Hamilton Botanical Gardens "Zen Garden", New Zealand.
Photo by Julie Cartwright
What is the Meaning of Zen?
The word Zen has become part of the English language, but what exactly does it mean? It’s much easier to answer the question “When is Zen?”, for that answer would have to be “Now!”. The whole point of Zen practice is to become fully aware, here and now. To come home to the present moment; this is truly where we live. Thinking verbally takes us far into the past, or into the distant future. But both past and future are fantasies, since the future isn’t known and our memories of the past are often quite distorted accounts of what really happened. Zen exhorts one to “Come to your senses!”, for when we get lost in thoughts of the past or future, life passes us by. When one mindfully dwells in the present moment, one completely dissolves into whatever activity manifests. One becomes the activity. Most people have had peak experiences, which all involve being so totally involved with life that one’s sense of separateness dissolves into the experience. Very Zen.
The word ‘Zen’ is the Japanese attempt at pronouncing the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which in turn is the Chinese attempt at pronouncing the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana’, which translates as ‘meditation’. And indeed, the word Zen conjures up an image of motionless Buddhist monks lost in deep meditation. This mysterious image becomes less mysterious when you realize the monks are simply practicing being here now. And even cats frequently practice that.
Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes about a third of a second for our brains to start thinking about a sensory experience (meaning verbally interpreting it). A third of a second is a vast chasm separating one from “right now”. A Zen master once proclaimed:
Lightening flashes, sparks fly!
In one blink of the eye,
you have missed seeing.
Living fully and authentically in the present moment makes each instant of one’s life a peak experience. Each moment is filled with a profound peace and clarity. Each moment is perceived to have infinite depth and significance, charged with magic and mystery, infinitely precious. Zen brings us face to face with our true original nature, undefiled by cultural conditioning and painful neurotic tendencies.
Words and concepts can be useful, but mistaking them for reality is a big mistake. Concepts about reality are not reality. The menu is not the food. Dissolving all ones preconceptions, beliefs, concepts, and judgments about ourselves and the universe, can be a very liberating experience. What a relief to let go of all that baggage! (Most or all of it is not true anyway.)
Simplicity is often associated with Zen. And Zen practice is indeed simple, if not easy. Just practice being fully present, right here, right now. Perceive directly, without filtering perceptions through beliefs and preconceptions. Dissolve into the eternal now, and realize that the Universe itself peers out through your eyes, hears through your ears, and breaths each breath. Unity beyond all conception. If not now, then when?
Hamilton Botanical Gardens "Zen Garden", New
Photo by Julie Cartwright