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.”
The Human Route
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed – that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one pure and clear thing?
- What is Zen?
- What is enlightenment?
- I’ve heard about koans, those Zen questions like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” What are koans?
About Zen and Religion
- Do I have to be a Buddhist or become a Buddhist to practice Zen meditation?
- I already have strong religious beliefs. Will Zen conflict with my faith?
About Zen and Family
- How can I tell my family and friends about my interest in Zen?
- My partner doesn’t support my Zen practice. What can I do?
- How can I involve my children in my Zen practice?
About Starting a Zen Practice
- How can I start to practice meditation?
- I’m uncomfortable after a few minutes of sitting. What can I do?
- How do I know which meditation group is right for me to join?
- There is no meditation group near me, can I practice alone?
- I have a busy job and a family so I don’t have time to practice. What can I do?
About Practicing Zen
- I know I’m not supposed to think when I meditate, but I just can’t seem to stop my mind from wandering. What’s wrong?
- I don’t like chanting. Do I have to chant at home?
- I’ve been meditating for a while but I’m not making any progress and I feel like quitting. What can I do?
Zen takes its name from the Chinese word “ch’an” meaning meditation. Zen as we practice it today was largely shaped in Tang Dynasty China and spread from there to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In the 20th century, Zen teachers traveled from Asia all around the world.
Though often presented in the context of Buddhism, Zen teaches clear mind and appropriate action in each moment and does not dwell on questions of philosophy or metaphysics. As a practice, Zen meditation ushers us into complete realization of this moment: what is this?
Enlightenment means being fully present and engaged in the moment; means letting go of our personal ideas, condition and situation in order to attain a clear mind, a clear view of the world around us. With a clear mind, we can act appropriately under all circumstances.
Clear, compassionate and spontaneous interaction with each moment as it arises, is already enlightenment.
3. I’ve heard about koans, those Zen questions like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” What are koans?
Koans (kong-an in Korean; kung-an in Chinese) are a teaching tool a Zen teacher uses to gauge a student’s clarity and cognition. Koan practice is unique to Zen training, distinguishing it from other Buddhist schools and spiritual traditions.
Neither an intellectual question demanding an erudite answer nor a tricky mind game requiring a clever, glib response, the koan provides a perspective, or perhaps lack of perspective, where teacher and student meet. By dismantling conceptual thinking and opinion, the koan elicits a clear response in the moment, revealing our true self and correct function.
Here’s one to try right now: How do you experience your Buddha nature while reading a web site?
About Zen and Religion
No. While some people develop an interest in Buddhism or become Buddhist while practicing Zen, others do not. There is no religious requirement, Buddhist or otherwise, to practice Zen.
Many people tell us Zen meditation complements their religious beliefs. Others tell us they have discovered parallel teachings between Zen and their religious tradition.
From our point of view, Zen meditation does not conflict with other religious practices and other religious traditions do not interfere with Zen meditation.
About Zen and Family
Harmonious relationships lie at the heart of Zen practice. This means we share what we can of our lives with family and friends and what we cannot share, we keep and honor for ourselves.
Because each relationship and person is unique, we rely on our innate wisdom to tell us with whom we can gleefully chatter away about Zen, with whom we use neutral, everyday language such as, “I’m really enjoying my meditation group,” and with whom we wisely keep silent.
Occasionally, and especially when a family member or friend already has strong religious faith and is not receptive to Buddhism or Zen, our actions may prove more important than our words. Kind and respectful behavior demonstrates Zen practice in action and lays a foundation for future meetings.
Conflict in relationship is inevitable. And while kindness, patience, respect, generosity, and gentle speech can go a long way toward mitigating it, nothing can entirely eliminate conflict from any relationship.
During stressful times, listening to our partner with the same presence we cultivate on the meditation cushion can be helpful as can crackerjack negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise.
We can also consider doing things with our partner that he or she considers important. As one sangha member put it, my Zen practice right now is going to Catholic Church on Sunday with my wife.
Everyone benefits from talking about their practice from time to time with their teacher or a senior student in their group. Because your teacher knows you and your situation, this is a good question for a private interview.
If, when we are with our children, we are fully engaged in listening and responding to them, then we completely embody Zen practice and become the example from which our children learn. Even a child who expresses no interest in or disapproval of Zen will inevitably learn from our effort to be present in each moment and our desire to help.
Many children are naturally curious about Zen practice and spontaneously ask questions, questions which are much the same as ours, questions such as “Why do you sit there—isn’t it boring?” or “What is Buddha?” or “Can I try it?” A simple, honest response to these questions as they occur may be the best opportunity to share our practice with our children.
As children grow they may wish to read some of the children’s books about Buddhism and meditation. There may be sangha activities such as ceremonies or social gatherings at which children are welcome or community and cultural events such as films, concerts, or art exhibits which children and young adults may enjoy.
Older children sometimes develop a religious quest of their own and, seeing our sincere efforts, may turn to us with deep questions about the nature of human life. Again, honest answers, based on our own experience, can help older children find their own way.
About Starting a Zen Practice
The most important factor in starting a Zen meditation practice is a clear, strong resolve to do it.
We invite beginners to come to seek instruction and to attend sessions of several other groups as well. Personal instruction ensures your form is correct and allows time for questions and answers. Visiting several groups will give you a sense of which styles of teaching and practice most resonate with you.
When you’re ready to try meditating at home it’s helpful to choose a place where you can be private and a time when you are unlikely to be disturbed. A folded blanket, towel, or sofa pillow can usually provide sufficient padding to make sitting comfortable. If there is nothing handy, a chair is also suitable. Don’t worry about making a mistake and don’t worry if you’ve forgotten a few details. The important thing is to try.
