And so this transformational journey sadly comes to an end – unless you agree with Seneca, as I do –
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
When it comes to transformation, it is all about beginnings rather than endings, so whilst this series may have drawn to a close, my hope is that the new life you are beginning to imagine and visualise is just beginning. Unless, that is, I have managed to provide along the way that tiniest spark, the slightest nudge or even a knockout punch that has already set you off towards a new destination.
My final offering in this series is a topic so vast that it could easily become a series in its own right – but I shall endeavour to summarize the salient points, whilst strongly encouraging you to delve deeper should it strike a chord.
What is Zen?
Zen, more specifically Zen Buddhism, is a essentially a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Whilst it is often assumed that it it a religion, it is generally more correct to consider it a philosophy (although it can be approached as either). As such, Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and may be used, for example, by Christians seeking a deeper understanding of their faith.
Zen Buddhism’s origins lie in ancient China. It later spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century.
The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language. It is about developing instinct and intuition based on a deep awareness of our inner selves.
Zen is frequently misunderstood and often seems paradoxical – it requires an intense discipline which, when practised properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.
What are the benefits of Zen?
“All beings by nature are Buddhas,
as ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
apart from beings, no Buddhas.”
The fundamental essence of Zen Buddhism is that all human beings are Buddha, and that all we have to do is to discover that truth for ourselves.
There is no need to search outside ourselves for the answers; we can find the answers in the same place that we found the questions – within ourselves. This in turn means an acceptance that the only barriers we encounter in life are within ourselves.
In order to achieve this inner enlightenment, it is necessary to free our minds; to give up logical thinking and avoid getting trapped in a spider’s web of words. Instead, we need learn to control our minds through meditation and other techniques that involve mind and body.
When we are able to truly achieve this enlightenment, we are able to accept absolute and total responsibility for where we are in life, releasing ourselves from the control of any external factors and giving us absolute freedom to embark upon the journey towards becoming the person we truly wish to be.
Ultimately, Zen is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, which points the way from bondage to freedom.
Zen is simply to be completely alive.
How can I practice Zen?
Let’s be honest here. Even when you’ve formulated an understanding of the principles of Zen, practising Zen and making it part of your lifestyle is another thing altogether. One of the fundamental problems for those brought up under the western way of thinking is that logical, rational, intellectual or scientific thought is so dominant, and considered superior.
In contrast, Zen practices are aimed at taking the rational and intellectual mind out of the mental loop, so that the you can become more aware and realise your own Buddha-nature. For many beginners, however, it is hard to escape the tendency to intellectualise things which will prevent enlightenment being reached. The most effective way to overcome this is to train in meditational techniques.
There are also methods using (mild) violence that are known to overcome the barrier of rational thought, although you may feel inclined to avoid these. It’s entirely your choice of course.
In the most general definition, meditation is a way of taking control of the mind so that it becomes peaceful and focused, and the meditator becomes more aware. Zen meditation differs from the typical approach to meditation in that involves the body and the mind, helping to avoid what is known as ‘duality’. The Zen way of meditating must therefore involve the body and the mind as a single entity.
The purpose of meditation is to stop the mind rushing about in an aimless stream of thoughts or to getting stuck in a cycle of logical thought processing. People often say that the aim of meditation is to still the mind. Be aware that there is a difference between meditation and mindfulness; whilst they both have a strong presence in Zen, they should not be seen as one and the same thing.
The key Zen practice is zazen. This involves sitting in one of several available positions and meditating so that you become fully in touch with the true nature of reality. Different schools of Zen do zazen in different ways: Soto meditators face a wall, whilst Rinzai meditators sit in a circle facing each other.
It should also be noted that Zen places a particular emphasis on group mediation.
Whilst it is possible to teach oneself the art of Zen meditation through the many books, videos and other resources now available, it is far better to choose a teacher who will become your guide along the journey. ■
Check out the list below for previous articles in this series: