Inevitably, in the course of the life of a Zen Buddhist, someone will ask us “What is Zen”?  The simple answer is, of course, it’s the mystical branch of Chinese/ Japanese/ Korean/ Vietnamese (choose one) Buddhism.  When I’ve explained it this way I usually get blank stares, and for a good reason: it doesn’t explain what Zen is or why Zen is. 

I thought I would investigate a better answer with kind help from my Zen friends.

I have corresponded with a great many people interested in Zen, mostly through the Internet.  Many are newcomers while many have been engaged in Zen for a very long time.  Many are quite young as I was when starting out, while others are much older than me.  Quite a few who I have had the privileges of knowing have died, some in old age, others when relatively young.

Our understanding of Zen is wholly dependent on where we are on life’s (Zen’s) journey, as well as with the intensity with which we engage in Zen.  We can apply definitions to describe most things: we can define a tree, for example, by its leaves, by its trunk, and color, and seeds or fruit, and many other characteristics.  But the very nature of Zen eludes definition --- it’s as if the more we try to define it, the more it resists.  So what is Zen then; this “thing” that seems so slippery and illusive when we try to confine it, yet has had such tremendous impact on lives that it has survived for millennia? 

Any answer I could offer would be purely my perspective, which would be both subjective and personal.  So over the last few months I have queried my Zen friends with the question of “What is Zen” so that perhaps a more complete picture can be synthesized by those of you who have yet to discover its secrets for yourself.  As you read through these comments from Zen practitioners young and old, male and female, from the Japanese and Chinese and other traditions, you will find some common threads:

CHZK: “Zen comes through the way of great suffering.  It is like a rescue anchor. I just practice and don’t think about what it is.  Its effect is what is meaningful. ”

TN: “Zen is a technique which brings us to the point of maximum balance.”  

FYS: “Zen is a TRICK. Best one I know. It is a method to break our illusions and get free of fear, greed and selfishness. As a result we become compassionate and happy.  It is a trick, because before and after, the world is not changed, the only thing that has changed is our view, our understanding.  All is created by mind. Everything. We create our world and in so doing we judge, like, dislike, want, need. We are sad, happy, proud, and fearful.  Our personal reality is not the same as any other persons’: because we construct it, it is conditional; therefore without the essence of reality.  It is illusion.  Zen allows us to transcend the conditional world and see directly the unconditional nature of Reality.”  

HH: “What is defining Zen? 10,000 things illuminating illusions.” 

JGS: “My practice of Zen centers in keeping my conscious mind focused on innocent purity. The exponential growth of technology in our world prompts me to think of my body-mind as a computer. My subconscious mind is the operating system and the software that directs and controls the thousands of tasks that are critical to keep me fit and functioning. My conscious mind has the important task of input management – it determines what goes through the gates to become part of me. I welcome clean, fresh air, wholesome food, pleasant companions, a good night's sleep. I have no interest in upsetting my feelings with the negativity that conflict, competition, anger, anxiety and so forth brings. My Zen is to reserve my deep feelings for joy. ”   

FHJM: “Zen  = 1”  

JGS:   “ZEN is a first step in seeing the finite universe from the perspective of the infinity from which it is born. ”  

BV: “Who is it that considers “what is Zen,” and in considering the question, do we clarify what Zen is or who we are? To define something, to make it known, is to obscure its meaning. “Zen” is a symbol in the trivial sense, but if the inquiry into Zen is to be in service of liberation, it must be a stimulus that takes us from the known to the unknown. If our consideration of “what is Zen” is sincere, answers are yesterday’s news. Zen is being awakened and liberated. We don’t awaken to something, to an understanding, we simply awaken. We aren’t liberated from anything, we are truly already liberated. We don’t clarify an answer in the process of conscious effort, inquiry, or practice, we discover our boundless and inconceivable possibility, or what could be called our “True Nature.” Like “Zen,” our “True Nature” is inconceivable. Realizing our True Nature could be called Zen practice. Practice in this sense is synonymous with Realization. ”  

GKB: “Zen is no concept. And as it is no concept, it cannot be described with any language (as language is a concept itself). Zen is practice. Everything and nothing. How does it feel to put your foot into the ocean?   

PD: “Zen doesn't exist as such. How could we define something that doesn't exist? It's probably a simple concept... or more accurately, a bundle of concepts, all somehow different from one practitioner to another. Does the World (as Buddha Nature) say: «I exist !» or «Zen is this or that». No! Only man wants to utter definitions. But if one has to give a definition for «Zen», I suggest: «Simply understanding that nothing can be defined as such».”  

HML: “Zen is totally ordinary and compelling reality. ”   

KKM: “I would rather first define Buddha …: Buddha = Awakened Mind. From that point, I could possibly define Zen as: Dwelling in the Awakened Mind. But then again, there is always that finger and the moon ... ”   

The responses to the question “What is Zen” are quite diverse, yet the main sense we get from them, taken collectively, is that Zen is extremely valuable and life-altering.

