What is Zen Practice?
Walking slowly, sitting with legs folded as long as possible, trying to be mindful of your breathing, sending loving and kindness messages to people around the world, or getting into a kind of concentration to feel the stillness, tranquility, and the unity of the universe? Which method is Zen practice? Which method is the best method for Zen practice?
When Chinese Zen masters re-define the meaning of Zen from stillness (Sanskrit: dhyana), or concentration levels, to the true nature of all beings, in Chinese Zen tradition, the meaning and purpose of Zen practice is no longer limited to reach certain meditation states, but to experience Zen, to reveal the true nature (check What is Zen?).
Zen practice is a process of experiencing the true nature of you and all beings by applying meditation skills designed or delivered by Zen teachers, but with your own experiments. Chinese Zen teachers name this process as investigating Zen (Ch: canchan), to find out Zen (i.e. the true nature of you and all beings), to see the real you, to know your self.
Probably you have read or heard some ideas about Zen, but all these ideas come from your studies, readings, and hearings, not from your “experiences.” In Chinese Zen tradition, what matters is one’s own experience rather than intellectual understanding. The teachings of doctrines or Zen masters are respectively regarded as guidelines for your Zen practice and yet nothing related to your own experience. If one could not generate Zen ideas from one’s Zen practice experience but only quotes from or repeats doctrines or masters’ sayings, he/she would be criticized, degraded, and made fun of as “cheated and fooled by old monk’s tongue.”
Why is one’s own experience so highly valued in Chinese Zen tradition? Let’s take stinky tofu as an example. Stinky tofu is a very famous or notorious snack in Taiwan. People from other countries are interested in why and how some Taiwanese people love the fermented bean curd so much. If you are a new comer to Taiwan, you probably will google for the descriptions and photos of stinky tofu, learning that it is stinky, some people cannot stand it, some love it, and some don’t like the smell but enjoy the taste. Pretty often you will find the conflict between one’s nose and tongue, claiming that “it is assaulting the nose but pleasing the mouth.” So confusing, isn’t it? You probably would recall all the aroma of fermented food in your memory and imagine how stinky it could be. But before you have it, you won’t be able to realize its smell and don’t know whether you like it or not; before you put it into your mouth, you do not have any stinky tofu experience.
It is until one day you walk by a stinky tofu’s stand at a night market in Taiwan, you smell it and run away as fast as you could without a second thought, then you know how stinky it is. It is until you take the risk to put a piece of stinky tofu into your mouth, you would know whether you like it and why some people dislike its stinky smell but enjoy its taste. At this moment, stinky tofu is more than a 2-word term to you and become a real experience embedded into your life. Since after you don’t need to google for descriptions and photos of stinky tofu, you won’t need other people’s experience to tell you what stinky tofu tastes like, you will tell your own stinky tofu stories on your own.
On a certain level, Zen practice/Zen experience is similar to stinky tofu experience. Like stinky tofu which is always stinky, the Zen theory is always easy, simple and always so—-nothingness and wondrous existence. You don’t need to look for a better theory about the taste of stinky tofu or the meaning of true nature, what really counts is your own experience on stinky tofu as well as on your true nature.
It is not only the students’ practicing experience that matters in the Chinese Zen tradition, but also the Zen teachers’ teaching experience that directs the Chinese Zen tradition. Some of the teaching experience, the dialogs between teachers and students, are so outstanding that lead the students to break through their limitation and even get enlightened at a sudden. These teachings are delivered from generation to generation as public teaching materials (Chn. Gongan, Jpn. Koan) and become Zen doctrines. Also, some Zen teachers’ prominent teaching styles are widely recognized and specifically categorized into five schools/ lineages, known as Guiyang, Linji (Jpn. Rinzai), Caodong (Jpn. Soto), Yunmen, and Fayan, from A.D. 790 to 960, mainly in Chinese Tang dynasty (A.D. 618 ~ 907), the so-called Golden Age of Zen.
However, within the different forms of teaching styles, the point is always the same—- to see the true nature, to know the real you on your own practice; the schema is always the one—- to investigate Zen, to find out your true nature on your own experience.
From this perspective, then, which method is the best method for Zen practice? Walking meditation, Zazen, Vipassana, Metta, or Samatha? As long as you concentrate on your method and penetrate the various forms, existences, and phenomena of all beings to see the true nature, which method is not the best method?