Zen – what it is

What’s called Zen, which is C’han in Chinese tradition and Dhyan in Sanskrit, is no longer Zen once you call it Zen. This is the problem with words and thinking. I can only say this in words. And you can only understand the words, and the thoughts around these words. But these words and thoughts are only signposts, and not even good ones.

Zen is a rather fashionable word these days. The ancients in India called it tathata. It means that-that, and connotes “what it is.” Tat tvam asi, means That I am. These words, tathata and Zen and Truth, and others, point to that which no word can point to. Spiritual people make a big deal out of this. It isn’t really. Spiritual egos, ironically-well maybe it’s not ironic-are not humble. It’s really not a big deal. It’s rather simple. It’s so simple that the mind rebels.

“Not thinking about anything is Zen. Once you know this, walking, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is Zen.” – Boddhidharma

Zen, Advaita, Tao, Non-duality are similar in that they try to avoid the obstacle of beliefs and conceptualizing, that’s why they are sometimes called the pathless path. “If you see Buddha, kill him.” The blasphemy in this is purposeful, and too cute as Zen sayings try to be. It is to help us see the danger of clinging to idols, traditions and ideology.

These pathless paths, however, are not free of dogma. Krishnamurti told a story of a devil and his friend walking behind a man. The man stooped down to pick something up. The devil’s friend asked the devil, “What did he pick up?” The Truth, the devil replied. The devil’s friend said, well, that’s not good news for you, is it? The devil replied, not to worry, when the man takes it to his people, they will help him organize it.

This is the “stinking of Zen.”

The point is that the tendency to conceptualize and form ideas is very strong in the mind, and it is the only obstacle to awakening.

Awakening is easy, as easy as opening a fisted hand. If you’re banging your head against the wall, it’s easy to stop, isn’t it? But the ease of this torments the mind, and so the mind makes it a path, and a very complicated one, full of ideas and concepts and desires.

Zen is simple. Awareness is already here and now so there is no place you have to go. There is no road to it. There is nothing you have to do. There is no path, no dogma, no knowledge that will lead to it. Just shift attention to awareness and allow. Yes, there are techniques to help us, but all techniques start and stop in the mind, and awakening is awakening out of the mind.

Awakening is a process. It’s just very unlike the processes we’re used to. The mind knows the process of learning something or becoming this or that. The mind knows how to visualize something and go after it with effort and discipline. The mind knows how to desire and acquire. But the mind cannot know what it means to be awakened-so let’s be comfortable with that. We don’t understand the process of awakening-so let’s be comfortable with that. We don’t even know what Awakening feels like, or if there really is such a thing as Awakening. All we know is Awareness Now-we know there is awareness, and we know all experience is always in the Now.

Not understanding this process feels daunting, but not understanding is something we’re used to. Nobody understands where a thought comes from. Nobody understands the energy that drives the universe. Nobody understands love. Nobody understands why you are born who you are. Nobody understands death and thereafter. So don’t worry about understanding. Don’t understand for now. It makes That no less true.

You want a recipe? Here it is: Adapt a release technique you resonate with. Often, when we come to awakening, we are in misery. There is no need for this. Just learn to release. Then, intend to awaken (whatever that is). Use any of the awareness techniques, but don’t get attached to any particular one. “Cease to cherish opinion,” and instead rely only on direct experience. Be comfortable with the emptiness of not knowing and not believing and not wanting. Understand the delusions of the mind. Rest attention on effortless Awareness. And relax.

Or, come up with your own recipe. The essential ingredients are Now and Awareness. Reliance on direct experience and some understanding of the mind are tasty additives. The spice in the recipe is Life itself. Releasing will keep the whole thing simmering. Throwing beliefs or concepts in the mixture will sour the whole thing.

The process does seem to cause some emotional turbulence, but it is also fun and interesting. And that squirrelly thing we call life-well, it can become a fun, effortless, flowing game. Life indeed is a game; we just don’t know it, and of course people get mad when they hear someone say it’s a game, because things like loneliness and leukemia and death and poverty don’t seem like a game.