While we may not be able to define Zen, it’s interesting to ask why Zen exists in the first place.  In fact, why do we have mystical traditions at all, and why have they survived so assiduously for hundreds, if not thousands, of generations?   

Contemporary western culture could be characterized by science and technology, overpopulation, a competitive drive for money and prestige, fast cars, overt sexual presentations in public media of all kinds, excesses of abundance, social media addiction … the list can be as long as we want to make it.  Yet in the midst of extreme lifestyles, our essence as humans is pretty much the same now as it was 10,000 years ago. We are not much different from our “cave man” ancestors who drew paintings of oxen deep inside the Lascaux caves 50,000 years ago or more.  Indeed, archeologists tell us that that it was during the Paleolithic period, 300,000 to 50,000 years ago, that the first evidence of spiritual practices can be identified.

Evolution takes a long time to make significant changes in mammalian species.  For perspective, the horse shoe crab that we know today dates back 450,000,000 years, 200 million years before the age of the dinosaurs!  Evolution happens slowly. To consider ourselves, as humans, recent products of evolution is to overlook the fact that we really haven’t changed much in a very very long time.  What has changed much is society and technology and population density and culture.

While we no longer bury sacrificial virgins in the cornerstone posts of our huts to please the gods and bless our home, we now, collectively, have become separated from life’s spiritual significance; our lives are determined by our jobs, money, status, what neighborhood we live in, where we went to school, what car we drive, what clothes we wear. We have, in essence, externalized ourselves.  I posit that this started happening around the time that humanity started forming agrarian civilizations around 10,000 BC, which is perhaps when spirituality, as a way of life, started to transition into religion, the institution. 

Stating the obvious, in our present day, religion is often regarded as at odds with the phenomenological world.  On one end we have the popular science personality, Neil deGrasse Tyson, rebuking religious extremists who seek to replace reason and understanding with blind faith and fear, while on the other end, religious splinter groups wage political, social, and military wars against “non-believers”.  The modern age and religion just don’t seem to get along very well.  For many, we either embrace religion and discount what scientists tell us about the physical world, or we discount religion and embrace reality through the field glasses of science and observation and direct experience.  I can imagine that it didn’t used to be this way;  that physical phenomena and spiritual phenomena were not seen as two separate things but were one and the same.   What changed was the growth of power structures representing the “spiritual”.  The “Church” became a defined entity, offering separate religious/spiritual space.  People began living “secular” lives outside the church, then going to Church at a scheduled time each day or week to balance things out.   Separation brought with it many consequences.  Church became big business.  Obligatory donations of services and money created further separation, group cohesion, and institution-building. Some people who sought wealth and prestige used the Church to their advantage.  Populations responded, sensing a progressive disparity between their daily lives and their spiritual lives.  They became fractured, and unsure of themselves, of what was to believe and not believe: their psyche in a state of chaos, their mind in a state of anomy. 

In response to this, they were taught Church dogma: what to do and what not to do; what to believe and what not to believe; how to act and how not to act. Independent thinking became anachronistic. Some felt more akin with the Church, others not so much, depending on their psychological and spiritual stability and personal “groundedness”.  Those who did not experience the need for an externalized religious body to guide them  found themselves in conflict with the Church.  Today we continue to see the extremes of this – religious fanatics, and their balancing counterparts, anti-religious extremists. 

As humans, our nature is all-encompassing.  We are both spiritual beings, and beings of this physical world.  Spiritual does not mean religious.  It means we are intimately connected to our intrinsic nature, to the essence of all around us: that we are part of “It”.   When we lose that connection we suffer tremendously because we feel ourselves in isolation.  When we are connected --- well, then all is well: we live in harmony.

This is the essence of the teachings of Zen. 

To become connected, once again, is the purpose of all mystical traditions, including Zen.  We can read all we want, quote the masters, espouse religious rhetoric of all kinds, but none of that matters.  Zen requires that we return to the source:  connect with our essence directly.  Zen offers thousands of techniques for this, from koan practices, to meditations, to the hua-tou, to certain martial arts practices, calligraphy, music…. Every device conceived that can possibly help a person re-connect with his or her essence, Buddha Nature, has been, or will be, tried. 

Zen is its own oxymoron by nature.  Definitions don’t stick to it because it lives outside the domain of discursive thought.  Its power is in its ability to break us out of conditioned ways of thinking and feeling and being: to get us out of the cage we get trapped in so we can become whole again.  There are so many words used to talk about Zen which can make it seem infinitely complex to the newcomer.  But in its essence, Zen is extraordinarily simple:  Just look.  What do you see?