About Zen

About Zen

According to tradition Zen has its origins in Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist monk who came to China in the early 6th century CE. His thick, black beard fascinated the Chinese, and is conspicuously featured in the paintings of him. The flowering of Zen over the following centuries was a cross-fertilization of the Indian Buddhism he brought and Chinese culture, particularly Taoism. In the 12th and 13th centuries Japanese monks brought Zen home from China. In the 1960s Japanese Zen teachers and Western Zen teachers who trained in Japan found many willing students in America, and since then Zen has spread across much of the country.


Zen is notable in its reliance on sitting meditation – zazen – and the awareness that arises from practicing it, extending into daily life. By contrast Zen has tended to avoid explanations and theory. In Asia, for example, little or no instruction about Zen was given to new practitioners beyond showing them in detail how to sit. Because they didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge about it, the questions they brought to their teachers grew directly out of their experience of sitting practice. That’s what was cultivated.

But because Zen is still new to America people here do need some explanation of what this energetic practice is about before they’re likely to dive in.

The first thing to bear in mind is while Zen meditation practice is often deeply relaxing, it has its difficult moments, and that these are what usually shed the most light. For example, many people who try Zen sitting become aware of how flooded their minds are by thoughts. This is a valuable insight about how the mind works even though it can be unsettling. Without understanding the esteem Zen has for these difficult aspects of sitting, people may not always appreciate that they’re having useful insights.

The Zen tradition is also distinguished by its radical simplicity. The sitting posture that provides insight and learning over a lifetime can be taught in as few as ten minutes.


What is the aim of Zen meditation? Why do it?

Some people are interested in Zen because they seek better physical or emotional health and there is a sound basis for this. Recent research has revealed a number of significant positive health effects from a basic meditation practice, including lower anxiety and depression and enhanced capacity for dealing with physical pain (feel free to Google all this).

Even so, the Zen tradition doesn’t make a point of discussing the positive health effects of sitting because this has long been common knowledge in Asia (good to balance your chi, they might say). Instead the focus of Zen teaching has always been on awakening. People in Asia grow up well aware both that awakening is possible and that Zen fosters this.

You should know that a glimpse of essential nature, also called a kensho or an opening – an awakening – is possible with a diligent sitting practice. Yet there’s no predicting it. There are people who have experienced kensho after 20 or more years of energetic practice, while for others a glimpse has come much sooner. For many kensho doesn’t seem to happen.

Paradoxically, Zen insists that awakening is the birthright of all people.

Most initial kenshos are just a glimpse, although it’s important to add that whether shallow or deep, awakening is one and undivided. The Buddha himself had a historically deep awakening 2,500 years ago after six years of vigorous practice.

While essential nature can be directly experienced, it cannot be described; attempting to do so creates mental pictures and abstractions that are unhelpful. However, it may be worth the risk of saying the following, as inadequate as it must be: that with kensho our ingrained, and I do mean ingrained, sense of separateness from a world “outside” us vanishes and it becomes plain that there is no separate self that can either be born or annihilated by death. Kensho always comes to a person as a surprise, no matter how much experience they have with Zen sitting, and typically brings vast relief.

But here is the dilemma: despite the importance of kensho, the more a person seeks it the more it becomes an imagined goal of the “separate self,” increasingly remote and illusory. The Chinese found paradoxical language helpful in addressing this dilemma. For example, Zen tradition says, “Practice is enlightenment.” Which means that simply sitting moment-by-moment, trusting the process of sitting completely, is the whole of practice and enlightenment.

What does this moment-by-moment process of sitting reveal? As is always true in Zen, abstract descriptions are at best incomplete. Still, the following might be helpful as a crude portrayal.

Over time, after we begin sitting, we become more aware of patterns of emotion-thought because we’re not getting swept up in them quite as much. We may also struggle with boredom or restlessness, because when we’re sitting still we don’t have access to our usual distractions and sources of stimulation. At the same time, as we stick with the practice, a subtle change happens: we notice that our ability to get through the difficult situations we encounter in life grows. We may still get anxious, upset, whatever, but now there’s a capacity to just be whatever is bothering us. Our distress itself isn’t fading, but our distress about our distress definitely is.

Eventually we discover that the inner resistance to the process of sitting that we sometimes encounter consists of repetitive patterns of emotion-thought, almost always involving some drama about or emphasis on “I” or “me:” Am I successful? Am I attractive? Will I survive death?  I’m really sitting well today! Does she like me? Am I good at my job? And all sorts of thoughts, feelings, and ideas that are exciting or interesting to me. We also come to see that, paradoxically, these self-focused dramas and self-thoughts are both fascinating and yet cost us enormous emotional pain. We discover that the true challenge of practice is deciding to let them go moment-by-moment.

As we stick with persistent sitting another subtle change begins. More and more we just sit: our personal investment in why we sit, what we hope to get out of it, what’s wrong with our practice, or why our sitting sucked yesterday, why our lives are awful or depressing, all that, begins to fade.

We just sit.

One more thing. A glimpse of essential nature, should it come, reveals yet another dimension of Zen: that from the first time we sat on a meditation cushion this tradition was preparing us for awakening.

– Scott Zengen Thompson, Sensei – Teacher Emeritus

Recommended Zen Books

Birx, Ellen, Ph.D., R.N. Selfless Love: Beyond the Boundaries of Self and Other. Wisdom Publications, 2014.

Birx, Ellen Jikai  & Birx, Charles Shinkai. Waking Up Together: Intimate Partnership on the Spiritual Path. Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Birx, Ellen, Ph.D., R.N. Healing Zen: Awakening to a Life of Wholeness and Compassion While Caring for Yourself and Others. Viking Compass, 2002.

Kennedy, Robert E. Zen Gifts to Christians, Continuum, 2000.

Yamada, Koun. The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans, Wisdom Publications, 2015.

Yamada, Koun. Zen: The Authentic Gate.Wisdom Publications, 2015.

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