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What Is Zen?

Today, the concept of “Zen” is often used to describe a state of calm, centeredness, or peace — traits commonly associated with practitioners of Zen Buddhism, where the term comes from. In its historical context, true Zen is about simply being. It is the moment when we learn to let go of rigid notions of reality and live in the here and now — a transcendent idea that has made Zen one of the most popular Buddhism schools in the world.

Zen Buddhism is interested in the self and its relation to the natural world, and the goal of Zen teachings is to ignite a new understanding of our existence within the universe. This is achieved through a meditative practice of zazen, a diligent practice of self-examination that Zen Buddhists believe is the means through which to attain true enlightenment. From this practice comes the idea of a third perspective, one that’s not focused on the duality of existence (me vs. the rest of the world) or preoccupied with oneness. Instead, Zen teaches us to live an enlightened life that flows between the two.

Zen Buddhism originated in China, where it was known as “Chan,” a word derived from a Sanskrit term for meditation. Legend holds that when the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma introduced the concept to China in the sixth century CE, his ideas merged with the region’s strong Taoist roots to form the Chan school of Buddhism. During Japan’s medieval era, beginning in the 12th century CE, Chan Buddhism — pronounced in Japanese as “Zen” — blossomed and inspired much of the feudal island’s art, traditions, and culture.

The Beginner’s Mind

A core tenet of Zen Buddhism is the practice of clearing the mind of what you think you know, so you can be ready (and willing) to receive new kinds of wisdom. This is essentially the practice of unlearning perceptions and habits formed from a lifetime of existing in the world. The goal is to approach Zen Buddhism with shoshin, or “a beginner’s mind.”

“You should not say ‘I know what Zen is,’” wrote Shunryu Suzuki, one of the founders of Zen in the U.S. “This is also the secret of the arts: always be a beginner.” It’s with this beginner mentality that Zen Buddhism must be taught and practiced.

Enlightenment Through Meditation

A key component of Zen Buddhism is the meditative practice known as zazen. Derived from the Chinese word zuochan, meaning “serene meditation,” this sitting technique aims to focus the mind inward while letting our logical, analytical thoughts — the ones that are usually running the show — to slowly recede.

In the typical Zen meditation posture, the legs are crossed with the feet resting on the thighs of the opposite legs. Even this posture exemplifies a deeper Zen truth: While both legs are two, they are also one. Meditating is the core practice through which to achieve enlightenment, the purpose of Zen Buddhism. As a popular Zen Buddhist phrase puts it: “Enlightenment is an accident. Practice makes you accident prone.”

Zen Buddhists believe that enlightenment is achievable within every living person — an idea best expressed through a famous poem by Hakuin Ekaku, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism: “All beings by nature are Buddha / As ice by nature is water / Apart from water there is no ice; / Apart from beings, no Buddha.”

Duality and Ego

At its core, Zen Buddhism aims to disrupt the dualistic, ego-driven default setting of the human mind. Zen encourages us to focus on “not two,” questioning the dual nature of “you” and the things you perceive. Conversely, the idea of “not one” teaches the Zen practitioner to not become single-minded in oneness, either. Simply stated, Zen Buddhists strive for a third perspective that is confined to neither dualism nor non-dualism.

This idea of perpetually flowing between these two states is often why Zen Buddhism is represented by the ensō circle, or Zen circle, an image of perfection and an expression of Zen’s ideas of “not two” and “not one.” As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki put it, “There is no distinction between heaven and earth, man and woman, teacher and disciple… everything has the same value.” This practice removes false distinctions and perceptions of existence, giving Zen practitioners the ability to simply be in the moment — in that Zen-like state of peaceful wisdom and focused acceptance that has attracted people around the world for centuries.


Photo credit: katerinasergeevna/ iStock

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About the Author
Darren Orf
Darren lives in Portland, Oregon, has two cats, and writes about science, technology, nature, and history.
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