present moment

About Zen

Zen is a practice of mindful meditation and action designed to free us to live compassionate, healthy and energized lives.

Zen is a practice of mindful meditation and action designed to free us to live compassionate, healthy and energized lives.

The word “Zen” simply means meditation. The practice of meditation can bring many benefits: greater attention and awareness, the settling down of our emotional life, a growing sense of goodwill and kindness, and a desire to be of help in this world. The latest brain-imaging technology is showing what meditators have sensed for millennia—that the brain circuitry associated with relationships, compassion, attentiveness, peace and joy is all amplified in long-term meditators.

Meditation practice can also help resolve our most deep-seated existential questions. Who am I? What is this world? What is life, what is death? Why am I here? What should I do? Traditionally, Zen offers a way to investigate these matters, and ultimately to resolve “the great matter of life and death.”

Zen’s way is very simple: sit down and be quiet. It asks us to believe nothing. A good approach is simply to try out a meditation practice for a while and see for ourselves if it helps. This practice is compatible with any religious faith, as well as with none, or indeed atheism. In fact, our training may involve letting go of deeply held beliefs we may not even be aware of.

In Zen we don’t try to cultivate special states of mind. Rather, we are discovering what a remarkable thing it is to be functioning in our everyday lives at all. As one Zen master said in the eighth century: “my miracle is drawing water and carrying wood.” In other words, Zen helps us to discover the everyday miracle of each moment of our lives. It teaches us to appreciate and cherish all that we come in contact with.

Three Fruits of Zen

Traditionally there are said to be three fruits of zazen. The first is “concentration”—meaning in part simply the ability to hold our mind steady on a given task or object, but also more than that: a con-centering, a gathering together of our multiplicitous and wandering selves, a lessening of our readiness to be distracted from this very moment, right here and now; a growing capacity to be present to our lives, and open-hearted in our encounters with our friends, family, colleagues and strangers, and ultimately with all beings. Even the floor can be cherished by the soles of the feet as we walk, and a view of a distant tree-clad mountain can be received as a truly intimate gift.

The second fruit is “seeing reality” or “seeing true nature.” This is a moment of sudden revelation, when we are dropped into an experience of our intrinsic participation in a vast and single fact that unites all creation. Infinite, empty, one, “vast and clear,” boundless and boundary-less, with no inside or outside, no self and no other, no life and no death, no separation of any kind anywhere, this experience is often regarded as a turning point on the path of authentic Zen practice. And yet, there is no requirement that all students seek it, hope for it, or undergo it. Zen practice is entirely valid and complete without it, and everyone is fully free to enjoy whatever benefits they may be hoping for and indeed finding as a result of their regular meditation, regardless of whether such a realization befalls them.

The third fruit is the embodying or integrating of such an experience in everyday life. This is a long process, sometimes also called the “perfection of character,” since if we really lived out the reality glimpsed in a moment of realization, and in every instant of our lives were free of all last shreds of clinging or grasping, with no blocks or hindrances left, then we might indeed be something like “perfect.” But they say even Shakyamuni Buddha is still only half-way there.

Three Treasures of Zen

Three elements have long been considered integral and indispensable to Zen training – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Often referred to as the three treasures, they form the foundation of our practice and correspond, more or less, to our sitting practice, our understanding of the teachings, and our sitting together as a group.

It was Buddha himself who originally used zazen (“sitting meditation”) to resolve the “great matter” of human life, accomplishing the task with his great awakening at the age of thirty-five. The word “Buddha” refers not only to the historical man, but also to what he realized – the absolute fact of our existence. Through waking up to what this existence truly is and releasing the layers of delusion that obscure it, we can all become more wakeful, loving and content people.

Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddha and the Zen masters. In our lineage, we generally begin our meditation with breath-work, then move on either to the open awareness practice of shikantaza (“just sitting”), or to koan study. Koans – anecdotes about the sayings and doings of the Zen masters – are an exceptional teaching method for clarifying and deepening our insight into our own true nature.

Thirdly, the Sangha is our community of fellow-sitters. But since we are all embarked on this journey together, we consider our sangha not merely to be our fellow Zen-trainees, but all human beings—and ultimately, all beings of all kinds, including animals, trees, rivers and mountains, and even the great earth itself.

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