What is Zen?

Whenever I study Zen Buddhism I am reminded of the saying (invented by me) that ‘Life is so ridiculously simple that a child of five could get it.’

And the fundamental point of Zen, it seems to me, is that the mind over-complicates life. With worries, self-pity, guilt, unsatisfied expectations, perfectionism, inertia, over-analysis, as well as a variety of bananas (ego cravings) And, in doing so, it creates unhappiness and prevents us from seeing things as they really are, in present moment awareness.

    Zen and the four noble truths

In his first sermon on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha (Gautama) refers to the human tendency to view reality as ‘Dukka’. In the original Pali (the language spoken by Gautama) ‘dukka’ means a bent, or incomplete, wheel (see the image up right). In English ‘dukka; is usually translated as ‘suffering’, but it doesn’t really mean that. What it means is the way in which the mind is constantly looking for the perfect wheel: but dissatisfied, discontented, worried and oppressed by actual experience. That is is always looking for things to be ‘just right’: contented, happy, and at peace. But never finding peace of mind because – even when glimpsed – the ego always looks for something more.

    Zen and wrong thinking

There is a story told by the Buddha (Gautama) meant as an analogy for the human condition. It concerns a man who is shot by an arrow who, instead of seeing his pain and doing something about it in the moment, insists on talking about the arrow – where it came from, who shot it, why it had to be him of all people, etc etc. Thinking doesn’t make you aware and it sometimes just makes you stupid. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha encourages us to release Dukka by seeing through this Junkmind tendency.

Zen Buddhism is a systematic attempt to get back to the original teachings of the Buddha, using a variety of exercises and meditational forms on the path to enlightenment. One such form is to meditate on a koan. A koan is an impossible question; one that can never be answered by ordinary ways of thinking. For example:

MaitreThe master placed a vase of water on the ground and asked: ‘Who can show what this is without saying it’s name?”

(The ‘correct’ answer: The Zen monk kicks over the vase with his foot and walks out).

   Zen enlightenment

Zen koans are designed to help people bypass habitual thought. When you see that there is no answer to the question ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ you are enlightened in that moment because you have seen through the tricks that language (and thought) plays on you. You have realised that some thoughts get you nowhere. By implication, you may also realise that thoughts are not facts. And, if you get that, you sometimes also get a glimpse of what reality looks like when you are not thinking about it.

I once, briefly, had such an experience a few years ago while I was looking at my back garden on a glorious sunny day. Maybe because I was surprised by the beauty of what I saw, my intellectual mind stopped chattering for a couple of minutes. And I caught a glimpse of just how ok the world was when left to itself: without words, without worries, and without instant judgments about the way things ‘ought’ to look like. Absent of dukka, in fact.


Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay

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