Trying to explain or define Zen, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is illusion. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.
Defining Zen is like trying to describe the taste of honey to someone who has never tasted it before. You can try to explain the texture and scent of honey, or you can try to compare and correlate it with similar foods. However, honey is honey! As long as you have not tasted it, you are in the illusion of what honey is.
The same goes with Zen, because Zen is a practice that needs to be experienced, not a concept that you can intellectualize or understand with your brain. The information that we’ll give here won’t cover all of what of Zen is, but is a starting point to the Zen experience.
So, what is Zen?
Zen is, first and foremost, a practice that was uninterruptedly transmitted from master to disciple, and that goes back to the spiritual awakening (Satori in Japanese) of a man named Siddharta Gautama (Shakyamuni Gotama in Japanese) – The Buddha- 2500 years ago in India.
Zen is Zazen or Zen meditation (za meaning sitting, and Zen meaning meditation in Japanese), or seated meditation. That is, it is a way of vigilance and self-discovery which is practiced while sitting on a cushion. It is the experience of living from moment to moment, in the here and now.
Zazen is an attitude of spiritual awakening, which when practiced, can become the source from which all the actions of daily life flow- eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, working, talking, thinking, and so on.
Zen is not a theory, an idea, or a piece of knowledge. It is not a belief, a dogma, or a religion; but rather, it is a practical experience. We cannot intellectually grasp Zen, because human intelligence and wisdom is too limited- the dojo (the hall where Zazen is practiced) is different from the university.
Zen is not a moral teaching, and as it is without dogma, it does not require one to believe in anything. A true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in, rather it shows them how to think; or, in the case of Zen- what not to think.
“Zen is not a theory, an idea, or a piece of knowledge. It is not a belief, a dogma, or a religion…”
Zen also rejects metaphysical theories and rituals, and focuses entirely on the practice of Zazen. Zen is very simple. It is so simple, in fact, that it’s very difficult to grasp.
In the silence of the dojo, simply sit down, stop moving, and let go your thoughts. Focus just on your Zazen posture and your breathing. Keep your back straight. Let your ego and your unconscious mind melt away, merge with the universe. This is Zen.
Three Treasures of Zen
Three elements have long been considered integral and indispensable to Zen training – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Often referred to as the three treasures, they form the foundation of our practice and correspond, more or less, to our sitting practice, our understanding of the teachings, and our sitting together as a group.
It was Buddha himself who originally used zazen (“sitting meditation”) to resolve the “great matter” of human life, accomplishing the task with his great awakening at the age of thirty-five. The word “Buddha” refers not only to the historical man, but also to what he realized – the absolute fact of our existence. Through waking up to what this existence truly is and releasing the layers of delusion that obscure it, we can all become more wakeful, loving and content people.
Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddha and the Zen masters. In our lineage, we generally begin our meditation with breath-work, then move on either to the open awareness practice of shikantaza (“just sitting”), or to koan study. Koans – anecdotes about the sayings and doings of the Zen masters – are an exceptional teaching method for clarifying and deepening our insight into our own true nature.
Thirdly, the Sangha is our community of fellow-sitters. But since we are all embarked on this journey together, we consider our sangha not merely to be our fellow Zen-trainees, but all human beings—and ultimately, all beings of all kinds, including animals, trees, rivers and mountains, and even the great earth itself.
Three Fruits of Zen
Traditionally there are said to be three fruits of zazen.
The first is “concentration”—meaning in part simply the ability to hold our mind steady on a given task or object, but also more than that: a con-centering, a gathering together of our multiplicitous and wandering selves, a lessening of our readiness to be distracted from this very moment, right here and now; a growing capacity to be present to our lives, and open-hearted in our encounters with our friends, family, colleagues and strangers, and ultimately with all beings. Even the floor can be cherished by the soles of the feet as we walk, and a view of a distant tree-clad mountain can be received as a truly intimate gift.
The second fruit is “seeing reality” or “seeing true nature.” This is a moment of sudden revelation, when we are dropped into an experience of our intrinsic participation in a vast and single fact that unites all creation. Infinite, empty, one, “vast and clear,” boundless and boundary-less, with no inside or outside, no self and no other, no life and no death, no separation of any kind anywhere, this experience is often regarded as a turning point on the path of authentic Zen practice. And yet, there is no requirement that all students seek it, hope for it, or undergo it. Zen practice is entirely valid and complete without it, and everyone is fully free to enjoy whatever benefits they may be hoping for and indeed finding as a result of their regular meditation, regardless of whether such a realization befalls them.
The third fruit is the embodying or integrating of such an experience in everyday life. This is a long process, sometimes also called the “perfection of character,” since if we really lived out the reality glimpsed in a moment of realization, and in every instant of our lives were free of all last shreds of clinging or grasping, with no blocks or hindrances left, then we might indeed be something like “perfect.” But they say even Shakyamuni Buddha is still only half-way there.