What is Zen?
From “The Nine Headed Dragon River”
By Peter Muryo Matthiessen, Roshi
Zen has been called the “religion before religion,” which is to say that anyone can practice, including those committed to another faith. And the phrase evokes that natural religion of our early childhood, when heaven and splendorous earth were one. But soon the child’s eyes are clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise.
After that day, at the bottom of each breath, there is a hollow place that is filled with longing. We become seekers without knowing what we seek. And at first, we long for something ‘greater’ than ourselves, something apart and far away. It is not a return to childhood, as childhood is not a truly enlightened state. Yet to seek one’s true nature is, as one Zen master has said, ” a way to lead you to your long lost home.”
To practice Zen means to realize one’s existence moment after moment, rather than letting life unravel in regret of the past and daydreaming of the future. To “rest in the present” is a state of magical simplicity, although attainment of this state is not as easy as it sounds. At the very least, sitting Zen practice, called Zazen, will bring about a strong sense of well being, as the clutter of ideas and emotions fall away and body and mind return to natural harmony with all creation. Out of this emptiness can come a true insight into the nature of existence, which is no different than one’s Buddha nature. To travel this path, one need not be a “Zen Buddhist,” which is only another idea to be discarded, like “enlightenment” and like ” Buddha” and like “God.”
Meditation has nothing to do with contemplation of eternal questions, or of one’s own folly, or even of one’s navel, although a clearer view on all of these enigmas may result. It has nothing to do with thought of any kind, with anything at all in fact, but intuiting the true nature of existence, which is why it has appeared, in one form or another, in almost every culture know to man.
The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life.
What is Zen? What are You?
Dogen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, wrote in Genjokoan:
"To study the Buddha Way is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things. To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to free one's body and mind and those of others. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment is continued forever…"