The following words will inevitably fall short in trying to describe and explain what Zen is, but, nonetheless, I hope that they might help expand your understanding of it and aid your pursuit of it.
In writing this article, I have tried to forego the use of the Sanskrit words used in Buddhist texts. I do this because, during my research, I found their use to only hinder my understanding of the nature of Zen.
So, let’s get to it…
What Is Zen?
Trying to think about and write about Zen is precisely what Zen is not. That is to say that Zen cannot come about through the study of texts or the contemplation of the mind. You cannot reason your way to Zen.
Zen is not something that can be understood in the traditional sense, and nor, really, can it be explained. Zen is something that you experience. Some would say that Zen is the only true experience you can have.
Trying to explain Zen is akin to trying to describe color to a person who was born without sight; no matter how hard you try, color needs to be seen to be truly experienced.
Despite all this, I will try to explain something of Zen, even if my words merely skim the surface of the deeper meaning. I’ll break it down into bite-sized chunks to make it easier; starting with…
The way that most people experience the world hinges on the concept of separateness; one where the “I” that is you is utterly distinct from everything else.
In Zen, however, the realization occurs that no entity – person or otherwise – can exist in isolation from the rest of existence.
Consider the statement “I am standing” for a second. On what are you standing? Presumably you are standing on the ground, but, since that is the case, does the ground not need to exist for you to be standing on it? And if so, is it not impossible to stand without ground to stand on?
Thoughts are, similarly, dependent on your surroundings and on everything that has ever surrounded you. You may think “I really like Chloe”, but the very “I” that you are referring to only exists because of Chloe and all of the times you have experienced her. Without each of the experiences you and Chloe have shared, you would be a different you. Consequently, without every single experience you have ever had, you would not exist as you are now.
To put it another way: in each moment, you are inseparable from the world around you and your experiences of the world gone by.
Time and Space
The previous statement brings us neatly on to the Zen view of time. Again, my words are an oversimplification of the essence of time, but I will do my best to compress what could be an essay into a succinct idea.
After reading a fair bit on the subject, my understanding of time from the Zen point of view is as follows.
Time is space is existence. Time cannot be without space and space cannot be without time – and both cannot be without the existence of everything we see (and don’t see).
We are time, the earth is time, the stars are time, all form is time.
If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Nothing can exist outside of time and no time can exist outside the fabric of the universe.
The Western sense of time as something that passes is, then, at odds with the concept of time as existence. If time passed, it would need to pass into something else and that something else cannot be without something to exist within it.
This does not mean that Zen ignores the past and future. It just sees time as both continuous and discontinuous.
A burning log has a past and a future (it once was an unburned log and it will become a pile of ashes) but while it is burning, it cannot be either unburned or ashes. The log of the now is entirely cut off from the past log and the future log in the sense that the unburned log no longer exists and the pile of ashes does not yet exist. Since existence is not within them, they are not time.
In other words, the only time is that which occurs because of the existence of things. This is sometimes referred to as being-time because time is being and being is time.
Just as we are not separate from that which is other, we do not have distinct and independent time. Time is all being and we are all being.
The moment that is now – which is time – is, in every sense, impermanent. As soon as you try to capture the present, it becomes the past since your very attempt to capture it becomes the new present.
The Western view of time, then, is merely a label that has been given to the existence of things. What we might call spring is simply the existence of things with which we associate the word – the emergence of hibernating animals, the blossoming of trees and the blooming of flowers. Thus spring cannot come early or late as we might like to believe, it only comes when the things we relate to spring emerge into existence.
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Emptiness is a key concept in Zen, as it is in other forms of Buddhism, and one that shares a great deal with my thoughts above on time and space.
Emptiness is not to be misunderstood as not existing or a lack of something, but is, instead, a realization that by itself, a thing – an object, a person, a thought, or a feeling – cannot exist.
Without a context – without all other things – the essence of any single item is empty.
Emptiness, then, refers to a lack of inherent existence, which means that nothing can be said to exist independently of everything else. Everything and everyone can be looked at as an event, one that has foundations in every past event. If something were to exist outside of these past events, it could only be empty.
Zen promotes the realization that you are empty and that everything else is also empty. This is because as long as you consider a ‘you’ and an ‘it’ then you don’t see the whole and without the whole you see nothing, you see emptiness.
Freedom and Action
In the western way of thinking, if you were to say “I am free to act how I wish” then you’d probably mean that there are no external restrictions on how you think or behave. That is to say, there is nothing to stop your ego-consciousness from taking the actions that serve it best.
But in Zen, the freedom that is spoken of refers to the absence of control of the ego over the action. When you act from a place of Zen, you do so through some unseen compulsion – an urge that comes from the very core of your being.
In a sense, a student of Zen acts spontaneously, but unlike the desire to be spontaneous which comes from the ego, true spontaneity does not result from thought.
Birth, Life and Death
In Zen, birth and death are seen as two sides to the same coin – you cannot have one without the other.
Through life, we experience an ever present birth and death in that each moment contains them both. Everything that happens in the here and now (or more accurately in the singular here-now since you cannot have here without now and vice versa) is born out of what went before it and dies just as quickly. In this sense, existence itself is birth and death simultaneously.
Once fully understood, a follower of Zen frees themselves from the fear of death. To them, it is just the realization of nature, the transition from one moment to another.
That’s all I am going to cover in this article. I have only scratched the surface of Zen Buddhism, but this article was never designed to be an encyclopaedic discussion of Zen in its entirety. Instead, I hope that it gives you some basic understanding of the nature of Zen.
Some of the concepts discussed here are common across many branches of Buddhism, while others are distinct in Zen. I have constructed this article from the understanding that I have gained through research – I am not a Zen teacher and there is every chance that I have misconstrued the true meaning. It is worth remembering that true Zen cannot be understood, it can only be experienced.