What is Zen?
by Zen Master Seung Sahn
Zen is very simple... What are you?
In this whole world everyone searches for happiness outside, but nobody understands their true self. Everybody says, "I" -- "I want this, I am like that..." But nobody understands this "I." Before you were born, where did your I come from? When you die, where will your I go? If you sincerely ask, "What am I?" sooner or later you will run into a wall where all thinking is cut off. We call this "don't know."
Zen is keeping this "don't know" mind always and everywhere. When walking, standing, sitting, lying down, speaking, being silent, moving, being still. At all times, in all places, without interruption -- what is this?
Meditation in Zen means keeping a don't-know mind when bowing, chanting, and sitting Zen. This is formal Zen practice. And then when doing something, just do it. When driving, just drive; when eating, just eat; when working, just work.
Finally, your don't-know mind will become clear. Then you can see the sky, only blue. You can see the tree, only green. Your mind is like a clear mirror. Red comes, the mirror is red; white comes the mirror is white. A hungry person comes, you can give him food; a thirsty person comes, you can give her something to drink. There is no desire for myself, only for all beings. That mind is already enlightenment, what we call Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way. It's very simple, not difficult!
The Origins of Zen
Buddhism presents a way of life based upon the enlightenment experience of one man, Siddartha Gautama, called ever after the Buddha, or the awakened one. It is a religion or spirituality based upon the practice of meditation rather than on a revealed text or sacred laws. In effect, the Buddha encourages us to do what he did and to attain what he attained. The key to it all is meditation (zen in Japanese).
Zen was born in China about a thousand years after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Buddhism was brought to China by Indian monks and there Indian meditation traditions mixed with Taoist spirituality and meditation methods. The new practice led to a spiritual movement which became the leading form of Buddhism in China, engendering monasteries, literatures, meditation methods, and art. It spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan in the ancient world and to the west in the 20th century.
Zen emphasizes a spiritual transformation through the practice of meditation. When we first sit on a mat and cushion and begin to watch our breaths, one of the first things we notice is how busy our minds are. They’re all over the place–images from last night, projections of tomorrow, stuffed with memories and fantasies. But by staying with our practice, we begin to find that our minds settle down by themselves, like dirt in a glass of water that’s been shaken. It may happen the first time we practice, and it may take many, many times and even then be almost imperceptible. But, whatever our journey, zen invites us to discover our own minds and, in experiencing the vastness and emptiness of our “original” mind, we begin to experience our hearts opening out in compassion to all the world.
In Zen Master Seung Sahn’s form of meditation practice, we do bowing practice (prostrations) and chanting practice as well as silent sitting. Each is a way to tease our busy minds to pay attention, to be just here now. Each form helps train the mind so it begins to settle. People are sometimes surprised how good they feel after a period of meditation; for others, sitting and breathing is only sitting and breathing–nothing special. Both experiences teach us. Even more amazing is how many people find that the regular practice of meditation begins to work changes in their lives–they can become less nervous, less scattered, less insecure. Slowly a sense of direction begins to be felt. Whatever else you’re going to do in life, whatever else you’re going to be in life, you sense that you’ve felt the pulse of it all.
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