What is Zen?
What reminds you of Zen? Japanese stone gardens, Chinese calligraphies and splash-ink paintings, inscrutable poems, intangible things, or sipping tea slowly? Are these Zen or not? What on earth is Zen?
Zen is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word Dhyana. According to its pronunciation, Dhyana was first transliterated as Channa in the Chinese language, and then simplified as “Chan.” When Chan spread east to Japan, it was transliterated as Zen in the Japanese language. Although the None Zen Center inherits the Chinese Zen tradition, we use the word “Zen” rather than “Chan” because Zen is more popular and widely understood in English-speaking communities.
Zen originally refers to stillness, certain meditative states, or various levels of concentration. Along with the development of their Zen experiences and teaching skills, Chinese Zen masters also enhanced Zen with more profound meaning: the true nature of all beings, including the various forms of all the existences, activities, phenomena, relationships, and even time and space. But what is the true nature of all beings?
First, that all beings exist interdependently. A woman gives birth to a child, and thus gives birth to a mother, a daughter/son, and the parent-child relationship. One thought leads to another, and thus forms consciousnesses, conceptions, and reasons. Sneezes travel a hundred miles an hour, vibrate the air, and then caused hurricanes or typhoons. In one way or another, all beings are related to each other and are all mutually the cause and the effect of one another.
Does this mean we are all attached to and predicated on other beings? Not necessarily. The truth is that the interdependence indeed resides among all forms, existences, and phenomena, yet the true nature of all beings is always changing, or “not always so” (Ch: wuchang). The air around you now is different from the air you inhaled one second ago, since your and other people’s exhalations, the gas released from The Trans-Siberian Express, and the volcanic activities of Hawaii Islands have already made an impact on the air. “You” are not even the one who read that previous sentence two seconds ago, since so many energy transformations, chemical reactions, and cells metabolizing transpired within you. No matter why and how you arrived at this webpage, if you leave this page right now, you won’t connect to the Zen ideas right here, right now.
In other words, it is because of always-changingness that there is no such thing as permanency, indestructibility, or destiny; there is no existence of an “always-lasting” existence; and there is no nature of “selfness.” Remember that you are not even the one who read the previous line? Then how come there is a “self” of yours?
This selflessness or ever-changingness is the true nature of you and all beings. Chinese Zen masters described this in a poetic and intangible way, calling this selflessness “nothingness/none” (Chn: wu) or “emptiness” (Chn: kong).
However, this nothingness or emptiness has nothing to do with nihilism. On the contrary, it is because of nothingness that all beings exist as they are right here and now, not attached to any beings, time, or space. It is because of always-changingness that you and all beings exist independently and with various possibilities in every single moment, and every moment (or every being at every moment) is unique, unrepeatable, and in fulfillment as it is. Chinese Zen masters put this in an inspiring and amazing way, naming this independence, possibility, and fulfillment as “wondrous existence” (Chn. miaoyou, or you).
This is Zen: the nothingness and wondrous existence, the true nature of all beings, existences, and phenomena.
Now you have learned the basic ideas of Zen. Next time, do not mistake the forms of Japanese stone gardens, Chinese calligraphies and splash-ink paintings, inscrutable poems, intangible things, or sipping tea slowly as Zen. See through the various forms, existences, and phenomena to know the real you. Once you know your true nature, even taking a cold shower is Zen. Otherwise, what do you think Zen is?