What is Zen?

A few general comments about zen

By Rev. Dr. Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi

Zen is only one thing: complete attention. Typically, we go through our day half asleep, on autopilot, as it were. We are thinking about something, what we are doing, what we will do next, what we didn’t do. We feel anxious, happy, or sad. Yet, we rarely have any real sense of it or ourselves because we are simply not paying attention. We are seeing our thoughts or our feelings or our behavior, but we are not seeing clearly, directly, what is actually there: Past and future take us away from the present.

Zen is a practice that invites us to exist in this present moment and this moment only. We say, when washing the dishes just wash the dishes. This is meditation and meditation is awakened living.

Zen means meditation. Zazen means seated meditation. However, this tells us nothing. We each have some idea of what meditation is, some of us have practiced some form of meditation, and know that it is only in the practice that we come to know it.

Zen is a Buddhist practice. Zen is Buddhism in its most pure form. Practicing Zen is practicing the Buddha’s Way; it is in effect, being a buddha right here, right now.

You do not have to be a Buddhist to be a buddha. Nevertheless, practicing Zen and being buddha are one and the same.

There are some things about Zen Buddhism you should know about. Our practice is about arousing the thought of awakening, of opening our eyes. Although we arouse the thought, we should not pursue it. We arouse the thought and, like all thoughts and feelings, let it go.

As we let go of thoughts, one after another, feelings, one after another, something begins to happen. We realize we are being still, yet not completely so. Our mind continues, our heart continues, our body continues, but we reside in serene reflection, like the water of a pond. From this space, our understanding of the universe and ourselves unfolds. Our realization of ourselves as a complete universe begins to be experienced. We begin to see our Way.

To accept Zen Buddhism as a philosophy, one only need read a few of the thousands of books about it, become familiar with Oriental thinking and concepts, and understand it as one view among many regarding the nature of man and the universe. To accept Zen Buddhism as a religion means to do the above, but with a sense of faith that there are truths applicable to us in the philosophy, and then to adopt the practices of Zen. To come to Zen Buddhism as a practice is the way of a buddha. To do this means letting go of thoughts, concepts, philosophy, all of the religion of ideas, and to look deeply into one’s self, so deeply that in the looking, the self itself, becomes meaningless. So, in both the beginning and the end, the most important thing is to practice. Everything else is window dressing. We now arrive at the critical questions: what does it mean to practice Zen? How do we “do” Zen? To address these, we pursue other questions such as what is your life? Where have you been? Where are you going? And most importantly, who are you?

These questions will inevitably arise as you practice. Sitting quietly, all things eventually come up and present themselves. To sit Zazen means to sit in a chair or on a cushion in a certain way, with a certain attitude. This attitude is everything. It is an attitude that is true. The form of us changes moment to moment, while our essence is unchanging change.

Let us begin together.