What is Zen?
If you were to travel back in time and present this question to a 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 elicit 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 are direct and clear, revealing the heart of Zen—if only we can fully grasp and appreciate them.
Here in the 21st century, however, it's sometimes helpful to be a bit more descriptive.
So, what is 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;
—an enhancement of one's sense of meaning, belonging, connection, and purpose;
—a growing experience of the extraordinary aspects of the ordinary and the ordinary aspects of the extraordinary;
—a deepening sense of inter-being, or interconnectedness, of all things;
—generosity, creativity, joy, and ease manifesting more naturally in one's life as practice unfolds;
—a growing appreciation and affection for sangha, the community of fellow practitioners;
—an opportunity to practice with a teacher;
—and in working with a teacher, an opportunity to explore the rich and subtle terrain of practice including zazen (seated stillness), 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 like samadhi (single-minded absorption) and kenshō (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;
—an opportunity 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 capacity to accept one's emotions and moods without rejecting or 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 and frustrated;
—a better understanding of one's own greed, anger, and delusion: how these states of mind arise and how to practice with them;
—a new appreciation for patience;
—a sense that one's life is more like a poem than an 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.