The great project of Zen is awakening. Through the practice of Zen we have an opportunity to come to our deepest knowing, to find out who we are, and how we fit within the world. Zen is focused on the practice of meditation, the technology of awakening. And Zen is also about becoming ordinary, discovering who we are within the simplest moments of our everyday lives.
Zen is a path that is deeply rooted in the teachings of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. A thousand years after the Buddha’s life, Mahayana Buddhism, influenced by Taoist and Confucian teachings, combined to produce Zen, which later flourished in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and that has in the past one hundred years, arrived in the West.
Through Zen practice we awaken to the reality of the world. This awakening has many names: the unborn, beginner’s mind/heart, only don’t know. Not knowing exists before our first thought, and co-exists with the all-consuming reality of our thoughts and actions. We learn that, through being with things as they are, we can align with life as it is, and choose actions that help to heal the world’s suffering, and our own.
In some ways, Zen is about transformation — as we learn to appreciate reality, we become freer to act from a deep inner balance, wisdom and compassion, rather than from our greed, anger and delusion. The path of transformation and discovery of the true nature of the self and the world is called the Bodhisattva way. This path is one of reconciliation, where our hearts and minds and the very earth itself are discovered to be holy, where the divisions of self and other become less clear, and our every act becomes sacred.
Zen Practice and Awakening
There are many ways to awaken to the heart of the realization of our profound interconnectedness to each other and the world. This experience of insight happens spontaneously. It is a glorious happenstance, a mysterious accident. It arrives for each of us in its own way, as a flash of illumination, or a gentle unfolding like the petals of a particular fragrant flower. While it is a natural opening, it can be so fleeting that the sweet and profound insight quickly dissolves back into the old habits of mind. Zen practice can create a container, through a set of practices that have evolved over generations of human experience to particularly enhance the possibility of our coming to our own intimate and direct knowing. Awakening is an accident; Zen practice makes us accident-prone.
Zen is not a theology or a set of beliefs. The practice of Zen invites us to come into a deeper relationship with this moment — to learn how to fully participate in our ordinary life. We practice together and with the guidance of a teacher, not to learn what someone else knows, but to uncover the wisdom and aliveness that is already present within each one of us.
The principle practice of Zen is “shikantaza” which literally means, in Japanese, “just sitting.” In this practice we allow ourselves to receive and become aware of our whatever arises moment to moment. We cultivate a basic friendliness towards and curiosity about how life actually unfolds. We begin to see that what we seek is already here, arriving continually in awareness as thoughts, emotions and sensory experience.
The other great practice of the Zen way is “koan” introspection. Koans are poems and stories that both embody and elicit a moment of penetrating insight, bringing us to the dazzling reality of presence.
The core of Zen practice is the discipline of regular meditation. We must find time in our lives to sit down, shut up, and pay attention. We can sit alone, practice with a group, and practice with a teacher: all these forms of practice complement and support each other.