‘ The word Zen is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese ch’an, which is evolved from the Sanskrit dhyana – usually translated as “meditation”. But it does not mean “meditation” as the word is usually translated in the West. It is less a contemplative exercise undertaken in solitude than a constant attitude of mind. It places no reliance on scriptural authority, on rights and ceremonies and it had no dogmas or orthodox body of doctrines. Strictly speaking it has no teachings as we understand them; it is a practice rather than a theory’ Thus Alan Watts, in an article written in 1937 called “what is Zen?” If Zen could be expressed in a nutshell, then these words would surely do it. As an introductory synopsis, they convey much of the essence of Zen Buddhism, including that it is best understood as a “way”, a discipline of life, rather than a philosophy, faith or religion.
Of course, Zen has its sutras and scripts, its stories and Koans and it has inspired beautiful works of art and calligraphy, but at its heart it is about how to live without desire or regret and in a way that touches the Earth lightly. It is an irony that, at a time when its precepts could offer a profound alternative ethos, the word Zen is so frequently abused in the West, being attached to all manner of things that couldn’t be more remote from Zen culture and some of its tenets are so glibly quoted, when what it represents is in direct opposition to the material consumerism that has today virtually swamped all other life guides, save the most extreme.
I cannot claim any authority on the subject of Zen, nor any depth of practice in Zen meditation myself, but I have been endlessly fascinated by Zen culture and philosophy and I’m deeply respectful of its true practitioners and their works. I find some enlightenment in such works as the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) and the Hekiganroku. These collections of Koans, enigmatic and paradoxical riddles and stories, can provide insights into the human condition and our state of being that have proved so elusive to Western philosophers.
In the pages that follow, I hope to assemble some valuable messages and experiences that may resonate with those already familiar with Zen practice, but may be of much more value to those who are not yet familiar with Zen, encouraging them to look further. I do hope so!
Some quotations & extracts: