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Thread: Describing Zen to another person

  1. #1

    Describing Zen to another person

    Apologies if this is a thread that has been done to death before.

    I was asked by a work colleague yesterday as to what exactly Zen was.

    Rather than give him an explanation, I simply said that the words I gave would be meaningless as they would never be able to convey what it is like to practice such a path (whenever I give an explantion when asked it always comes out sounding like nonsense it seems). I said that if he was interested in Zen then he should try it out for himself to see what it means.
    I was wondering, how would you describe Zen if someone asked the question?

    Gassho,

    Simon

  2. #2
    I think you did exactly right, Simon. Inviting him to sit with you would be a good thing if he is actually thinking of practicing rather than just interested in a friend's life.

    Otherwise, I might offer to loan a book like Joko Beck's 'Everyday Zen' which seems (to me) to capture the essence of Zen practice in a way I would struggle to achieve myself.

    Gassho
    Andy

  3. #3
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Be zen.
    Be ordinary.
    Be just you.

    Gassho

    T.
    Taigu, teacher at Treeleaf Sangha, was born in 1964, started Zazen early and received Shukke Tokudo in 1983 at age 18 from Rev. Mokusho Zeisler of the Deshimaru Lineage. Received Dharma Transmission from Chodo Cross in 2002. Now resides in Osaka, Japan.

  4. #4
    Taigu, this is a genuine question which I often struggle with - if Zen exemplifies the ordinariness of things, why the need for a black robe, kesa and shaved head? That seems to be a contradiction in which the ordained person is setting themselves aside as extraordinary in some way and apart from the world.

    To be honest, I like the image of the homeless mendicant but wonder if this is just another attachment? This is meant in no way as disrespect to all of you who have taken ordination vows that I respect greatly but the contradiction between ordinariness and having clothes and hair that stand out from the crowd is something I can't get my head around.

    Gassho
    Andy

  5. #5
    Senior Member Nengyo's Avatar
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    I think my new stock answer will be my signature, "Zen is the world's most boring cult."

    I know I've seen other people write about this effect, but I still think that it is funny that when I first started reading about zen I was amazed, it really struck a chord. After reading some more, I really thought I had it about figured out. A little more alan watts, a dash of "zen mind, beginners mind", and a touch of koan reading and I would be zen mastering in no time. Now I can really laugh at that idea. I have no clue what zen is, where it is at, or how to get to it. I just sit on my cushion and wait to snag it if it ever walks by.
    Try not to be a jerk-- one of the Buddhas

  6. #6
    Hi Simon,

    My answer depends on the individual who is asking and also my mood. Since nothing I can say is right, I can't go wrong when answering the question of what is Zen.

    Gassho, John

  7. #7
    Senior Member Myosha's Avatar
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    Depending on the person - a long answer and/or a short answer:

    Short answer - Zen - A Japanese school of Maháyana Buddhism emphasizing the value of zazen and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures.

    Long answer - Zen is all


    Gassho,
    Edward
    Practice with humility, respect all beings, avoid attachments, give rise to prajńa from your own awareness, put an end to delusions - Hui-neng

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Taigu View Post
    Be zen.
    Be ordinary.
    Be just you.

    Gassho

    T.
    Zen - "What Zen"? Being "What Be"?

    Extra-ordinary-ordinary.

    you no you. Just.
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-28-2013 at 05:44 PM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

    #SAT TODAY!

  9. #9
    Senior Member Juki's Avatar
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    Forrest Gump famoulsy said that life ws like a box of chocolates.

    For me, Zen is like a can of spaghetti and meatballs. Chef Boyardee staring at you sternly from the label, inviting you to open the can (koan), sit down, and examine the contents. Zen is the gummy pasta, the heartburn-inducing sauce and the mystery meatballs all joined together in unison. It remains Zen even after the meal is digested and the can is recycled.

    Of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. I don't recall Dogen referring to canned spaghetti in his Instructions to the Cook.

    Gassho,

    William
    Last edited by Juki; 06-28-2013 at 06:47 PM.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Karasu View Post
    Taigu, this is a genuine question which I often struggle with - if Zen exemplifies the ordinariness of things, why the need for a black robe, kesa and shaved head? That seems to be a contradiction in which the ordained person is setting themselves aside as extraordinary in some way and apart from the world.

    To be honest, I like the image of the homeless mendicant but wonder if this is just another attachment? This is meant in no way as disrespect to all of you who have taken ordination vows that I respect greatly but the contradiction between ordinariness and having clothes and hair that stand out from the crowd is something I can't get my head around.

    Gassho
    Andy
    Andy, if I may pending Taigu ...

    I think the robes and kesa and shaved head are ordinary and extra ordinary.

    The robe of rags, shaved head free of worldly concerns of beauty, the simple begging bowl which accepts whatever is placed within ... they are the abandonment of attachment to things and appearances. If one truly "stands out from the crowd" in one's robes, it is certainly something in this modern world more likely to be met with confused and even scornful looks (or fear) from the public.

    Here is a photo of Taigu, engaged in one of his periodic mendicancy rounds in front of the train station. He has some great stories of people who offered a kind word or simple Gassho, but (even here in Japan) most folks just walk on past, averting their eyes, as if stepping around a madman.



    Gassho, J
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

    #SAT TODAY!

  11. #11
    Thank you, Jundo. That makes some kind of sense. I guess my head will have to deal with ordinary and extraordinary at the same time!

