Zen Is and Is Not
How Can One Define Zen?
Zen is a way of life, a state of being that is impossible to describe, or embrace in any concept. Yet people feel a desire to try to define Zen.
It may help to think of a surfer who has caught the perfect wave, and rode it and the surfboard to the shore. In the excitement of the moment, the surfer is not aware of the ocean, the wave, the surfboard, or even of himself. He is just “in the flow” of things.
Oh, except there is no ocean, no surfboard, no wave, and no surfer.
The Only Thing Real Is the Present
The only thing that really exists is what is happening in the present. The past is gone, and tomorrow is soon the present. All else is just constructs of the mind. As a beginning student of Zen, this is mystifying and confusing. Once a person believes they have an understanding of Zen, it seems they have no understanding of it at all.
Many volumes have been written about Zen, but they are only ideas of Zen, not Zen itself. It can not be defined.
Intelligent people want to make an effort to find Truth, by identifying a philosophical system, a dogma, or creed. They embrace a set of ideas which seem sensible to them, and believe they have found that Truth.
Numerous people read piles of books, visit religious groups, and attend lectures of famous people, trying to find some explanation of the mysteries of life. Some search for the answer to the meaning of life until they die, others believe they have found what they seek.
There are some religions and philosophies which lend themselves more easily than others to the mistaking of the idea for the reality. They are religions in which creed and symbol are emphasized, but the spiritual experience which is supposed to be emphasized gets lost. This is mostly because of the attitudes of those who follow them.
This error cannot be made in Zen, because it has no creed, no philosophical system, canon of scriptures, or intellectually comprehensible doctrine. Zen is a form of Buddhism developed in China, and now flourishes primarily in Japan. Zen is a Japanese word, a form of the Sanskrit dhyana, which translates in English into meditation or contemplation.
Alan Watts: Let Go of Controlling Everything
Zen Is About the Beauty in Change
The word dhyana is compared to the Greek gnosis, or knowledge in the highest sense of the word, or supreme spiritual enlightenment. Gautama Siddhartha was said to have found enlightenment one night while sitting under the bodhi tree in India.
According to teachers of Zen, he found something that cannot be expressed in any form of words; an experience which every person must undergo for himself or herself. It cannot be passed on from one person to another, just as there are always paths that a person must walk alone. We all find enlightenment in our own way.
The Buddha taught that life as it is lived is inharmonious, because most people have a selfish attitude about it. We resist change, we put ourselves first, are possessive about those we love, and try to hold onto life too tightly.
There is a moral to that phrase, because if something that lives and thrives is held onto too tightly, it dies. Many people refuse to accept the natural laws of nature; that we are all subject to change and movement. Our refusal is an illusion. Change comes whether we like it or not, and the more it is resisted, the more it hurts. Buddhism is about the beauty of change.
Zen Is the Way Life Really Is
One must stop craving for self, permanence, for whatever particular circumstances are expected, and get moving on with the flow of life. The state of mind then attained is called nirvana. But it is easy to misunderstand. This doctrine of “letting go” can be seen as a complete denial of life and the world, a state removed from all worldly concerns.
Zen has been a powerful influence in shaping the art and culture of the Far East. But does it have a symbolic meaning? What is it about? Zen is about life.
A Zen master demonstrates life the way it actually is. Without words or ideas he is teaching his disciples to know life directly. Sometimes in answer to a religious question the student will receive a smack in the face.
If the master gave a complicated answer, the student would over think it, dissect it, and try to turn some sort of formula into a living truth. A smack is here one minute, gone the next. There is nothing one can hold onto, as a passing moment can never be made to stay.
It just is, and then is gone. The beauty of the song is felt because you listen, without taking the time to analyze it. A Zen master is not going to give one ideas about life, he is trying to show students that life surrounds them. One should want to live life, not just be a spectator.
The mystery of beauty is not learned by dissecting it, and nobody ever understood how a sunset could look so beautiful by studying one. To understand these things, one must live and move with them as they live. No amount of intellectual analysis will ever explain the universe. Philosophies and sciences can only explain its mechanism, never its meaning, or Tao.
Don't Think so Hard You Miss the Meaning
To imagine there is a “you” separate from life is to fall right into the trap. There is no “self,” it is only an abstraction. If one tries to find the Tao, that means they think there is a difference between their self and the Tao. So Zen masters say nothing about the means for becoming enlightened, for understanding the Tao.
When a person is reading a book, sometimes they are concentrating so hard they miss its meaning. The secret is to think of the book and forget self. This is what happens when one gets engrossed in a good book or story. They forget all about themselves, or what is happening around them. The important point is to just do the task, not waste energy thinking about doing it.
The same is true in Zen. There are some who live their whole lives thinking about life and feelings about life, but never accomplish the things they want to do in life. But it is a difficult concept. This writer is sitting at a desk and keyboard working on this article. But how can that be, if the writer is not here, nor the desk, or keyboard?
In a Zen monastery, the novices are assigned duties to care for their space, and the roshi, or senior, is likely to be the one who cleans the toilets. A sense of order is maintained at all times, and all the time in the day is accounted for with meditation, contemplation, prayer, chores, and all the work necessary to run the monastery. Each person must show respect for one another, and for the space they daily share. This may seem a very structured day, considering the seeming contradictions of trying to grasp the meaning of Zen.
Alan Watts: How Do You Define Yourself?
Sometimes You Have to Stop Thinking
Buddhas are human. They are not devas; they are not gods. They are enlightened people, but the point is that they are not afraid to be human. They are not afraid to participate in life. They understand its transitory nature, that when they die it is only a transition, and that they will be reincarnated many times.
These are difficult concepts to understand, unless one stops over thinking things. If a person talks all the time, they never hear what anyone else has to say. All you will have to think about is your own conversation. If you think all the time, you will do nothing except think about thinking. Just as you have to stop talking to hear what others have to say, you have to stop thinking to find out what life is all about. Finally, you see all the differences between self and other, life and death, pleasure and pain, are all concepts which are not there. They do not exist in a world that simply is.
No one person can define Zen for another, each person must find out for themselves. It is a mystery, and once one thinks they understand it, they find they do not. It can be seen and used, but never caught. Loved, but never possessed. So by this, we know that Zen is life.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Jean Bakula