What is Zen?

What is Zen?
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Portrait of Bodhidharma, legendary founder of Zen Buddhism.

Portrait of Bodhidharma, legendary founder of Zen Buddhism.

By Son Master Songdam

These days the preferred method for learning meditation — whether it be vipassana, yoga, qigong, tai chi, or zazen — is to go from posture to breathing to mental concentration. This represents a strategy of learning the skill of attentional focus from the outside in. We begin by learning how to observe the external outline and alignment of our body’s parts. Then, we learn the art of perceiving our body’s internal spaces and processes by observing the breath. Finally, we learn to concentrate on some form of mental object, be it a repeated phrase, internal image, or the stream of mental activity itself. Thus, as beginners, we hone our observational power, starting from the visible and tangible and then direct it more deeply toward the invisible and intangible. Our mental focus begins at the gross levels of perceptual activity and progresses toward subtle levels of consciousness.

Strategically, this approach makes a lot of sense. But in Son or Korean Zen meditation exactly the opposite method is used. In fact, a radically different paradigm of “spiritual practice” is deployed.

In Zen we begin and end at one’s innermost state of mind. The deepest place in our heart. A place so deep within our self that it’s hardly even detectable. This, it’s said, is where Zen really takes place.

What is really at the bottom of our hearts?

The ancient Son masters of Korea tell us we hold a question in our hearts.

An endless questioning.

An inexpressible, burning need to understand the nature of our own birth and death. Our existence in this universe and our life on this planet. Who we are, where we’re from, and where we’re going.

Consider the terms of human life: Without any kind of prior warning or consultation, we are suddenly born into this world, thrown into this life. None of us is given any kind of user’s manual for our body and mind. We just have to learn as we go. Learn how to move our hands and feet, use our eyes and ears. Learn how to walk and talk, eat, excrete and live. Of course, we help each other along the way as we can, parents to children, teachers to students, friends to friends. But we’re really always just guessing and improvising and adapting. No one is helping us. No one is teaching us.

And in the course of growing up this way, we learn, to greater and greater degrees of horror and dejection, that this world can be an appalling place. There is war. Poverty. Exploitation. Unimaginable cruelty and despair. An uncountable number of ways to commit violence against one another. And in the world of nature we observe that nearly all life forms eat some other life form, the strong preying upon the weak.

Yet somehow we manage to cope. Through a superhuman feat of repression and denial, we manage to ignore most of the ocean of suffering around us. We learn to find solace and reprieve in small comforts and pleasures. We learn to draw upon the occasional moment of joy or pleasure to help us endure the storm. Thus, by the time we’re adults, most of us have learned how to avoid or circumvent the most extreme forms of suffering while obtaining the physical and psychological necessities, comforts, and pleasures that we need to survive and stay relatively sane.

And this, of course, is when most of us fully realize that we’re growing older and that we must die. With the same suddenness of our birth into this world, we will be removed from it. Once again, without any kind of explanation or warning.

These are the terms of life with which every single one of us has to contend. The truth is, these terms are not terms at all, they are quite the opposite. They are mysteries. Mysteries upon mysteries, heaped one on top of the other. The mystery of birth. Of life. Of time. Of dying. Of death. And of awareness itself.

In response to this great mystery of birth and death, each of us is doing exactly the same thing: Trying to formulate an appropriate response. Trying to think of a sensible thing to do in a completely nonsensical situation.

Some of us may think, “I should make a lot of money, marry someone I love, have children, and that would make a good and meaningful life.” Others may think, “I should work for the common good.” Or “I should create objects of beauty and truth.” Or “I should try to learn how this universe works.” Or, simply, “I should try to have as good a time as possible while I’m here.”

But no matter what we do, no matter how noble or ignoble, courageous or cowardly, selfish or altruistic, we never really find an answer to that one great question in our hearts: Why? What is this all for? Why was I born? Who am I? What am I? What is this universe? What is life?

Most of us quit asking these questions early on. In fact, we forget that we even ever asked these questions as children.

But that doesn’t mean the questioning has completely disappeared from our hearts. These buried questions, the central mystery of our existence entombed but still writhing in our subconscious mind, erupt from time to time into our conscious awareness. They arrive as psychosomatic signals to tell us all is not well. They take the form of sudden mood swings, obsessions, and addictive behaviors. Inexplicable moments of rage or anxiety. Perverse craving and numbness. Soul-crushing loneliness and grief. Panic and desolation.

From time to time, we try to “do something about it.” Start working out. Change our diet. Change our job. Learn meditation or yoga. We keep thinking life is a Rubik’s cube and if we just made the right combination of moves, we’d “get it right.” So everyone I’ve ever known or met is eternally trying to get it right.

Then, what is Zen?

Zen, as it was taught to me, means: Stop trying to get it right.

Stop trying to find an answer to the question of life and death. Stop trying to obtain a solution to the mystery of human existence. Stop trying to “do something about it.”

Instead, look deep into your own heart. Remember what it was like to be a child.

And just feel that questioning in your heart again. Allow yourself to ask the question again, but this time don’t try to answer it, don’t try to do something about it. Just let that intense, burning need to know the unknowable rise up in you again and completely fill your heart. Your mind. Your entire body. The entire universe.

The great question of birth and death can be asked in many ways. “What is the meaning of life?” “Who am I?” “What am I meant to do?” “How can I find real happiness?” “What will happen to me after I die?”

But it’s really just one great question. One great, primordial questioning that no words can express. Korean Son Buddhists call it the Great Doubt.

When we allow our hearts to ask the question that has plagued us since birth, we begin to practice Zen. When we allow ourselves to be filled with the asking, we begin real meditation. When we direct our gaze at its own source — at who we really are — we become Zen seekers.

Seekers of enlightenment.

Zen is famous for its presentation of paradoxes and riddles. But really there’s only one paradox, one riddle in the heart of it all.

The answer to the question is only found in the asking of it.

One’s true destination is only found in the seeking.

Great Enlightenment is only attained within the Great Doubt.

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