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Zen is the Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyàna meaning ‘meditation’ and is the name of a sectarian movement in Japanese Buddhism which emphasises meditation.

According to the legend, there were 28 Zen patriarchs, passing the teachings from teacher to disciple to Bodhidharma (also credited with founding the martial arts) who went from India to China to teach Zen, at that time known as Ch'an, around the fifth century A.D. It progressed through several patriarchs and has since splintered off into several variations, each emphasizing one or more parts of the practice. In all forms of Zen, there is an emphasis on sitting meditation and an almost anti-intellectual attitude toward study.

Zen was introduced into Japan from China in the 12th century and went on to have a profound influence on Japanese life, particularly the arts. The spontaneous, unconventional and sometimes clownish behaviour that became a hallmark of Zen practitioners was probably a healthy reaction against the stiff formality of Japanese monastic culture. The Rinzai sect of Zen uses riddles called koans to cut through the conceptual thought that blocks enlightenment while the Soto sect emphasises the practice of mindfulness meditation, or what it calls shickantaza, ‘just sitting.’ Since the 1950's Zen has become very popular in the West, particularly in America.

Zen comes in many forms and has splintered into several different Orders. Some priests and monks do not take any vow of celibacy and although wearing robes and a shaved head, have wives or partners.