    It does surprise me that monks are seen as some kind of madmen in Japan. Or is it just Taigu? ;-)


    Gassho
    Andy

  12. #12
    Senior Member Nengyo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Karasu View Post
    It does surprise me that monks are seen as some kind of madmen in Japan. Or is it just Taigu? ;-)
    It's just Taigu. That's one of the reasons I stick around.
    Try not to be a jerk-- one of the Buddhas

  13. #13
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Hi all,

    And thank you Karasu for raising your point. Seen as madmen? yes and no. In materialistic Japan, Zen guys are often seen as materialistic creatures ( and sure some can when in the trade of priesthood, running a temple, getting a lot of money for chanting stuff nobody understands or cares about, driving expensive cars) or they can be seen as just useless crap from a distant past. Sometimes, they are also be revered with a superstitious mind, and people would gassho them in the streets, a gassho which is partly tradition, partly respect, partly fear. But they are also part of the ordinary daily fabric of cities and countryside, with these trails of scattered black robed priests with straw hats and sandals shouting : hooooooooooooo! In they begging rounds. Sometimes, as people know they cannot answer or react, they are teased, jocked at or having to-put up with foul language.

    Now as to this question of yours, very legitimate, some Zen teachers in recent history of Zen decided to make sitting simple, without robes or shaved head. Some teachers in the past did the same, rejecting the position of abbots and living poorly and anonymously in the countryside or just under the bridges of Kyoto or Tokyo like Tosui. And yes, I do merge and mix day in day out in the crowd when I commute.
    Simply this ordinary-extraorinary robe, the kesa, beyond thinking and not thinking, is an expression of the whole body of reality. Shaving one s head is making things simple.
    Nothing to say, kesa and zazen are both part of this path. Even if you apparently drop the okesa it is still with you. You simply cannot drop it and cannot receive it as it has always been with you.
    Take care

    Gassho

    T.
    Last edited by Taigu; 06-29-2013 at 01:07 AM.
    Taigu, teacher at Treeleaf Sangha, was born in 1964, started Zazen early and received Shukke Tokudo in 1983 at age 18 from Rev. Mokusho Zeisler of the Deshimaru Lineage. Received Dharma Transmission from Chodo Cross in 2002. Now resides in Osaka, Japan.

  14. #14
    Senior Member Joyo's Avatar
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    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I have had a very hard time describing Zen, even to other Buddhists who ask me about it. I guess the words that come to mind are emptiness, no form, free of all perceptions and living in the now--no expectations, no labels, just be. But, if I were to answer this question tomorrow I may have something completely different.

    I think you gave the right answer, Simon.

    Gassho,
    Treena

  15. #15
    Thank you so much for your answer, Taigu. It is interesting how the sight of a Zen priest can affect someone's mind. I am grateful there are those of you who still put yourselves out there as a reminder to others of this way of being.

    I guess my question reflects my own attitude to the robe which carries both the aversion of standing out and attraction of that too. Sometimes the lineage history which is woven into the kesa seems like a heavy thing to bear.

    Gassho
    Andy

  16. #16
    Senior Member Heisoku's Avatar
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    Thank you Taigu and Jundo. The reason I don't really talk about zen, is how can you talk about the presence of everything in one breath? How can you speak of moments that are gone as soon as they arise? How can I speak when I have no idea?!
    A really helpful thread. Gassho.
    Heisoku
    平 息

  17. #17
    Senior Member Shawn's Avatar
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    I think most topics have been discussed multiple times over the years. But thank you for raising it again.

    Your co-worker that asked what Zen is..are they really asking, what the whole Buddhism thing is in general? Regardless, I would

    say to them, rightly or wrongly, but for the sake of simplicity, that zen is a practice within Buddhism, which allows one, to

    experience the world around them, with fewer filters, through the

    practice of zazen. Teaches you to live in the moment and not be gripped by our constant bombardment of thoughts and fears,

    but to embrace all life experiences, good and bad only as they are. Your initial reaction in my opinion is the "true" answer..but in

    reality, that probably confused your coworker even further. But then again, what do I know.

    Gassho

    Shawn
    Last edited by Shawn; 06-29-2013 at 10:36 AM.

  18. #18
    To bring the conversation down to practical terms, I actually do get asked this question quite a bit.

    I usually answer that Zen Buddhism/Zazen is, at heart, a path to drop the frictions and divisions between oneself and this sometimes hard and painful world, and all the suffering and resistance which results when life does not go as one wishes. It is also a path to live peacefully and gently in this world with compassion for others.

    Only later, perhaps, might one get into how radical is that "dropping" of the self and the divisions between the self and all this life-world-other.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-29-2013 at 04:48 PM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

    #SAT TODAY!

  19. #19
    Thanks for everyone's input.

    I think it's human nature for people to be confused or wary of what they do not understand, that is why I asked the question. Zen seems so much more different or undefinable than anything else I've come across. I don't think I'm the kind of person to preach about it but when asked about the subject most people seem to give me a bizzare look.
    I gather it's probably best to keep it simple and leave it up to them.

    Gassho,

    Simon

  20. #20
    Senior Member Joyo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    To bring the conversation down to practical terms, I actually do get asked this question quite a bit.

    I usually answer that Zen Buddhism/Zazen is, at heart, a path to drop the frictions and divisions between oneself and this sometimes hard and painful world, and all the suffering and resistance which results when life does not go as one wishes. It is also a path to live peacefully and gently in this world with compassion for others.

    Only later, perhaps, might one get into how radical is that "dropping" of the self and the divisions between the self and all this life-world-other.

    Gassho, J
    Thank you, Jundo, for the reminder. As I sit here with my 5-yr-old, wishing he were asleep because it is late and I desperately want some time to myself, I realize dropping the attachments and living in the moment is a much better way to live.

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