Understanding the Basics of Zen Practice


What Is This Zen Stuff?

Zen is a word that gets thrown around a lot in popular media. Most people have heard of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, they’ve seen Zen clocks for sale and may have even had friends tell them to be “more Zen”. But, what exactly is Zen? The media’s interest in the subject over the last few years has made discovering exactly what Zen is more difficult. It’s also made the truth of Zen harder to grasp, although that in itself is a bit of a contradiction. So in the hopes of giving the average person a deeper understanding of Zen, I’m going to cover some of Zen’s main ideas, briefly, and point out areas where Zen is getting confused in the media for something else entirely.

Zen and Buddhism

Probably the most common thing associated with Zen and Buddhism, in general, is the idea of living in the now or keeping one’s attention firmly focused at the moment and only peripherally to look at the past and future. This is actually a Zen/Hindu tradition, but many people seem to equate it with either not wasting time, or with trying to get the most out of life.

The later is closer to the truth, but still not why Zen tells its students to surrender to the now. In Zen awakening to the presence of enlightenment is all that matters and by truly residing in the now one begins to see their ego’s shell for what it is, suffering, and this causes it to break down. The first step to really getting a feel for Zen is to understand that all of its practices are meant to stimulate the awakening process and come to genuine truth-realization. But what might you not know about Zen?

Well, Zen has a long tradition and many books have been written on the subject by some of the world’s best theologians, but one of its most basic principles gets overlooked quite often. This principle is the one known as “beginner’s mind”. Beginner’s mind is a simple realization that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know and thus should always approach anything with an open mind and the knowledge that you probably know it only a fraction, as well as you, think you do. Humbling isn’t it?


The last and maybe most important aspect of Zen is practice, or meditation, known as Zazen. Zazen is a process by which the student enters into a state of deep awareness and mental stillness in order to allow their own nature (which is enlightened) to appear to them. This could be the most overlooked aspect of Zen. It’s true that one can come to realization without practice, but with the continuous application of intense awareness and stillness, one comes to it inevitably, rather than by chance. Well, there you have it, now you know a little bit about Zen, so the next time someone tries to tell you that presence is just about living your life to the fullest you can say “well actually” but please, for the sake of Zen, do it in a humble way.

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