WHAT IS ZEN?

Misty Mountains

Questions tend to be valued more than answers in Zen. A question seeks the open field; an answer seeks to wrap things up and go home.

 

What is Zen? is a question whose power lies in the depth of the inquiry.

As with other worthy questions—Who am I?  What's the point of all this?  Where are we going?—the question itself proves to be rich beyond initial reckonings, so rich that the need for an answer softens. Words fall away and the smell of rain replaces you. At such a time there's no Zen to be found anywhere. 


Who are you when your private narratives recede? 

Who are you when the smell of the rain replaces you? 

In Zen, such questions are also called koans, and there are several hundred that have been handed down from teacher to student over the centuries. 

What is Buddha? 

What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?

What is your original face, the one before your parents were born? 

In sitting with a koan, a kinship develops between you and the koan, and you get the sense that it's sitting with you too.

 

In this kinship, in koan after koan, you may begin to experience more space and light in ordinary moments. There may be less need for pre-made narratives about how the world is or isn't making sense. Joy may become increasingly interested in showing up for no reason.  

 

Not-knowing, it turns out, is the texture of a creative life. And it becomes increasingly clear that you and the cosmos share something silent and unmoving.

Bamboo shadows sweep the stairs

but no dust is stirred; 

moonlight reaches the bottom of the pond

but no trace is left in the water. 

                                                        Zenrin-kushū, 1688