What is Zen? 

If you were to travel back in time and pose this question to a master in T'ang Dynasty China, you might be puzzled by the response.


It might be silence, an insult, or the raising of a fly whisk. Your question might elicit a shout or the 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, it's helpful and sometimes necessary to wade a bit more deeply into the clumsy realm of language and description.

This overview of Zen (biased and incomplete) is based on my own 25+ years of practice and study.


So, what is Zen? 


It's a living tradition that can be traced back 2500 years to the historical Buddha. 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 being that is deeper than language or culture;

—an understanding that consistent practice tends to enhance one's sense of meaning, belonging, and purpose;

—an increasing interest in the extraordinary aspects of the ordinary and the ordinary aspects of the extraordinary;

—a growing experience of inter-being, or the 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; 

—an understanding that the teacher is a guide, rather than some 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 experiences like samadhi (single-minded absorption), kenshō (insight into reality-nature), and prajña (the wisdom of non-duality/emptiness) 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 periodic 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 is not linear and one may sometimes feel discouraged and frustrated; 

—a deepening understanding of greed, anger, and delusion and how these qualities seek to arise and function in one's own life; 

—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.

 © 2021 Hoag Holmgren