Zen is a method of rediscovering the experience of being alive. It originated in India and China and has come to the West by way of Japan, and although it is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, it is not a religion in the usual sense of the word.
Zen aims to bring about a transformation of consciousness and to awaken us from the dream world of our endless thoughts so that we experience life as it is in the present moment.
Zen cannot be taught, but it can be transmitted through sessions of contemplation or meditation, called zazen, and through dialogues between student and teacher, called sanzen.
This article aims to act as a guide to give the contemporary reader some idea of the basic principles of Zen.
“Each one of you is perfect as you are. And you all could use a little bit of improvement.”
– Suzuki Roshi
Table of Contents
I. Meaning of Zen or Zen Definition
The practice of Zen is to experience the overall pattern directly and to know one’s self as the essence of the pattern.
Zen is extraordinarily simple as long as one doesn’t try to be cute about it or beat around the bush! Zen is simply the sensation and the clear understanding that, to put it in Zen terms, there are “ten thousand formations; one suchness.”
Or you might say, “The ten thousand things that are everything are of one suchness.” That is to say that there is behind the multiplicity of events and creatures in this universe simply one energy – and it appears like you, and everything is it. The practice of Zen is to understand that one energy to “feel it in your bones.”
“The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.” Okakura Kakuzo
II. What is Zen?
Yet Zen has nothing to say about what that energy is, and of course, this gives the impression in the minds of Westerners that it is a kind of “blind energy.” We assume this because the only other alternative that we can imagine in terms of our traditions is that it must be something like God some sort of cosmic ego, an almost personal intelligent being.
People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in a cross-legged position or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense.
“Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years.” —Japanese proverb
III. Zen Buddhism: A Beginner’s Guide
But in the Buddhist view, that would be as far off the mark as thinking of it as blind energy. The reason they use the word “suchness” is to leave the whole question open, and free from definition. It is such. It is what it is.
The nature of this energy is that it is unformulated, although it is not formless in the sense of some sort of “goo” which is just a featureless mess. It simply means that at the basis of everything, there is something that never could be made an object, and discerned, figured out, or explained.
In the same way, our eyes have no apparent color to us as we look at things, and no form of their own. If they had a form of their own, that form would distort all the forms we see – and in some sense, their very structure does distort what we see.
If the eyes had a color of their own it would affect everything we see, and still, we would never become aware of it. As it is, however, we are not aware of the color of the eye, or of the lens, because if it has a color to it that color is basic to all sight.
And so in the same way, you might never become aware of the structure and the nature of the basic energy of the world because you are it, and in fact, everything is it. But you might say, “Well, it doesn’t make any difference then.”
And that is true, it doesn’t but it does make a difference in the life and feeling of a person who realizes that that is so! Although it may not make any particular difference to anything that happens, it points directly to the crux of the matter.
If there were no eyes, there would be no sight, and this tells us something important about our role in the world. We see this sight and that sight, and the structure of the eye does not make any difference from this sight and that, but upon it depends on the possibility of seeing.
And so upon this energy depends the very possibility of there being a universe at all, and that is rather important. It is so important, however, that we usually overlook it. It does not enter into our practical considerations and prognostications, and that is why modern logicians in their respective philosophy departments will argue that all assertions about this energy, including the assertion that it is there at all, are meaningless.
And that in a way is true, because the world itself is – from the point of view of strict logic – quite meaningless in the sense that it is not a sign or a symbol pointing to something else. But while that is all taken for granted, it nevertheless makes a great deal of difference to how you feel about this world, and there£ ore, to how you act.
If you know that there is just this; and that it is you; that it is beyond time, beyond space, beyond definition; and that if you realize that this is how things are, it gives you a certain bounce. You can enter into life with abandon, with freedom from your basic fears that you would not ordinarily have.
“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
IV. Zen Philosophy and Zen Life:
This zen technique is a vehicle or support for contemplation, and I suggest you simply sit quietly, and when you feel settled proceed into contemplation.
Zen Exercise: Still the mind
- Sit quietly and be with your breath, your mind, and all your feelings.
- It doesn’t matter whether you are sitting cross-legged or on your knees with your legs folded underneath you. The point is to settle into a posture that is stable and comfortable.
- You can cross your legs in front of you, or if you are limber you may wish to try the half-lotus or full-lotus position. You can sit on a cushion with your knees bent and legs on either side, or you can sit in a chair. The idea is to be comfortable and find a position that you can maintain effortlessly.
- As you settle in, remember that although stillness is emphasized in meditation, this does not mean that you should hold still in a rigid way. Becoming still physically helps one to find stillness of mind, but if you need to move, get comfortable so that you can settle even more deeply.
- Keep your back upright and your head erect, but let your arms relax. Rest the left palm in the right palm, and put your thumbs together as if you were holding an egg. Your hands should be positioned at your belly with your thumbs just below the navel.
- If you are sitting cross-legged you may wish to rock back and forth for a moment to find your natural center. If you are sitting in a chair, plant your feet on the ground so that you are grounded.
- Your mouth should be closed, the eyes lowered slightly.
- When you have found a stable posture, allow your awareness to sink into your breath and to find the bottom of your breath. You are not trying to cultivate a particular kind of breath; just gently pay attention to your breathing. Allow the breath to come and go as it may.
- That’s all you need to do. Your body will become still, and your mind will naturally, at some point, become still as well.
That is the essential process of meditation.
Note: If you wish, you can begin to hum when you feel comfortable with it. As your voice rises, begin to play with the sound. The play of sound will eventually settle into a pattern, and a mantra will spontaneously form. Go with it, and at this moment you are experiencing ritual in its richest form.
“Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life.”
Related: The Power of Gayatri Mantra