If you would like to read about Stoicism, then simply click here: What Stoicism and Zen Buddhism: STOICISM [Part 3/3]
Core Concepts of Zen
(Stoic concepts are in the Part 3 of this “What are Stoicism and Zen” series)
We will explore the following concepts:
Zen is a practice: meditation.
If we removed everything about Zen, the shaved-head monks, the temples, the incense, the chants… we would see the core of Zen: meditation.
Although Zen is an “organized religion,” we consider Zen to be a philosophical system rather than a religion per se. There is literature in Zen, but there is no Zen Holy Book; Zen is mainly a practice of meditation. If you are a bookworm, of course, there is plenty of literature out there to satisfy your curiosity.
Whether you believe in God or not, in life after death, or in another religion, is irrelevant to the practice of Zen. Zen does not have doctrinal rules that stop a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian to practice Zen. Just think of the singer Leonard Cohen who was an ordained Zen monk, and whose body was buried according to Jewish rites, and not cremated as per Zen tradition.
The Buddha and the Historical Buddha
The historical Buddha was an India prince named Siddharta Gautama, who lived in present day Nepal, in the 6th or 5th century BC. His father, the king, was told that his son would either be a king or a holy man. The father hid his son in the castle’s premises to keep him away from the reality of life, suffering, old age, sickness and death. But young Siddharta sooner of later discovered what the human condition is not a fairy tale, like flowers we flourish, we wither and ultimately vanish. He left wife and kids to practice extreme asceticism to find out that torturing the body was not the way to find answers. He went on to meditate for years until he attained Enlightenment. This is how Buddhism started to reach areas from Japan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Thailand, Sri Lanka…
“The Buddha” is often depicted having East-Asian traits (although the historical Buddha was Indian) and having wavy robes (ironically inspired by Greek statues of Ancient Greece). In the past the Buddha was not depicted as an anthropomorphic representation of a human being, it actually looked like a very big hockey puck.
In different traditions, people may believe that Buddha, or even the different representations of the Buddha, are Gods. However, in Zen, Buddha can be seen as a concept, not really as a God. So when Buddhist monks bow to a Buddha statue, do they bow to a God?
But we can say for sure that they bow to the founder of the tradition.
Impermanence and Suffering
We live in a world where everything is constantly changing state, everything is impermanent.
This impermanence clashes with our desires.
Our desires make us cling to states, things, people, feelings, situations… but impermanence is stronger than anything else.
Our desire and our attachments are the cause of suffering.
The Buddha proposed a solution: do the right things in order to get out of desire by following the Eightfold path. And the Four Noble Truths.
-Zen Stories and Stoic Insights
-Tools and Strategies
-Questions and Answers from MC
-Case studies: what would a Zen Stoic do?
-Relationships as a Stoic
-Productivity like a Zen Monk
-Reflections on Life
Zazen or Meditation
The core practice of Zen is meditation, more precisely, sitting meditation.
Meditation is done to increase mindfulness and focus on the now… in order to get within the Self.
Sitting meditation is thought to be the perfect posture to attain a state of mind-body balance.
It helps blood flow and breathing efficiency to enhance focus.
Meditation is not about feeling high or hallucinating.
Meditation is about “here, now.” Nothing else.
Zen means meditation.
Zazen refers precisely to sitting meditation.
In some Zen traditions, other forms of meditation are also practiced, where anything becomes an opportunity to meditate: walking, cooking, cleaning…
Anyone can meditate, as long as you can find a quiet environment and make the time for it.
You can reap a lot of benefits from meditation.
However, you should meditate only to meditate, to get within your deep Self.
In the Zen tradition, we do not meditate in order to get some benefits from it per se, we meditate for the sake of meditation.
Now this will sound like a dichotomy, but meditation can bring you to Enlightenment.
If you want to learn or perfect your meditation technique made a meditation “How to meditate” article that you can read here.
Satori or Enlightenment
The Buddha practiced intense ascetic meditation with a group of men before realizing that torturing the body, depriving the body of its essential needs such as food, water and sleep… was not the way to reach an ultimate state of higher consciousness.
The Buddha left the group, made his body recover and meditated for years before he attained Enlightenment.
“The Buddha” actually means “The Enlightened One.”
The concept of Enlightenment is a bit difficult to grasp, it is not a continuous state of drug-like absolute happiness where people smile and are happy no matter what happens.
Enlightenment (“satori” in Japanese) can be understood as a state of total understanding, a higher state of awareness, of the inherent nature of the Universe and all things by going beyond the Self and the rational, logical, thinking mind.
Another way to look at “Enlightenment” is to see it not as a one time event, but at a time even even that follows you, in every moment: wake up!
Wake up your awareness now.
In 5 minutes, remind yourself to wake up!
You can only wake up in the now.
Mindfulness and Focus
When Zen monks meditate, they meditate.
When they clean, they clean.
When they eat, they eat.
The main effects of meditation are twofold:
- a higher ability to focus on what you are doing “in the now.”
- as meditation brings us within the Self, we have a higher sense of awareness about our surroundings, about what we think, how we feel, about the interdependence of all things in the universe, and much more.
