When we practice zazen [Zen Meditation] our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say "inner world" or "outer world," but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door.
The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe," the "I" is extra. There is no you to say "I." What we call "I" is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no "I," no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
James: I often am asked why I chose Zen Buddhism over the other Buddhist traditions. I have written about this before but I'd like to write about it again, however, hopefully from a bit of a different angle. I respond well to the stripped down nature of Zen Buddhism as seen in this quote by the Zen legend Suzuki. I was raised in a very dogmatic religion and found it to be less helpful and I think that past experience led me in part to Zen, which (in my view) the least complicated form of Buddhism. For me it demystifies Buddhism and does a great job of focusing on the basics of Buddha's Dharma.
As well as the focus on Zazen (meditation) because that is something that I can easily understand and implement. I continue to study the sutras and canons and I certainly do not want my readers to think that I don't value them at all nor think them necessary to understanding Dharma because they do overall offer essential wisdom. That said, I find it more valuable in my personal practice to spend more time meditating than doing rituals (thought I find some ritual to beneficial) and keeping track of deities except as archetypes. I also like that Zen (in my view) is a bit more flexible in regards to dogma.
I find great success in Thich Nhat Hanh's style of Zen, which gets back to the very basic teachings of Buddha such as focusing on one's breath (as mentioned by Suzuki) while meditating and extending that formal meditation practice to everything that I do. So that mindfulness is the center of my practice, which cuts through the fat so to speak to better enable self-awakening. In my practice I have found that focusing on living in the present moment is where the essence of Buddhism flowers like a lotus.
I like that Buddhism has many flavors because it is more proof to me that karma is indeed apart of our lives. I believe it is this varied karma that, in part directs us toward one school of Buddhism over another. I'm currently reading the new book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "Becoming Enlightened" for a review and he speaks about these different variations in Buddhism.
When teachings at particular students are examined as a body of work, it is possible for their surface of literal meanings not to be in agreement, since their purpose is to help in ways appropriate to a student's current situation. Buddha himself sometimes taught this way, based on a trainee's need.
He also has some real gems of wisdom in warning against a stubborn, strict adherenace to dogma:
For a teaching to be a suitable source of refuge, it must pass the scrutiny of reasoned reflection and must be highly beneficial. A famous Chilean scientist told me that a scientific researcher should not be attached to science, and I believe that in much the same way a Buddhist should not be attached to Buddhist doctrine as such, but instead should value teachings and teachers that can bear investigation into their validity. The scientific attitude and the Buddhist approach are the same in this case.Now, of course some dogma is essential to maintaining a religion but I have personally found that a little goes a long way. Remember though that this is my personal experience, I'm not a sanctioned teacher nor a Buddhist scholar but have seen the damaging effects of a heavy handed dogma.
So while I am a Zen student I find much to agree with in these two quotes from the Dalai Lama as well as from many of the great Theravadan teachers. I think all traditions of Buddhism have something essential to offer the others. I don't think that there is one form that is "superior" to any other but again that the variations are there to take into account our different karma, life experiences and socio-economic-cultural differences.