Updated: Aug 11
“Nothing we see or hear is perfect.
But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality.”
― Shunryu Suzuki
Given the current state of the world, many are finding themselves in a state of confusion - socially isolated with nothing to do. This climate has become a breeding ground for fear, anxiety, and worry. It is also the breeding ground for introspection, deep thinking and self-cultivation. Here are some insights on the history and philosophy of Zen, which some may find valuable. Zen allows the possibility of detachment from these destructive thought forms, which seem to be plaguing society during these strange times.
(I've included some of my favorite photos from Japan to act as a backdrop)
Tokyo is a unique mix of modern and traditional architecture. Buddhist and Shinto shrines can be found a walking distance away from modern neon-lit buildings that tower above. Despite being the world's largest city with a population of almost 10 million, there is always a distinct calmness in the air that almost seems out of place amidst the jungle of skyscrapers. The foundations of Japanese culture are built on a combination of Shinto and Buddhist principles, which have seeped into the overall conduct of its society.
"To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with others."
— Dōgen Zenji
Over the centuries, scriptures relating to Ch'an or Zen have circulated around the East, gradually making their way into the West. Having some shared roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, the Zen philosophy makes a radical departure from its roots. Unlike traditional Buddhism which encourages study and memorization of scripture, Zen makes a point of downplaying and sometimes ridiculing its own heritage. There are scattered collections of Zen Koans, and sayings, compared to the volumes upon volumes of traditional Buddhist scripture.
The idea of Zen is not to study oneself into an enlightened state, but rather to observe the mind with a sense of detachment. Not as the curator of thoughts, but as the spectator. Zen literature refers to this as Kenshō (見性), literally "seeing into one's own nature" - a concept that is extremely hard to communicate verbally or in writing. It's said to be similar to the dissolving of one's ego, so that only a state of pure awareness and existence in the moment remains.
Zen practitioners are wary of words like "enlightenment" and "spirituality", and even the word "Zen" itself. Words are hindrances to the experiences themselves, often detracting from the awareness of the present moment.
The overall idea is to free oneself from the overall constraints of language, to arrive at a relaxed state, fully absorbed in the present - aware of the symptoms of stress and anxiety, but not controlled by them.
Zen koans (passages) are designed as a means of accelerating this process.
We've all heard the "sound of one hand clapping" passage, which has now become tired and cliched. But what is it trying to tell us?
Reflect on the following statement:
If you flip a coin, and it lands neither on heads or tails, what side did it land on?
The rational problem-solving mind fires on all cylinders, generating thousands of possible outcomes and interpretations. It wants to know the shape of the coin, its size, weight, and its material. It probably thinks to itself, "The coin landed on its side". This problem solving mind analyzes all of the possible variables, treating this passage as some sort of riddle, when it is in fact, a device to detach oneself from ingrained, egoic, patterns of thought.
The Zen student would say "It landed in the ocean".
When the logical, intellectual, problem-solving mind grinds to a halt, the innate, unpracticed spontaneity of one's own character is revealed.
The problem-solving mind is also the problem creating mind. Continued Zen practice allows the possibility of detachment from both.
"You can't use your mind to solve this problem because your mind is the problem. When the mind is emptied, no longer craving the next idea or the next thought, where is the problem?" - Wu Hsin
Zen Forms in the Japanese Language
The Chinese and Japanese language are far better equipped at communicating these concepts, allowing for more abstract and freeform thinking.
A brief language history lesson: Kanji makes up the bulk of written Japanese. These symbols constitute the oldest written language in the world - spanning over 6000 years of usage. A language this old carries an entire history of its own, having undergone several revisions and transitions over the centuries.
There were originally over 50,000 Kanji used in common practice. Over time, this number has been parsed down to 2,136 present-day Kanji, officially known as the jōyō Kanji list .
The modernized form of Kanji originated in 1700 BC during the Han Dynasty of China. This came to be known as the "Han Language" or, "Hanzi", which was phoneticized by the Japanese into "Kanji". Kanji retains the same characters originally used by the Chinese, though adopting two different pronunciations for each character.
On'yomi 音読み: (sound-reading) - based on Chinese pronunciation.
Kun'yomi 訓読み: (native-reading) - based on indigenous Japanese pronunciation before Han influence.
For this reason, Zen is actually derived from the Chinese word Ch'an.