Hishiryo or Non-Thinking Mind and the Monkey Mind
The notion of “non-thinking mind” is very important in Zen.
It is the gateway to understand what Zen really is about.
“Non-thinking mind” is “hishiryo” in Japanese.
The “non-thinking mind” is not “not thinking” or forcing the mind “not to think.”
“Thinking” is a natural process of the command center of the body, the brain, and we all know that is it tough, if not impossible, to “stop the thinking process.”
The advantage of sitting meditation is that it calms down the body and the mind.
Breathing techniques help with the flow of oxygen, they also help guiding attention to the “now.”
Anyone that has meditate before know that the “Monkey Mind,” the “logical, so-called rational, thinking mind” is constantly bombarding the consciousness with thoughts, ideas… and triggering that little voice we have in our head.
The problem with the thinking mind is that it clings to ideas and the ego, and pretends that it knows everything and is always right, no matter what.
This cannot be further from the truth. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance one way or the other, and only people who are aware of this fact are able to find the “Truth” with a capital T.
Now, to understand the nature of nature, the universe, the human condition, we need to go beyond the Self, beyond the Rational Mind, beyond Thinking…
This is when the non-Thinking Mind comes in.
The non-Thinking Mind is almost like perceiving things with intuition.
We can achieve a non-thinking mind by practicing sitting meditation.
The no-Self is also similar to the non-Thinking Mind in the sense that it is a way to go beyond the rational ego-centered Self.
The no-Self is a way to see our Self as part being one with the universe in the grand scheme of all things.
Mu or Nothingness
If you have ever seen Chinese and Japanese Zen calligraphy, you may have come across a character called “mu” in Japanese.
It is difficult to grasp “nothingness” as mortal beings.
We “are.” In the word human being there is the word “be.”
If there “is” and if there “is not,” there should be an alternative that does not include the concept of “is, being, to be.”
That is what “mu” or nothingness is about.
Nothingness is about “nothing,” not about “there is not.”
The only way to get this idea is to go beyond the Self, as we are mortal human beings with awareness of our own existence, our environment and the fact that we will disappear and enter the realm of nothingness.
This concept of “is” and “is not” brings us to another Zen topic: duality.
The world is fundamentally built on duality: good vs bad, interesting vs boring, beautiful vs ugly, attractive vs repulsive…
If we can go beyond duality, which means going through the non-thinking mind, crossing the Self and rejecting all forms of attachments, we can get in a state of awareness where the interdependence of all things make us understand that duality is another trap of the selfish thinking mind.
The concept of “Me, Myself and I” is a fabrication of the egoistic mind.
You may prefer chocolate ice cream over strawberry ice cream and when you visit your local ice cream store and their ran out of chocolate ice cream, you may feel angry or disappointed.
The more clinging there is, and the more suffering.
The more expectations there is, the more disappointment and frustrations.
If you can go beyond the Self and the thinking mind, you can go through everything and anything in life as you do not perceive things, people and events to be good or bad, you just accept them as part of the universe.
Karma is probably the most misunderstood concept in Buddhism.
A lot of people believe that “karma” is some kind of balance sheet of good and be behaviors.
Just look at the title of some videos online like “When Karma Hits Back.”
Karma means “action.”
Actions your ancestors took a hundred years ago still have influence today.
Actions your ancestors, and their ancestors, took a thousand years ago, still have influence today.
Actions you took, take, and will take, have influence on the world.
If you crush a bee, the pollen will not be spread, and you will not be able to eat honey.
If you take drugs, it may alter your DNA, and if you have kids, it may influence their DNA too…
This is what karma is.
We are oversimplifying, but karma proves the interdependence of all things.
Another concept that is misunderstood is Nirvana.
It is not a concept that we hear often about in Zen Buddhism.
It is more frequently talked about in other traditions like the Tibetan School of Buddhism.
But long story short, “nirvana” is the release from the “3 fires” passion, aversion and ignorance... and no more rebirth cycle in a world of suffering, which brings samsara, the liberation.
In Buddhism, Death is the ultimate exit from suffering.
Do Zen practitioners believe in life after death?
Maybe some do.
Maybe some do not.
Zen is not about right or wrong, zen is a practice to liberate us from suffering.
There is a good kōan, or Zen riddle, that may give you a hint about how Death is seen in Zen: “Do you remember how your face looked like before you were born?”
Contemplating one’s human condition is an important part of Zen practice.
This means reflecting on our human nature and our relationship to each others, as well as reflect on aging, sickness and Death.
Life is now, moment to moment.
Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not 5 minutes ago, not in 5 minutes.
It is now.
Kōans or Zen riddles
Zen does not have any official Holy Scriptures per se. There is no Bible or Koran of Zen where someone go find guidance to specific questions.
Translated from Chinese, “kōans” mean “public cases.”
We think of kōans as being “Zen riddles” that cannot be solved with a thinking mind.
There are compilations of kōans and a few hundreds are used in Zen temples around the world, to help students progress in their study of Zen.
kōans can even be given before a meditation session from a teacher to a student.
