Basics of Zen


If you have never come across Zen before, it might seem quite perplexing with its apparent contradictions and paradoxes. But if you are ready and willing to commit yourself to the “Way” then it is one of the most powerful methods to transform the quality of your life that I have ever come across. If you are not ready, it will not make the slightest bit of sense and chances are you will soon quit.

Unlike other philosophies, Zen is like climbing a huge mountain in which the climb is more important than the destination. This is where a great paradox comes into action… What is the point of making such a climb if to achieve your goal and reach the top is of the least importance? Exactly! The answer is in the question itself and comes to the practitioner experientially – so experientially that words are inadequate to explain the profundity of it. Climbers of great Mountains like Everest come closer to the spirit of Zen when they answer the question, ‘why do you do it?’ by simply stating, ‘because it’s there!’

So why do I practice Zen?

This is a question that I can only answer from my own experience it. Another Zen practitioner my answer it differently…

From sitting and stilling the mind for periods in zazen (Zen meditation) for the last 25 years, I have developed a higher state of awareness in all things whether they feel good or bad.

I live my life more focused on the moment of now than I did before and I suffer very little from stress. I am not saying that I do not have stress, because that is part of life. What I am saying is that I am very aware when I experience stress and recognize it for what it is – it does not hurt me. For instance, my blood pressure is very low – averaging something like 110/70 and rarely deviates from that. Most people I know of my age, ‘non-Zen’ people, are constantly monitoring high blood pressure. I am not saying that zazen is an antidote to high blood pressure, all I am doing here is sharing the fact that hypertension, although it runs in my family, has never been a problem for me.

In his excellent book The Three Pillars of Zen (which in my opinion is indispensable for someone starting out in Zen), the late Roshi Philip Kapleau explains the value of zazen over other forms of meditation thus… “[In zazen] the mind is freed from bondage to all thought forms, visions, objects and imaginings and brought to a state of absolute emptiness, from which alone it may one day perceive its own true nature or the nature of the universe.” He goes on to say… “zazen is like a silent missile to penetrate the barriers of the five senses and the discursive intellect

Penetrate the barriers of the five senses and discursive intellect?

It that something that is wanted or even wise to pursue?

From my point of view, I would say, ‘yes, it is both wanted and wise’, but many years ago the activity of penetrating barriers of my intellect worried me. Was I going to end up stupid and ‘senseless’ by controlling my mind and thoughts in such a way?

No, that was not something that was going to happen. What did happen was that I transcended the intellectual mind and realized that at a higher state of awareness, there was a different type of intelligence – an intelligence beyond mere knowledge. In fact, there came a realization of ‘knowing nothing’ which was extremely liberating. And the fear that my mind would be numbed and unable to function in the common everyday world couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, because of zazen, my focus was on improving and my ability to carry out intellectual tasks was greatly enhanced.

Is Zen a religion?

Many people think Zen is a religion. Well, if awareness of life and all that goes with it is considered to be a religion, then yes, it is a religion but not in the conventional sense. To me, Zen is a ‘way’ and it can be applied to any religion – not just Zen Buddhism, but Zen Catholicism, Zen Judaism, to name just a few.

It can also be applied to everyday matters like Zen in Business, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (another wonderful book), not to mention the martial arts like karate, aikido and tai chi. All these activities are greatly enhanced with the spirit and discipline of Zen.

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