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What is Zen?

Questions tend to be more valuable 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 fall away entirely, and the sound of rain replaces you right there on your cushion. At such a time there's no Zen to be found anywhere. 

Questions that elude the usual ways of knowing are called koans in the Zen tradition, 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. You get the sense that the koan is sitting with you too. Just keeping company with a koan becomes its own kind of completeness and beauty, and the seemingly paradoxical quality of the koan eventually evaporates. Oh, this is my original face. Of course! 


The rich not-knowing at the heart of koan work is the same not-knowing at the heart of a creative life, a vast and generous experience of being that's already here if we can just awaken to it. 

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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