The student would meditate on the kōan, and when the student believes the answer is ready, a face-to-face meeting with the teacher would be set… and the teacher would either accept or reject the answer from the student.
A lot of kōans are famous and come with commentaries, and different translations from Chinese or Japanese.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “Do dogs have Buddha nature?” are 2 famous Zen riddles.
Zen Master or Teacher Transmission
As there is no Holy Book in Zen, the transmission of knowledge is done through practice with a Zen Master.
When someone is selected to become a teacher, after years of practice, there is a official “dharma transmission” done by the teacher to the student. The “dharma” refers to the “overall knowledge.”
Students start by taking precepts, joining meditation sessions, attending lectures, assisting to face-to-face interviews with the Head Zen Master… and after years of practice the candidate may be selected for transmission.
So if you want to explore Zen and push the boundaries, sitting by yourself will not be enough.
You will have to find a community and a Zen Master.
The good news is that it is easier to do so in the West than in Japan… where temples are usually reserved for ordained monks.
Sangha or Community
The “sangha” is a community of Zen practitioners who live together, practice together, eat together, clean together and sometimes even have to maintain the temple together by gardening, cutting grass, fending wood, planting rice, harvesting and preparing for winter…
We are not saying you should join a sangha. But if you are serious about exploring, we suggest that you attend one live event. Some temples offer short 30-minute meditation sessions followed by a talk and some even offer sesshin like 1-to-90 days intense meditation sessions.
There are a lot of resources online and some temples even offer online streams of meditation sessions, online communities, articles and talks that you can revisit anytime.
Sutras and prayers
It is common in Zen temple to chant sutras the morning, to recite sutras before eating, to analyze the content of some sutras and listen to a talk.
Do Zen monks believe that there is someone out there listening to their prayers, their chants?
Maybe, maybe not.
I would say that probably not. The chants are done as part of a tradition.
Sutras are not really prayers, they are reciting material.
Do people really believe the meaning of each sentence?
But it is a tradition, and traditions being traditions, they are done without thinking about it.
They set the boundaries and the flow of life within the temple.
A good example of a famous sutra among different Buddhism traditions is the Heart Sutra.
One thing to consider about the sutras is that they were originally in Sanskrit (although, at the time of the Buddha, Pali language was used.) Now imagine being a Chinese monk who has to translate a sutra written in Sanskrit: you can either translate by using sound or meaning.
For example, the character “wu” has probably 20 different characters, a character means “nothingness,” another one means “five,” another one means “thing, matter,” etc.
So if in Sanskrit you want to translate the word nothingness, you can either use the direct translation “wu,” or a word that resembles the pronunciation of the word “nothingness” in sanskrit.
Sutras were recited or chanted, so it does not really make sense to translate them with “meaning,” to keep the singing harmony it is better to translate them by using “sound.”
However, by doing that, the meaning of the characters used to make the sounds do not make sense.
This is why, even native speakers of Chinese and Japanese, do not understand the meaning of what is written in sutras… they basically need to have a translation of the meaning by using the characters that fit the meaning, not the sound.
They do sing the sutras, but most of the time they do not understand the meaning, unless they do some research separately.
Complicated? Yes a bit.
But let me give you a good example that applies to people who speak Western languages: if you tell a 4 year old kid “hydroelectricity,” they may not understand the meaning of “hydro,” which means “water” in Greek. If you were to say “water make electricity” then the 4 year old may understand. This is a translation based on meaning.
Let’s have a look at another Greek word: “barbarian.” For Greeks, all non-Greek languages were believed to sound like “barbarbar,” this is basically a transliteration of the sound. The sound itself has no meaning.
Two Main Traditions: Soto and Rinzai
There are 2 big Zen schools in Japan, Soto and Rinzai. Both schools originate from China. Both schools reached Japan.
For the sake of convenience and keep it short, let’s just say that Soto Zen puts the emphasis on sitting meditation as the main Zen practice, which was commonly practiced by the masses in Japan. Soto Zen monks meditate facing a wall. Soto does not consider Enlightenment as a goal of Zen; Soto puts the emphasis on sitting meditation and sitting meditation only.
Rinzai Zen, which was practiced by the samurai warriors class, is more intellectual with the study of kōans (Zen riddles,) the emphasis on working meditation (think Zen garden, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, calligraphy), cleaning meditation, etc. Rinzai Zen monks meditate facing each other or facing a garden. Rinzai believes that practitioners should aim for Enlightenment.
One does not exclude each other so it is OK if a monk gets ordained in both schools, but prefers one practice over the other. It also does not mean that Soto Zen do not use the kōans as part of their practice, they sometimes do, it is just that the emphasis of their practice is sitting meditation.
The Soto school is more popular in the West, especially in the US. However, one major hotbed for Zen practice and Zen temples in Japan, the city of Kyoto, has a lot more Rinzai temples than Soto ones.
If you read until here it is because you are interested and curious.
There are a lot of good Zen books as well as books about Zen.
We made a list of the 10 Best Books about Zen.
If you would like to read about Stoicism, then simply click here: What Stoicism and Zen Buddhism: STOICISM [Part 3/3]