(a 9 minute read)
Zen is a form of Buddhism.
In the west - Buddhism is often ascribed to two main schools: Mahayana literally the “Great Vehicle”, which Zen is a part of and is prominent in East Asia, therefore also referred to as Eastern Buddhism, alongside Theravada literally the “Teaching of the Elders”, prominent in Southeast Asia.
Some scholars also include Vajrayana, a kind of Esoteric Buddhism as a third school, practiced in the Northern Himalayan region, among other places. Zen originated in China, when Buddhism spread from India to China – and was strongly influenced by Taoist philosophy.
Learn more about Taoism here.
It then spread all over Asia in countries such as Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Today it is practiced all around the world. Zen literally means “meditation”. Zazen or “seated meditation” is the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition. It is a means of insight into the nature of existence, that is, the nature of the mind and of things. This insight is expressed personally in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. Unlike religion, Zen does not mention God, it does not try to explain how the world was created and what happens after death.
A Zen koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used to create doubt and demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning to test a student’s progress in Zen. A famous one is: If you meet the Buddha, kill him. What we can make out of this, is perhaps that we have to kill our ideas: whether it be god, becoming rich, to end suffering – we have to break open from our conceptual framework that keeps us trapped from our creations, and be open to what actually is.
What we are all searching for is right inside of us, not in the sky or somewhere else.
Buddhism has at its base these things called sutras, which are the teachings of the Buddha. Although Zen uses them, it really emphasizes one's own experience, which is the way to discover the truth of Buddhist teaching. Not through intellectual understanding and study, but through one’s actual experience. As such, it is less of a theoretical philosophy and more of a way of life and personal spiritual practice. Zen highlights meditation as a way of experiencing basic reality. Sitting quietly, going deep and asking the question: What am I? That is the fundamental question in Zen.
It begins with the curiosity and wonder of who you are. If we take a look at our modern society, people can seem quite inauthentic, a lot of posturing or creating personas, concealing our true self and presenting ourselves as someone different to who we really are, in order to impress other people. This forms a shadow as psychoanalyst Carl Jung puts it, where all of our repressed emotions and negative traits are stored – we then behave like a passive victim of our shadow, which slowly takes control of our personality and of our actions.
Zen tells us to stop for a moment. To think about what we are doing with our life. To begin to wonder, who are you? What are you really? Not what your parents wanted you to be, not what society wants you to be, but What is the truth? Who are you really? And what kind of life makes sense for you? Not what people tell you to do, but for you, what is your truth?
Do things with humility and expect no reward no matter your status in life.
Simple meditation allows us to go deeper into our reality and see things more clearly. Most of us, if not all of us, are bound to our conceptual thinking. We get stuck in the commentary of things. We ruminate, we overthink, there is an ongoing mental chatter going on. As the Taoists would say: “Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind become still.” While meditating, we see a lot of things, a lot of commentary, and opinions.
Or we can also feel a sense of peace and calm. There is the feeling of this calmness, and then there’s the commentary of the feeling of this calmness. Two very separate things. Zen tries to bring us in to the experience itself. What are you thinking? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? – By asking these questions we get closer to the experience, closer to our true experience.
When we meditate, we tend to drift away from this and get lost in the commentary: the problems you’ve had at work, what you have to do next. We live our life thinking of the future (of what we think is to come) and the past (what has already happened). In Zen you might hear shouts and hits, this is not some sort of torture, the point of this is to come back to this moment. It is incredibly easy to drift away to our thoughts.
Zen orients us to come back in order to search for the fundamental question: What am I?
Have a clear mind. The way we can return to this moment is to say: I don’t know. It means to let go of one’s certainty, we are so afraid of not knowing that we construct fantasies of what things are so we can feel comfort in our knowing. Zen teaches us to get some comfort in not knowing. If you can be comfortable enough in not knowing, then you have the stability to be present with some curiosity and wonder.
We all have problems; we all struggle in our lives – that’s the human condition. Our desire is to solve our problems so that we can be happier. The problem is that we are stuck in our own conceptual thinking, it may happen that the more we try to solve a problem, the worse it gets – or that when we do solve a problem, another problem pops up.
For every specific thing that you engage yourself in, make sure to focus entirely on it until you are done with it.
There’s no need to do many things altogether at a time - always remember that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. Nobody that loses focus on whatever he is doing succeeds in that particular thing.
In Zen we expand our thinking, and if we listen closely – the answer is right there. But if we are stuck in our ideas and belief system, we often can’t find it. Be present and see what is happening, not your fantasy about what is happening but seeing what’s actually happening and then responding. That in a nutshell, is Zen practice, and Zen life. This can also be compared other practices such as Taoism or Stoicism.
To be present, to hear what’s being spoken and to hear it clearly.
Our life is built around making assumptions, but often times when you talk to someone – you aren’t talking about the same thing. What you meant about something is not what the other person is thinking you meant – in many ways, that’s what we do with our lives, we make assumptions, our consciousness is built in such a way to make assumptions, we’re making approximations all the time. One of the most important practices is to learn when you are making wrong assumptions, without getting defensive but rather acknowledging it.
A huge and important factor that causes stress is having a strong opinion on everything.
Once you let go of assumptions that you aren't 100% sure of, your life will become easier. Seek a balance in your mind & body connection by reducing workloads or atleast, taking the same amount of time for leisure than you do for work. This way, your brain will find new ways to spark creativity and become even more productive in the long run.
Then you can start to listen more closely, to be in the moment and find out what’s actually going on. The simple practice of sitting down, closing your eyes, breathing slowly in (what am I?), breathing slowly out (don’t know), trains us to be present. Zen meditation brings our attention down to our lower abdomen, it is diaphragmatic breathing. In the inhalation, your belly expands out, and on the exhalation, it falls.
“To study Buddhism is to study yourself. To study yourself is to forget yourself.”
- Zen Master Dōgen.
The point of Zen is not to master Buddhist teachings, but to realize who you really are – and in order to realize this, you must let go of yourself.
Zen teaches us that to let go of ourselves, we need to realize that the self and the external world are not two different realms, but rather one. The evaporation of this separation allows a natural state of compassion and wisdom, in which our life flows through. So be immersed in this moment, not in the future and not in the past, be aware and alive right now.