In short, the Kanji characters have a very long history, but an important one. There is a reason why the symbols and radicals that make up this language have endured over thousands of years.
Kanji are arranged in a way so as to represent concepts, compared to the strictly phonetic arrangement of the English/Roman alphabet.
The language conveys concepts using radicals as constituent parts. For example, "three" in English is written as "t-h-r-e-e". In Kanji, it would be written as 三 (san), depicting three lines of the radical for one 一 (ichi). The Kanji for tree is "木" (ki) , while the Kanji for forest is "森" (moku).
In English, we would utilize words to arrive at the concept. In Japanese/Chinese, the concept is communicated symbolically first.
So , 電 (electric) + 話 (speak) is "phone" - 電話 (denwa)
新 (new) + 聞 (hear) is "news" - 新聞 (shinbun)
The Kanji for rain, (雨 - ame) symbolizes droplets falling from the sky. The Kanji for "mirror" (鏡 - kagami) is made up of the radicals for "gold" (金), "stand" (立), and "see" (見).
金 + 見 + 立 = 鏡
The language is full of examples like these that are truly fascinating to discover.
While these are just some basic examples, this pattern is important to mention. Zen literature relies heavily on communicating concepts outside the normal constraints of language. In most languages, words can "tell" you the meaning, whereas Kanji can "show you".
心 - The kanji "shin" (Japanese pronunciation, "kokoro") is meant to convey the heart/mind. The closest western equivalent would be "psyche". Combining this Kanji with a prefix Kanji changes the meaning and concept dramatically.
For instance, while traditional views of Buddhism are associated with a "peaceful mind", Zen practice aims at the elimination of mind completely - a state known as Mushin (無心) (no-mind). Japan's martial traditions borrowed heavily from Zen practice, embodying such ideals as fudoshin 不動心 (immovable mind), and zanshin 残心 (aware mind). Students of Zen and the martial arts may experience moments of one or more of these states of awareness through practice.
The Zen version of meditation is known as "zazen", (literally, "seated zen") which encourages the following of the breath. It can be performed anywhere, standing or sitting - the idea is simply to detach from thoughts and focus on correct breathing.
“In zazen, leave your front door and your back door open.
Let thoughts come and go. Just don't serve them tea.”
― Shunryu Suzuki
(Just for context: Hanazono Shrine, one of Japan's oldest Shinto temples. Originally built during the 17th century, it underwent several restorations over the centuries. At one point it served as a Buddhist shrine, but was reverted back to an exclusively Shinto place of worship during the Meiji Restoration period. This shrine is only a short walking distance from Shinjuku station and close to the center of the ultramodern business district. Festivals at this temple are also commonplace, drawing visitors throughout the year.)
Zen and the Science of Breath
"If you would quell demons,
You must first subjugate your own mind.
When the mind has yielded,
Then the legions of demons
Will disperse obediently.
If you would drive away deceitfulness,
You must first bridle you own spirit.
When your spirit is at peace,
Heresies will not bother you."
- Hung Ying-min
Breathe in, let your inhalation be as long as possible without causing discomfort.
Breathe out, let your exhalation be as long as possible without causing discomfort.
Repeat, allow one to taper into the other. Some refer to this as the Infinity Breathing Technique.
In the simplest terms, this is the basic pattern that will trigger a change in your physiological state. It will induce relaxation, eliminate stress, and improve your overall health. This form of effortless breathing is the natural breath pattern of infants, that we gradually forget as we age. It is not only possible to regain this natural breathing pattern, but encouraged.
Entire books have been written on breath and the importance of oxygen on brain function, but the Zen approach aims to simplify the process, and make it accessible to everyone.
The breath is the vital component in this formula. If stress and anxiety are physiological states, they can be overridden and weakened by invoking an opposite physiological state. Deep, controlled, relaxed breaths are the body's antidote to an anxious, reactionary, fight-or-flight mind.
At the bottom, I've included some of my favorite books that have some brilliant insights on these topics with greater detail:
When the mind is at peace,
The world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.
Not holding onto reality,
Not getting stuck in the void,
You are neither holy or wise,
Just an ordinary person who has completed their work.
- Layman Pang-yun (740-808)
The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
The Blue Cliff Record
Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom, by Thomas Cleary
The Way of Zen by Alan Watts