As they’re getting started, some people like to create a home altar. A home altar can be large or small and be fashioned out of a box, shelf, table, chair – almost any flat surface. Appropriate altar items might include candles, incense, flowers, or a statue of Buddha or Kwan Yin, or items of specific significance to your meditation tradition. If you cannot find meditation supplies nlz1033112462036ly, most are readily available on-line.
Finally, we encourage everyone to practice regularly and steadily, even if only five minutes a day, rather than in spontaneous, enthusiastic spurts. Regular Zen practice can be a tremendous source of energy, wisdom, and compassion with which to meet the inevitable challenges life brings us along the Way.
The traditional meditation postures held while seated on a cushion are extremely stable, providing solid physical support for meditation practice. We strongly encourage those who can to stretch and exercise and become comfortable in them.
That being said, we also recognize that illness or injury may make holding these traditional postures very difficult, if not impossible, for some people. In this case, sitting in a chair is a reasonable alternative. We recommend a simple, armless wooden or folding chair, but any chair will do.
It is not uncommon, even among experienced meditators, for our legs or feet to fall asleep. This condition can be remedied through exercise or by adjusting or changing our sitting posture. If your legs or feet fall asleep, be careful to regain feeling before you stand up or you may fall and injure yourself.
Once the aches and pains of adjusting to a meditation posture clear up, we encounter the chronic tension we hold in our neck, in our jaw, in our shoulders. Working through this expression of our physical karma is an important part of practice.
It’s always helpful to talk about the physical aspects of practice with our teacher or a senior student from time to time. For example, legs and feet that fall asleep can point toward a tired or dull mind, an insufficient level of energy behind our practice. This is a good question for such an interview.
Joining a meditation group is always a personal decision. Only you know how the teachings of a particular tradition resonate in your heart and mind. Trust yourself and your life experience.
In addition, we suggest considering the lineage and teaching authority of the teacher as well as the demeanor and attitude of senior students in the group. We believe open-mindedness and tolerance are hallmarks of spiritual maturity. In our tradition teachings are for everyone, not just an inner circle of students or those who pay more money.
Whether in a group or alone, we always encourage people to meditate. However, every Zen student benefits from regular teaching, an on-going relationship with a teacher, and regular group practice, especially retreats.
We urge everyone, especially beginners, to find and join a group and to attend group events once in a while, even if that means driving or traveling. A teacher and group practice provide an invaluable source of support, steadiness, and inspiration.
There are many dharma and meditation groups in North America and around the world, many of which have a presence on the internet. Key search words to locate the web site of a meditation group near you are: Buddha, Buddhism, Buddhist, dharma, meditation, mindfulness, monastery, temple, vajra, Vipassana, zazen, or Zen plus your city or state name.
Lastly, if there is no meditation group in your region, consider starting one. Be the flame that lights the dharma candle in your community.
Like so many questions about practice, there is no one way to integrate meditation into daily life.
Some people decide to make practice a priority and carve out a regular time to bow or chant or sit, even if it is only ten minutes a day, and even if it means rising early or staying up late if necessary. Other people make time for group practice once a week or a retreat several times a year.
But regardless of career or family obligations, everyone can practice “daily life” Zen, fully engaging in the moment of cooking a meal or brushing our teeth. Zen practice may begin on the cushion and mat, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t stay there. Every situation and relationship in our life—whether at work or at home—is an opportunity to respond with a clear mind and open heart. What are we doing right now?
About Practicing Zen
1. I know I’m not supposed to think when I meditate, but I just can’t seem to stop my mind from wandering. What’s wrong?
Zen practice is not a matter of stopping, holding, keeping, fixing, or suppressing the chatter, moodiness or any other aspect of our mind.
Everyone who sits Zen meditation, from the newest beginner to the oldest Zen Master, experiences the way our attention naturally drifts – one moment we’re present, one moment we’re thinking about our job, one moment we’re aware of the pain in our knee.
The key to Zen practice is returning our attention to the present moment as soon as we realize we have drifted away. Working against the tendency to feed one thought with another, we return calmly and without judgment to the present moment and, like pressing the “clear” function key on a calculator, begin again.
Everybody has like-and-dislike mind. We like some things, we don’t like other things. That is human nature. If we don’t like brussel sprouts, that is relatively harmless. But if we don’t like people of a particular religious or ethnic heritage, take out a gun and shoot them, then the whole world has a problem.
At the Zen center, we are encouraged to set aside our opinions. Whether we like it or not, during group practice we follow along with the group: we bow, we chant, we sit. This helps free ourselves to respond clearly in any situation: we can eat brussel sprouts if necessary and chant when appropriate.
At home, it’s up to each of us whether and how we practice Zen each day. We do not “have to” do anything. We are free to devise a practice that suits us and our family.
3. I’ve been meditating for a while but I’m not making any progress and I feel like quitting. What can I do?
In a culture that places newborn infants on nursery school waiting lists and careers on the fast track, it’s not surprising that we view our Zen practice in the same achievement-oriented way. As the old joke goes: “don’t bother me now, I’m doing my non-doing.”
Spiritual maturity means facing our limitations and difficulties squarely, not sidestepping or soaring over them. Times of frustration and conflict can be very rich and yield extraordinary fruit if approached and experienced openly without rejection or judgment.
Zen practice can help us gather our energy to make new choices in our life – it’s important to stick with it, and at critical times a meditation community can offer invaluable support.
Everyone benefits from talking about their practice from time to time with their teacher or a senior student in their group. This is a good question for such an interview.