What is Zen

  What is Zen?   Zen is very simple... What are you? In this whole world everyone searches for happiness outside, but nobody understands their true self inside. Everybody says, "I" -- "I want this, I am like that..." But nobody understands this "I." Before you were born, where did your I come from? When you die, where will your I go? If you sincerely ask, "what am I?" sooner or later you will run into a wall where all thinking is cut off. We call this "don't know." Zen is keeping this "don't know" mind always and everywhere. When walking, standing, sitting, lying down, speaking, being silent, moving, being still.  At all times, in all places, without  interruption -- what is this?
One mind is infinite kalpas. Meditation in Zen means keeping don't-know mind when bowing, chanting and sitting Zen. This is formal Zen practice. And when doing something, just do it. When driving, just drive; when eating, just eat; when working, just work. Finally, your don't-know mind will become clear. Then you can see the sky, only blue. You can see the tree, only green. Your mind is like a clear mirror. Red comes, the mirror is red; white comes the mirror is white. A hungry person comes, you can give him food; a thirsty person comes, you can give her something to drink. There is no desire for myself, only for all beings. That mind is already enlightenment, what we call Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way. It's very simple, not difficult! So Buddha said that all beings have Buddha-nature (enlightenment nature). But Zen Master Joju said that a dog has no Buddha-nature. Which one is right? Which one is wrong? If you find that, you find the true way.  Zen is Understanding Yourself One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-Sa, "What is Zen?" Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, "Do you understand?" The student said, "I don't know." Soen-sa said, "This don't know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself." "What do you understand about me? Teach me." Soen-sa said, "In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same. "In the same way, all things in the universe - the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth - have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don't know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you." The student said, "Some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind, or God, or matter. Which is the truth?" Soen-sa said, "Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One blind man touched its side and said, 'The elephant is like a wall.' The next blind man touched its trunk and said, 'The elephant is like a snake.' The next blind man touched its leg and said, 'The elephant is like a column.' The last blind man touched its tail and said, 'The elephant is like a broom.' Then the four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood the whole. "Substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves. Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is Zen." The student said, "How can practicing Zen make world peace?" Soen-sa said, "People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I." The student said, "How can I understand the Absolute?" Soen-sa said, "You must first understand yourself." "How can I understand myself?" Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, "Do you see this?" He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, "Do you hear this? This stick, this sound, your mind - are they the same or different?" The student said, "The same." Soen-sa said, "If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?" The student was silent. Soen-sa shouted, "KATZ!!!" Then he said, "Spring comes, the grass grows by itself." 
From Dropping Ashes On The Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn
edited by Stephen Mitchell (Grove Press, New York, NY, 1976)    
Copyright © Providence Zen Center

Daily Star newspaper Article:
What is Zen?  Many things

By Zen Master Wu Kwang

In the early years of my practice of Zen, my father would periodically ask me whether Zen was a religion or a way of life. 
Seen from different vantage points, one could say that Zen is both religion and not religion, neither religion and neither not religion and perhaps religion before religion.  Such is the paradoxical and hard to define nature of the Zen tradition. I was always slightly perplexed by my father’s question because the exact distinction between religion and a way of life seemed vague. After all, for religion to be alive, it must be practiced as a way of life, rather than something one does only on Sunday or Saturday or on particular holidays. 
The word religion derives from the Latin, religare, to bind back. In theistic traditions, this is related to the bond between God and man/woman. 

However, Buddhism, in which Zen is embedded, is a nontheistic tradition. Therefore the practice of binding back has a somewhat different connotation. 
Zen is primarily focused on the question of mind: What is the exact nature of the mind through which we experience ourselves and the world around us? How do we make a world of our own creation through thinking, conceptualization and holding various opinions and through generating views of self and other, subject and object and inside and outside? What is my original self before I give rise to any of these dualistic distinctions? 

Therefore in Zen, to bind back is to redirect awareness from our small contracted egocentric view toward the openness of our original self before thinking. This implies clarity and lucidity rather than an empty blank state of mind. Most spiritual traditions have practices involving vows or intentions and acts of repentance. Zen practice is also rooted in these attitudes and acts. In Zen practice we begin by making a firm decision to attain enlightenment or realize our true self and help others. These are, in reality, not two separate acts. To perceive our true self is to realize our interconnectedness with all that exists, and therefore helping others is to realize our self. It is from this perception that the essential qualities of compassion and wisdom spring forth. To actualize compassion and wisdom in our moment-to-moment existence in the world is the expression of Zen mind.  Because we so often lose awareness of essential self and become caught in self-centered egocentric action, we feel a sense of estrangement. To recognize this is to have a feeling of repentance — an urge to return to openness and the perception of interconnectedness.

Zen meditation is involved with cultivating the practice of present centeredness and looking into the question of self by asking, "What am I?" Initially, one does this by setting aside some time every day to sit quietly and attempt to remain present with a sense of inquiry into the nature of self. Zen meditation, however, is not limited to a formal exercise done in a sitting position. One is encouraged to cultivate the attitude of present centeredness and self-inquiry in all of one’s daily activities. Ultimately, there is driving your car Zen, eating Zen, working Zen, etc.  Because of Zen’s focus on present centeredness and self-inquiry, we often find people of different religions practicing Zen without relinquishing their connection with their own faith. I have known Catholic priests and monks, Protestant ministers and observant Jews who are also involved with Zen practice.  Much of the essence of Zen teaching is conveyed through stories and parables that emphasize the down-to-earth and everyday quality of the Zen tradition, and leave one with the sense of a question.
A monk approached Zen Master Jo Ju and said, "Master, I have just entered your monastery, please give me your teaching." Zen Master Jo Ju asked the monk, "Did you have breakfast?" "Yes I did," answered the monk." "Then wash your bowl," retorted Jo Ju. At this, the monk attained enlightenment. What was it that the monk attained?

Zen Master Wu Kwang, ( Richard Shrobe,) is the guiding teacher of the Binghamton Zen Group.

Copyright © Binghamton Zen Center


© Michael OSullivan 2014