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Defining Zen

What is Zen? Is it a state of mind? Can we aspire to achieve it? Do we need a teacher?

I love the sound of the word Zen, but I wondered what it meant. I turned to my bookshelf for the answer and discovered a chapter in “Buddhism – The Religion of No-Religion” in which Alan Watts describes how difficult it is to define Zen, a form of Buddhism practiced in many parts of the world including Japan and China. He says that contemplation may be the closest English word to describing Zen but that word itself implies inactivity while Zen is actually highly active.

He describes it as being where a person does not react to or try to dominate life, but allows their own internal world to interact with the external world of people and things as if they were one. The analogy is of a horse and its rider or two dancers completely in synch. He adds: “in a very simple way that the real concern of Zen is to realize – not merely rationally but in one’s bones – that the world inside your skin and the world outside your skin are all one world, one being, one self. And you are it.”

He goes on to describe how students of Zen have a personality that is grounded. They are confident, attentive, and simply at ease with themselves and others. They give their full attention to you and the conversation – “unworried about whether [they] ought to be somewhere else”. He continues: “If you have half an idea that you ought to be worrying about something out in the garden, or you ought to be cooking dinner, or that you ought to be down in your office, you cannot sit where you are. You are not really there. You are a kind of helium balloon that keeps wandering off.”

To be acting in the style of Zen, you must know “how to live in the present without being fidgety or giggly or worrying about whether [you are] doing the right thing.” The function of the Zen discipline is to enable you to be comfortable and genuine. In the rest of the chapter entitled “Buddhism as a Dialogue”, Watts describes how Buddhists monks teach individuals to find Zen through questions, not answers, about their own life. He advises us that: “The way of Buddhism is to let go of yourself, to see that you live in a universe in which nothing can be grasped, and therefore stop grasping. It is very simple…”

Having read this chapter and contemplated it, I believe I am still on a quest for Zen in my own life – but I can also say that there have been moments, maybe even days, of Zen in my living. I know these Zen-like days when they are here, because I live:

  1. In the moment – I am completely there. I am not concerned about what to make for dinner, or whether I can pay the bills at the end of the month, or will the sun shine tomorrow? Instead, I am enjoying my grand-daughter’s antics on the way home from school as we skip along the street together, engrossed in the colours of the orchids in the greenhouses of the botanical gardens, or loving the snowflakes falling and sticking to my eyelids as I trudge across the snowdrifts.
  2. Fearless – of what tomorrow may bring. I live with a family history of diabetes and stroke. I lived my entire life conscious of the importance of eating healthy, exercising, and reducing stress as a strategy of prevention. However, these diseases will inevitably impact, and possibly take, my life. When I achieve a Zen state, I savour every mouthful of food and its goodness, rather than focus on how many more there will be. I still eat well, exercise, and try to reduce stress – through Zen practices – to ensure that there will be many more of these days, especially if I worry less about the question of how many and enjoy the ones that I have.
  3. Comfortable with myself – and where I am at. These are the days when my inner confidence is at its highest. I know that the decisions that I am making and the actions that I am taking are right – no matter what the rest of the world is thinking. These days are also the hardest to explain. You know that others do not understand why you are doing what you are, and sometimes you cannot explain it to them. You just know!

When I searched the dictionaries for definitions of Zen to summarize the concept, I liked this definition of zen from the Oxford dictionary best: “relaxed and not worrying about things you cannot change”.

Have you achieved Zen? When? How? Did you have help from the Masters or did you get there on your own?

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