What is Zen?
If you were to travel back in time and present this question to a Ch'an (Zen) master in T'ang Dynasty China, you might be puzzled by the response.
It might be silence, the raising of a finger, or the presentation of a fly whisk. Your question might inspire a shout or a quick opening of a fan. Or the master might abruptly leave the room.
If words were used as a response, they might be a bit perplexing: "Who is asking?" or perhaps,"Listen, listen."
All these responses (borrowed from documented encounters with Ch'an masters) are direct, complete, and clear, revealing the heart of Zen—if only we can fully grasp and appreciate them.
The practice and realization of Zen ultimately outstrips anything we can say about it. Yet words can help us find and illuminate the way forward. They can also inspire, goad, and clarify.
So, wading into the mire and muck of words, what might be said about Zen?
Zen is a whole body-mind practice with deep roots in the Taoism of medieval China and the classical Buddhism of ancient India.
It's a well-marked and time-tested path, with zazen (seated stillness) as the cornerstone practice, where one can encounter the following:
—an experience of mind and being that is more primary than language, ideology, or culture;
—a growing freedom from habitual and reactive thinking;
—an enhancement of one's sense of meaning, belonging, connection, and purpose;
—a growing appreciation of the extraordinary aspects of the ordinary and the ordinary aspects of the extraordinary;
—a deepening taste of the interconnectedness of all things;
—generosity, creativity, joy, and ease manifesting more naturally;
—an appreciation and affection for sangha, the community of fellow practitioners;
—an opportunity to practice with a teacher;
—and in working with a teacher (meeting one-on-one regularly) an opportunity to explore the rich and subtle terrain of practice including zazen, koan introspection, breath practice, mindfulness practice, art practice, precept practice, and the practice of everyday life (washing the dishes, raising kids, having a career, being in relationship);
—an understanding that the teacher is a guide, rather than a guru or saint, whose practice is to put the needs of the student first and to support the student in developing their practice so it functions in everyday life;
—an understanding that subtle experiences with exotic-sounding labels like samadhi (single-minded absorption) and kensho (an insight into the non-dual nature of existence) are part of the landscape of practice—and crucial in easing deep existential burdens—but are not the final goals of practice;
—support in establishing and deepening a daily practice;
—opportunities to participate in retreats and longer periods of practice;
—an opportunity to read and study the teachings of ancestral and contemporary Zen along with the teachings of other relevant traditions;
—increasing inner stability and resilience;
—a greater freedom from one's emotions and moods as a result of neither rejecting nor clinging;
—a greater acceptance and sense of humor about one's own foibles and failings, and the foibles and failings of others;
—an understanding that the path does not unfold in a linear way and one may sometimes feel discouraged, lost, and frustrated;
—a deeper understanding of greed, anger, and delusion: how these states of mind arise and how to be less hindered by them;
—a new appreciation for patience;
—a growing sense that your life is more poem than equation;
—a recognition that the path never ends, that one's understanding is never complete, and that there are "depths beyond depths of mind," as Robert Aitken put it, to experience and integrate into one's daily life, for one's own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Please get in touch if you'd like to discuss or explore.
Our lineage of Zen Buddhism, Sanbo Kyodan (see image below), blends aspects of Japanese Soto and Rinzai schools as it seeks creative expressions in the 21st century.
Hoag's teacher, Danan Henry Roshi, is a Dharma heir of Philip Kapleau Roshi and was also recognized as a Diamond Sangha teacher by Robert Aitken Roshi.
Kapleau and Aitken both trained in Japan for years and were enormously influential in establishing authentic Zen training in Europe, South America, North America, and Australia in the 20th century.