What is Zen?

Defining Zen is a bit like defining Freemasonry. While definitions exist, they are rarely satisfactory. These definitions offer possible meanings, but by including some aspects they also preclude others. However, just as when we describe a man or a symbol as “Masonic”, we tend to understand what is being suggested. The same can be said for “zen”.

The word “zen” is a Japanese word that literally means “meditation”. It comes from the Chinese “chan” which ultimately came from the Sanskrit “dyana”. Zen has become popular in the West over the past few decades due to a number of influences including Americans who have spread the ideas of Zen (e.g. Watts, Ginzberg, Cleary, etc). Other than Tibetan Buddhism and its very visible spokesman the Dalai Lama, Zen is the most frequently encountered school of Buddhism in the West yet is probably also the most misunderstood.

The founding of Zen Buddhism is attributed to Bodhidharma’s arrival during the reign of Wei Xia Ming, emperor of China 516-528 CE. The story tells that upon arrival at a Shaolin temple, Bodhidharma was angry at the physical condition of the monks of the temple. To answer what should be done about this situation, he meditated facing a blank, white wall for 9 years. At the end of this time, he had the answers he sought. In addition to founding the school of Zen Buddhism, he is credited by some as the father of Shaolin boxing.

There are two main methods of Zen practice: zazen meditation and the study of koans. The first method, zazen, is literally “sitting meditation”. Zazen requires the practitioner to focus on a specific target, which is usually the breath. The meditator does not make a conscious attempt to control the mind by shutting off thoughts and feelings, but simply lets it be. Whenever distracted, the meditator gently redirects focus back to the target. For more information on meditation, see the essay , “What is Meditation?”. The second method is the study of koans. For more information on the nature of koans and how to work with them, see the essay, “What is a Koan?”.

Perhaps we have done a poor job of defining Zen for you. Let us consider the words of D.T. Suzuki from An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1949).

“Zen is not to be confounded with a form of meditation as practised by “New Thought” people, or Christian Scientists, or Hindu Sannyasins, or some Buddhists. Dhyana, as it is understood by Zen, does not correspond to the practice as carried on in Zen. A man may meditate on a religious or philosophical subject while disciplining himself in Zen, but that is only incidental; the essence of Zen is not there at all. Zen purposes to discipline the mind itself, to make it its own master, through an insight into its proper nature. This getting into the real nature of one’s own mind or soul is the fundamental object of Zen Buddhism. Zen, therefore, is more than meditation and Dhyana in its ordinary sense. The discipline of Zen consists in opening the mental eye in order to look into the very reason of existence.”

A fundamental quest in Zen is the immersion, or loss, of the self within an activity, thereby allowing the activity to happen according to its own true nature. In sports, this feeling is often described as “being in the zone”. This type of feeling has been expounded upon in popular literature such as Zen and the Art of Archery and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

At its core, Zen is about developing discipline of the mind and awareness through the practice of mindfulness. For some persons, such discipline can be developed through meditation, chanting, walking, yoga, tai chi, etc. For others, mindfulness can be developed and practiced in their everyday lives, as further explained by Suzuki (ibid):

“Some say that as Zen is admittedly a form of mysticism it cannot claim to be unique in the history of religion. Perhaps so; but Zen is a mysticism of its own order. It is mystical in the sense that the sun shines, that the flower blooms, that I hear at this moment somebody beating the drum in the street. If these are mystical facts, Zen is brim-full of them. When a Zen master was once asked what Zen was, he replied, “Your everyday thought”.

Ultimately, Zen is not so much about doing as it is about being.

For more information on Zen, visit the websites linked to the “Zen” section of the ZenMasonry Resources page.