What is Zen Practice?
Walking slowly, sitting with folded legs for as long as possible, trying to be mindful of your breathing, sending loving-kindness messages to people around the world, or concentrating to feel the stillness, tranquility, and unity of the universe? Which method is Zen practice? Which method is the best method for Zen practice?
When Chinese Zen masters redefined the meaning of Zen from stillness (Sanskrit: dhyana), or concentration levels, to the true nature of all beings, in the Chinese Zen tradition, the meaning and purpose of Zen practice was no longer limited to reach certain meditation states, but to experience Zen, to reveal the true nature (See: What is Zen).
Zen practice is a process of experiencing the true nature of yourself and all beings by applying meditation skills designed or delivered by Zen teachers, but through your own experiments. Chinese Zen teachers name this process “investigating Zen” (Ch: canchan), to find out Zen (i.e. the true nature of yourself 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 listening, not from your “experiences.” In the Chinese Zen tradition, what matters is one’s own experience rather than intellectual understanding. The teachings of Zen doctrines and Zen masters are regarded as guidelines for your Zen practice, not anything related to your own experience. If one can not generate Zen ideas from one’s Zen practice experience, but only quote from or repeat doctrines and masters’ sayings, he/she would be criticized, degraded, and made fun of as “cheated and fooled by the old monk’s tongue.”
Why is one’s own experience so highly valued in the 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 some Taiwanese people love the fermented bean curd so much. If you are a newcomer to Taiwan, you will probably search Google for descriptions and photos of stinky tofu, and learn that it is stinky, some people cannot stand it, some people love it, and some people don’t like the smell but enjoy the taste. Often, you will find the conflict between one’s nose and tongue described, claiming that “it is assaulting to the nose but pleasing to the mouth.” So confusing, isn’t it? You probably would recall all the aromas of fermented food in your memory, and imagine how stinky the tofu will be. But before you have it, you won’t be able to realize its smell and won’t know whether you like it or not. Before you put it in your mouth, you do not have any stinky tofu experience.
It is not until one day that you walk by a stinky tofu stand at a night market in Taiwan that you will smell it and run away, as fast as you can and without a second thought, that you know how stinky it is. It is not until you take the risk to put a piece of stinky tofu in your mouth that you will 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 two-word term to you; it becomes a real experience embedded in your life. Afterward, you won’t need Google for descriptions and photos of stinky tofu, and 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 a certain level, Zen practice and Zen experience is similar to stinky tofu experience. Like stinky tofu, which is always stinky, the Zen theory is always easy, always 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 with stinky tofu, as well as with your true nature.
It is not only the students’ experience practicing that matters in the Chinese Zen tradition, since the Zen teachers’ teaching experience also directs the Chinese Zen tradition. Some of the teaching experiences, the dialogues between teachers and students, are so outstanding they lead students to break through their limitations and even get enlightened all of a sudden. These teachings are passed down 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, emerging from 790 to 960 AD, mainly during the Chinese Tang dynasty ( 618 to 907 AD), 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 from your own practice. The schema is always the one—to investigate Zen, to find out your true nature from 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?