In a recent conversation that I had with a friend, she was describing to me some of her recent spiritual experiences and some details about the path she follows. As I was listening to her, one thing that struck me instantly is that this is not Zen. There is something non-Zen about this.
Because of my interest in Zen and the several references that I make to it in my talks, my training programs, my coaching sessions and even in my writing, I get asked this one question pretty often. What exactly is Zen? I’ve read several books on Zen, watched videos as well as spoken to people. All of which gave me some knowledge about it. Yet my best and deepest understanding of Zen came from over 20 years of meditation that I’ve been practicing. The meditation per se is not focused on Zen. But when I started learning about Zen, I realized that I knew what it was a while ago. There are several quotes about understanding Zen that sort of suggest its inexplicable nature. Two that come to mind at the moment are these.
“There is more to Zen than the Japanese tea ceremony. There is no more to Zen than the Japanese tea ceremony.”
“If you understand, things are just as they are. If you don’t understand, things are just as they are.”
I particularly realized this every time I read something about Zen. You can never tell someone what Zen really is. If you do, then you end up telling them something that is well short of what Zen actually is. What has worked best for me and some others who’ve made a genuine attempt to understand Zen is to keep accumulating some of its qualities. It’s something like understanding what a teaspoon of honey feels like when poured into your mouth. Knowing that it is sweet, gives you some clues. Knowing that it has a thick syrupy feel gives you some more idea. Knowing that the taste will stay strong in your mouth for a bit and then fade away into your throat tells you more. Also, knowing what it’s not. Knowing that it is not spicy, not salty, not pungent, tells you certain things about what honey feels like in your mouth. Likewise, out of the many things I understand about Zen, here are four things that I can safely say are true. And still, these are by no means a substitute for actually tasting the honey yourself. These are qualities of Zen in terms of what it is and what it is not that would help in getting closer to an understanding.
First of all, Zen is not a thought, it’s not a concept, it’s not a notion or mindset and it’s certainly not an idea. It’s an experience. Therefore reading or talking about Zen will only get you to skim the surface.
Secondly, Zen is simple. If something is too complex and difficult to understand or grasp, then that is certainly not Zen. Zen is about simplicity. In fact Zen is so simple that you might discover it and be surprised that you missed it all along because of its simplicity.
Thirdly, Zen is never seeking to become or seeking at all. Zen is about being. Any phenomenon that is seeking to get better, seeking to be elsewhere or seeking to transform in any way whatsoever is not Zen. Zen is at peace with itself.
Fourthly and finally, nobody can tell you what Zen is. The best that a book or video or even a teacher can do is to put you in the general area where you might get a sense of what it is. You have to get a glimpse of it and experience it yourself.
Then when you do and you get repeated glimpses of it, you become more and more tuned to it and you tend to know almost through instinct whether something is Zen or not. That’s exactly what happened while I was talking to the friend who I described at the start of this article.