of themselves as purer Zen schools, less influenced by other Buddhist sects.
Because Zen developed as a distinct school in medieval China, it also reflects the influence of Chinese philosophy, including Taoism and, to a lesser extent, Confucianism. Different researchers have developed various opinions on the degree of Taoist influence on Zen. It is clear that, in the early centuries of Buddhism's contact with China, it was often described in Taoist terminology for want of indigenous Buddhist expressions in the Chinese language. This trend is noticeable in Zen—for instance, Chinese Zen texts often use the term tao (道, pinyin: dào) in describing Buddhist philosophy. Some modern scholars argue that this influence was fairly superficial, while others argue that it deeply influenced Zen philosophy. An example of the latter is Ray Grigg, whose book The Tao of Zen argues that Zen can best be understood as a form of Taoist philosophy with superficial Buddhist trappings.
Zen is not primarily an intellectual philosophy nor a solitary pursuit. Zen temples emphasize meticulous daily practice, and hold intensive monthly meditation retreats. Practicing with others is valued as a way to avoid the traps of ego. In explaining the Zen Buddhist path to Westerners, Japanese Zen teachers have frequently made the point that Zen is a "way of life" and not solely a state of consciousness. D.T. Suzuki wrote that the aspects of this life are: a life of humility; a life of labor; a life of service; a life of prayer and gratitude; and a life of meditation.
Zen practices include many of the most menial tasks of households. The temples often give the lower class or newer monks the easier tasks, like washing the dishes and the higher class monks the harder more mind numbing tasks, like raking a rock garden or sweeping a veranda. The Zen monks taught that in every menial task there is something to be learned and something that the student can later meditate on. Even the abbot performs such tasks as sweeping the floor. The Zen monks believe you can gather knowledge from all things in life, and that in your every action you shape and mold yourself in but the smallest of ways, but when you truly become enlightened all of these details will have played the most definite role.
Zen teachings often criticize textual hermeneutics and the pursuit of worldly accomplishments, concentrating primarily on meditation in pursuit of an unmediated awareness of the processes of the world and of the mind. At the same time, however, the Zen school has—perhaps paradoxically—produced a vast corpus of literature. Zen, however, is not a purely passive doctrine: the Chinese Chan master Baizhang (720–814 CE) left behind a famous saying which had been the guiding principle of his life, "A day without work is a day without eating."
D. T. Suzuki asserted that satori (awakening) has always been the goal of every school of Buddhism, but that which distinguished the Zen tradition as it developed in China, Korea, and Japan was a way of life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In India, the tradition of the mendicant (bhikkhu) prevailed, but in China social circumstances led to the development of a temple and training-center system in which the abbot and the monks all performed mundane tasks. These included food gardening or farming, carpentry, architecture, housekeeping, administration, and the practice of folk medicine. Consequently, the enlightenment sought in Zen had to stand up well to the demands and potential frustrations of everyday life.