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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.

As with other worthy questions—Who am I?  What's the point of all this?  Who are we and where are we going?—the question What is Zen? proves to be rich beyond initial reckonings, so rich that the need for a tidy answer begins to soften. With patience, and lots of zazen, you might find that words, concepts, and knowing fall away and the smell of rain replaces you. At such a time there's no Zen to be found anywhere. 

In Zen, questions that elude the usual ways of knowing are sometimes called koans, and there are several hundred that have been handed down from teacher to student over the centuries. 

How old is Buddha this year? 

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 working with koan after koan, the so-called ordinary moments of your day may begin to hold more space and light. You may lose your appetite for tidy narratives about who you are or about the state of the world. Joy may begin showing up for no reason.

 

Not-knowing, it turns out, is the ground floor of a creative life, the generous heart at the center of the life you're living right now. 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)

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