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What is Zen?

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?  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 and concepts fall away and the smell of rain replaces you. At such a time there's no Zen to be found anywhere. 

Questions that elude the usual ways of knowing are 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 it, and you get the sense that the koan is sitting with you too. And you may begin to find that the so-called ordinary moments of your day begin to hold more space and light. The neat and measured ways of being in the world become less interesting. Joy may begin showing up for no reason.


Not-knowing, it turns out, is the heart of a creative life: a generous, vast, and free way of being that's already here if we can just awaken to it.

This vastness is not something we own privately but is rather a ground shared with all beings, places, and things.  

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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