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Snowy Mountain Peaks

What is Zen?​


Good question.


With patience, curiosity, and lots of zazen, you might begin to notice how answers have a fondness for falling away. You might also notice how stillness has a fondness for drawing near. Does the sound of the rain go right through? Are those bickering crows outside or inside? Is there something called Zen that can be found among bushes, birds, cities, and galaxies?

Where certainty shuts down inquiry, questions open a window.

The Zen tradition uses questions and scraps of ancient dialogue called koans that reveal a fortifying boundlessness of heart and mind. Handed down from teacher to student over the centuries, they're well-worn, pliable, and scrappy. And they have an uncanny ability to speak directly to your life, here and now in the 21st century.

Here's one: What is your original face, the one before your parents were born?

In sitting with a koan, a kinship develops. You find that each koan, like a friend, has its own completeness and raw beauty. And at some point its seemingly paradoxical quality begins to dissolve. Oh, this is my original face. Of course! And then it's quite easy to demonstrate your original face to the teacher. 

Koans offer a radical proposition: there is a way of being in this world that is more intimate, generous, and nourishing than the old towers of knowing and naming allow. The rich not-knowing at the heart of koan work is the same not-knowing at the heart of any creative, inspired, and engaged life—your life. As you gain freedom from narrow certainties and old habits of heart and mind, you find allies and guides in unexpected places. You are not, after all, a stranger in this world.


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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