What is Zen?

This is a hard question, really quite an impossible question, to answer directly.  We can talk about the Buddha, the lives of the masters; the writings, ceremonies and practices, the history, and so forth, but ultimately Zen is a teaching ‘beyond’ knowing and explanation. As Ch’an Master Yuan Wu said, “Our school has no verbal expressions, and not a single thing or teaching to give to people.” We find this same sentiment is expressed in the first verse of the Tao te Ching: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” This essential, wordless teaching is found at the heart of many spiritual traditions, and so it is with Zen.

At the same time the truth of this 2,500 year-old tradition can be experienced directly for oneself – and integrated into one’s life. This is what Zen practice and training are ultimately concerned with.

The basic teaching is that our fundamental enlightened nature is one of embrace, of a selfless compassion.  Zen Master Dogen said, “The purpose of practice, if we can speak of such a thing, is a tender heart.”  When the Buddha came to awakening we are told he spoke out and said, “Wonder of wonders, all beings are Buddha…”  It is the most affirming teaching possible. The Buddha also taught that our sense of isolation is based on false understanding, that in its depths it is illusory – as is our sense of a fixed entity of self. It’s as if in a dream we believed we were lost in the middle of a desert; yet if we would only wake up, we would instantly realize that we have always been surrounded by oceans of fresh water. This illusion of separation, a ‘self’-perpetuating enchantment of sorts, leads us to experience our lives as limited, incomplete, unsatisfactory – and this ‘apartness’ is the root of Dukkha.

Though there is no single cause, the Buddha taught that the sense of self arises from the complex interactions called pratītyasamutpāda, or “the interdependence and mutual conditioning of phenomena.”1 Fundamental to this cycle is the eighth link of taṇhā (craving, desire, thirst), this constant wish to have, to get, to become. When Henry Ford was asked how much money was enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more.” And so it goes. Because of these forces people wind up experiencing their lives as if they were cut off from the world, isolated in some fundamental way; this mistaken view creates enormous pain, and not just for ourselves. Obviously we could never treat each other with such heedless neglect and violence, or desecrate the planet as we do, if this were not the case.

So Zen practices are about freeing ourselves from this dream of disconnection. It’s about breaking free from the straight-jacket of words and concepts, explanations and ideas. Ultimately it is about cutting through the sense of a fixed and separate self, and with that coming to awakening.

Zen is eminently reasonable, and highly principled, but you can’t get there through reason, but only through that which is beyond knowing.  Buddhism is certainly not about replacing one belief system with another, but rather about seeing directly. All the written teachings are ultimately just footnotes to the Buddha’s Awakening; they all boil down to explanations of how explanations won’t do.

Einstein had a few things to share about this realm of unknowing.  He said, “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty.” He also said,

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.2

The root of the word religion means to re-join, or to make whole, and in truth, the essence of Buddhism goes far beyond any of its teachings.  The Bodhisattvic vow, and all the teachings and practices of Buddhism, are simply about making this wholeness a living truth for ourselves and for all beings. As the Buddha himself declared, “Not good deeds, nor good karma, nor merit, nor rapture, nor visions, nor concentration, nor insight. None of these are the reasons I teach; but the sure heart’s release, this and this alone.”

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prat%C4%ABtyasamutp%C4%81da 7/29/2012 []
  2. Albert Einstein, p. 98, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying []