``when you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.''

Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's being.1 The only adequate description of this ``self-nature'' is mu, that is, ``nothingness'' or ``void''... but, alas, mu helps nobody in understanding the spiritual, philosophical, and social reverberations of Zen.

Spiritually, Zen leads one to the ultimate freedom from the ultimate bondage (ignorance) via meditation. Literally, Zen means ``thinking'' or ``meditation'' and through ``thinking'' or ``meditation'' we come to the realization that we are all of the One, the void, and from this knowledge we attain spiritual tranquility.
Philosophically, Zen proposes that the infinite is indistinguishable from the finite, that the One is inseperable from the Many, that we are all God yet none of us are. It is radical empiricism: the Buddha, the originator of Zen (as will be explained later), took life as it is and did not try to read it according to his interpretation, though that is impossible epistemology speaking.2
Socially, Zen is either an amazing release from the bondage of the Mind, a cute way to title a book (``Zen and the Art of ______''), or a radical cult that promises the impossible. From most it is looked at in awe, though few have more than a vague idea about its meaning, while others see it as the currently chic trend in Hollywood (much like yoga); however, there are also many who see Zen as an excuse, or verification, for believing that all is meaningless and morality is relative. Unfortunately, and oddly, considering its awesome significance for the individual who attains Enlightenment, a devoted follower is a rare find (in America, that is).

In order to understand what Zen truly is, one must first understand the origin. The beginnings of Buddhism and Zen are so old that the historical record is vague at best. Orthodox Zen Buddhism understand the following to be the origin of Zen: the Buddha, Sakyamuni, was once preaching at the Mount of the Holy Vulture to a congregation of his disciples. He did not preach through thick rhetoric, but simply held up a flower (or a bouquet of flowers) before the people, which was presented to him by one of his lay-disciples. He spoke not a word. Nobody understood the meaning of this except Mahakasyapa, who quietly smiled at the master, as if he fully understood this teaching of the Enlightened One. The Buddha saw this and proclaimed solemnly, ``I have the most precious treasure, spiritual and transcendental, which this moment I hand over to you, O venerable Mahakasyapa!''3
Many Zen followers describe that moment as the first incident that disclosed the inmost mind of the Buddha as well as the secret of the religion. As Zen claims to be the inmost essence of Buddhism (that is, Enlightenment) and to have been directly transmitted by the Buddha to his great disciple, Mahakasyapa, followers naturally search for the moment when this transmission took place. It is known that Mahakasyapa succeeded the Buddha as the leader of (Zen) Buddhism, but as to his special transmission of Zen, there is no record in the Indian Buddhism writings.4 Regardless of whether the event at the Mount of the Holy Vulture is authentic, it can be stated that Zen really became a separate faith when the Bodhidharma brought Indian Buddhism to China (Hui-neng was the receiver of Bodhidharma's wisdom), dated to be in 520 C.E. He came to China with a special message that can be expressed as such:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one's nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.
The message was very different from the common mystic understanding of Buddhism in India. While Buddhist followers were mostly more preoccupied with following the ethics and society teachings of the Buddha, the Chinese Zen followers tried to obtain Enlightenment, the root and purpose of Buddhism. Suzuki explains the situation well in his ``Introduction'':
At the time of the introduction of Zen into China, most of the Buddhists were addicted to the discussion of highly metaphysics questions, or satisfied with the merely observing of the ethics precepts laid down by the Buddha or with the leading of a lethargy life entirely absorbed in the contemplation of the evanescence of things worldly. They all missed apprehending the great fact of life itself, which flows altogether outside of these vain exercises of the intellect or of the imagination. Bodhidharma and his successors recognized this pitiful state of affairs. Hence their proclamation of ``The Four Great Statements'' of Zen as above cited. In a word, they mean that Zen has its own way of pointing to the nature of one's own being, and that when this is done one attains to Buddhahood, in which all the contradictions and disturbances caused by the intellect are entirely harmony in a unity of higher order.
Therefore, it is said that though Zen originated after Buddhism, Buddhism is a sub-sect of Zen, a social-ethical dogma layered on top of Enlightenment. While Buddhists praise the Buddha and his teachings, Zen Buddhists praise Enlightenment and its emancipation power.

What, then, is the essence of Zen? Firstly, we must understand what the Buddha taught. The most fundamental truth the Buddha discovered after his spiritual quest is the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering is due to attachment (desire)
  3. Attachment can be overcome
  4. There is a path for overcome attachment
Nearly every human suffers; this is obvious. But this suffering exists because we ignore or we are unaware of the fact that nothing is permanent, even ourself. We grasp to the false ideas that desire can be satisfied, that loved ones will always be with us, that `I' is fundamentally different from `you'. Because of our ignorance, we suffer; however, there is a path out of suffering: the middle way. The middle way is the crevice between idealism and materialism, hedonism and asceticism, the one and the many; it can be thought of as neither indulgence nor starvation, but the perfection in between. Via the middle way, one understands that anger and joy, for example, leave the mind as quickly as they came, if allowed to do so. One is no longer a slave to the rise and fall of all that is, but he exists outside of that realm; he steps aside and simply observes. The essence of Zen is the essence of non-attachment. Suzuki states, ``One may not be conscious of all this, and may go on indulge in those momentary pleasures that are afforded by the senses. But this being unconcious does not in the least alter the facts of life. However insistently the blind may deny the existence of the sun, they cannot annihilate it. The tropical heat will mercilessly scorch them, and if they do not take proper care they will all be wiped away from the surface of the earth.''
Zen cannot exist in the barriers of the intellect. When Zen is cut and categorized by the analytical knife something is lost... infinity cannot be understood using numbers. Because Zen is the ``alpha and the omega'' of reality, the ``infinity'' of life, it cannot be captured in words and ideas. The common analogy is: ``to point to the moon, a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon; a basket is welcome to carry our fish home, but when the fish are safely on the table why should we eternally bother ourselves with the basket?''5 The intellect is a barrier to our understanding of Zen but, like the finger, it must be utilized as a catalyst; Zen never explains but indicates. Logically considered, it is full of contradictions and absurdity but as it stands above all things, it goes serenely on its own way. And therefore, the truth can only be discovered through personal, direct, intuitive experience. ``Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself.''6

The path to understanding Zen must lead toward no-mindness; the mind is ``ordinarily chock full with all kinds of intellectual nonsense and passional rubbish.'' Suzuki continues:

They are of course useful in their own ways in our daily life. There is no denying that. But it is chiefly because of these accumulations that we are made miserable and groan under the feeling of bondage. Each time we want to make a movement, they fetter us, they choke us, and cast a heavy veil over our spiritual horizon... Being so long accustomed to the oppression, the mental inertia becomes hard to remove.7
The process of ``reconstruction'' is ``stained with tears and blood'' and, historically speaking, one must surrender one's self to death, to mortality (the ultimate fear, the ultimate grasping) before understanding will be possible. At the exact moment when the student8 decides, with every fiber of his body, that he would rather die than not attain Enlightenment, he is enlightened (again, historically speaking; this statement is not to be understood as the way to Enlightenment, but merely what is often necessary for Enlightenment).
The only way to cease attachment and understand Zen, or the nature of one's self, is meditation. Zazen, or Zen meditation, has three aims: 1) development of the power of concentration (joriki), 2) satori-awakening9 (kensho-godo), and 3) actualization of the Supreme Way in our daily lives (mujudo no taigen).10 Zazen clears the mind and improves concentration via dull repetition. By monotonously uttering a word (for example, ``mu''), or counting breaths, the word or breath counting loses all meaning (similar to repeating the word ``yes'' until it no longer has any significance); at that point, when the mind is suddenly clear of all thought, the student sees Life: sounds enter and leave, sights come and go, and desire and emotion flow like a faucet over a drain. Nothing remains constant (even the no-mindness), and suffering ceases, for that short period of time. Once this experience has presented itself to the student, he must follow up with even more meditation and he must integrate meditation into every moment of his life; this integration is one of the three main purposes of Zen, of zazen (stated above). And without zazen, there is no Zen.

Contemporary Zen in America is riddled with false practices, abuse of power, and confused followers who know nothing more about Zen than its periodic waves of appeal among the fashionable. The same is that, because the Western mind is so fundamentally different from the Eastern mind, purely Eastern ideas, such as Zen, become twisted and abused as they are transplanted to Western civilizations. Contemporary mutilations of Zen include ``Dark Zen''11, merchandise such as ``Osho Zen Tarot'' cards12 and Zen clocks13, and hundreds upon hundreds of books claiming to have Zen influence (most disgustingly The Zen of Organizing: Creating Order and Peace in Your Home, Career and Life by Regina Leeds, Zen Interiors by Vinna Lee, and, the most ridiculous one yet, The Zen of Food: The Philosophy of Nourishment by Sallyann J. Murphy, whose first recipe is Pot Roast). But besides the commercialization of false-Zen, the real tragedy is from organizations such as the Internation Zen Association (AZI) which has often been accused of being authoritarian and utilizing ``mind-control'' and numerous masters of various Zen centers throughout America who have been accused of sexual and financial exploitation.14 These rare trendy and exploitive offenses against Zen cloud the judgement of possible students when considering its world-view.

In the end, Zen is simply personal liberation. Suzuki says it well:

If we feel dissatisfied somehow with this life, if there is something in our ordinary way of living that deprives us of freedom in its most sanctified sense, we must endeavor to find a way somewhere which gives us a sense of finality and contentment. Zen proposes to do this for us...15
The ultimate standpoint of Zen is that we have ``been led astray through ignorance to find a split in our own being, that there was from the very beginning no need for a struggle between the finite and the infinite, that the peace we are seeking so eagerly after has been there all the time... We are thus made to live on the superficiality of things. We may be clever, bright, and all that, but what we produce lacks depth, sincerity, and does not appeal to the inmost feelings. Some are utterly unable to create anything except makeshifts or imitations betraying their shallowness of character and want of spiritual experience.''16
Perfection is the actualization of one's self with reality:
Misty rain on Mount Lu,
And waves surging in Che-chiang;
When you have not yet been there,
Many a regret surely you have;
But once there and homeward you wend.
And how matter-of-fact things look!
Misty rain on Mount Lu,
And waves surging on Che-chiang.


1 D.T. Suzuki, from ``Introduction'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
2 D.T. Suzuki, from ``Enlightenment and Ignorance'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
3 D.T. Suzuki, from ``History of Zen'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
4 D.T. Suzuki, from ``History of Zen'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
5 D.T. Suzuki, from ``Introduction'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
6 D.T. Suzuki, from ``Introduction'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
7 D.T. Suzuki, from ``Introduction'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
8 ``Student'' meaning ``one training in Zen'', not ``one studying Zen (academically)''
9 ``Satori'' is a Japanese word meaning ``enlightenment''
10 Roshi Philip Kapleau, from ``Three Aims of Zen'' of The Three Pillars of Zen, ISBN 0-3852-6093-8
11 http://www.darkzen.com
12 http://www.osho.org/Magazine/Tarot/OshoZenTarot.cfm
13 http://www.now-zen.com
14 Stuart Lachs, ``Coming Down from the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen'', available at http://www.darkzen.com/Articles/uszen3.html
15 D.T. Suzuki, from ``On Satori - The Revelation of a New Truth in Zen Buddhism'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3
16 D.T. Suzuki, from ``Introduction'' of Essays in Zen Buddhism, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3