What is Zen?
By Shinge Roshi
What is Zen? It’s both something we are—our true nature expressing itself moment by moment—and something we do—a disciplined practice through which we can realize the joy of being. It is not a belief system to which one converts. There is no dogma or doctrine. Zen is the direct experience of what we might call ultimate reality, or the absolute, yet it is not separate from the ordinary, the relative. This direct experience is our birthright. The practice of zazen—meditation—is a way of realizing the non-dualistic, vibrant, subtle, and interconnected nature of all life.
It was this path toward realization that was shown some 2,500 years ago by the Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as Shakyamuni Buddha. “Buddha” simply means “awakened one.” His great teaching was that we can all awaken; that fundamentally, we are all buddhas—Jewish buddhas, Christian buddhas, Hindu buddhas, Islamic buddhas, Ashanti buddhas, Haudenasaunee buddhas, secular buddhas.
With this flexible and accommodating attitude toward the various cultures and beliefs it encountered, Buddhism was embraced throughout Asia. In China, it merged with Taoism and evolved into Ch’an, the Chinese word for meditation, which became “Zen” in Japan. Over the past few decades, it has become very much a part of Western culture. Indeed, the historian Arnold Toynbee said that one of the most significant events of the twentieth century was the movement of Buddhism from East to West.
Through a dedicated and consistent meditation practice, we can realize that self and other are One, that the conditioned and unconditioned are simultaneous, that absolute and relative are identical. Out of this realization flows a natural compassion and wisdom, a peaceful and intuitively appropriate response toward whatever circumstances may arise. We don’t make a big deal about it; we don’t even call it religion. When the Dalai Lama was asked about Buddhism, he simply said, “My religion is kindness.”
So, again, what is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering—this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.
This simple yet profound practice can release us from the shackles of past and future, as well as from the self-imposed and imprisoning barriers we erect around what we erroneously consider our separate and unchanging identities. Who do we think we are, anyway? When we really look deeply, it becomes the koan “Who am I?” We find that the conditioned views and compulsive traits we have come to call “self” have no fixed substance. We can, through consistent zazen, free ourselves from that imposter self and discover the true self—the being that is open, confident, and unhindered, flowing with all that exists in this very moment. Thus quite naturally we care for the environment, starting with our own actions: not wasting the earth’s precious resources, realizing that every act has consequences. And quite naturally we extend This Mind; we vow to live with attention, integrity, and authenticity; we vow to free all beings from suffering.