Here’s what can happen: when you practice stilling the mind, at first, it may seem impossible. It’s of course not only possible, but natural and beautiful. You don’t have to learn to still the mind, you have to unlearn the habit of putting forth the effort of thinking and analyzing. So it may seem hard at first. There is emotional turmoil, as the mind resists and cleans itself.

The only obstacle is your own fixed ideas.

When we are awareness–the gentle, unoccupied, passive watchfulness–that is it!

In Awareness, whatever you do, or don’t do, is Zen.

16 thoughts on “Zen – what it is

  1. Brenda

    Kaushik, I love coming to your site. Reading what you write fills me with a sense of endless possibility. I’ve been practicing “release all effort” and it really works to soothe me if I notice myself beginning to feel fretful. Now I’m going to read PP’s “how to find your calm before you lose your cool.” She may be writing about releasing effort too. Thanks for all you do.
    .-= Brenda´s last blog ..Oprah’s Lavender =-.

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Namaste Brenda,

      It’s always so nice to hear from you…you’re so chipper and positive! yes, that’s the great thing about the web…everything is interconnected. I heartily recommend PP.


  2. alex - unleash reality

    hey kaushik!!

    really inspiring post. excited me to jump back into some more krishnamurti or re-read the dao de jing.

    definitely agreet that the awareness is always there. and that it’s about shifting attention to awareness and allowing.
    …but i find that that isn’t enough. thought litter just come up and distracts that attention away from awareness. and i’ve tried the brute force “keep redirecting your attention to awareness” and it just never sticks. i’ve tried all the eckhart tolle, the krishnamurti, the releasing method etc. i think the best way to go about it, in my experience, is the sedona method path where you release the compulsions to look away and dive deeper into that which you are, beyond the wants. like deeper into awareness isntead of just focusing attention on it, focus your entire being on it.

    fully with you about understanding it. such a power realisation. again, to quote hale from sedona method, “would you rather understand your ‘problems’ or not have them?’

    really cool post all round
    stumbled and tweeted

    keep well man
    alex – unleash reality

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hey Alex,

      Good to see you here again. It’s wonderful that the Sedona release is working for you. I found the basic Sedona technique very useful, but the rest of it was too heady for me, though I would encourage anyone to look into it.

      “thought litter just come up and distracts that attention away from awareness” I’ve found thoughts never go away. They are greatly diminished and no longer believed. You’re right, brute-forcing attention does not lead to effortless constant gentle unoccupied awareness. It is the releasing of effort–but that is not easily understood, it has to be experienced. And it is surrender, which also has to be experienced. And letting go–which is why releasing is important.

      Thanks for the stumble!


  3. kuroh tzu

    Hi, i appreciate your efforts on this website in trying to explain things, but i find it rather strange that you do not point out that “zen” (~ “ch’an”, “dhyana”) means “meditation”, whatever that may be:P.
    — Awareness and meditation are two different things, aren’t they?

    I would also like to set straight the Krishnamurti story, this is the actual quote:

    You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of the truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to help him organize it.”

    (from the Truth is a pathless land speech, Ommen, August 3, 1929 – various online sources exist, including wikipedia)

    madman kurtz aka kuroh tzu.

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Thanks for clarifications Kuroh.

      Yes, dhyana and therefore Ch’an and Zen mean attention or meditation.

      In this context, meditation and awareness are the same. As Krishnamurti said, “Meditation is not only constant self-awareness, but constant abandonment of the self.”

      I paraphrased the Krishnamurti story, and the essence of the story is the mind will always organize and corrupt Truth, through religion and words. This is the “stinking of Zen.” Truth is beyond definitions and labels and intellectual understanding and the need to be right.


  4. kuroh tzu

    Hm… I am convinced that Krishnamurti would not have liked someone pulling his words out of context… In almost any speech he gave, he tried to get to the whole of the problem. When you read more of the original statement, you see he was saying more than the above:

    “… In the flame of self-awareness, of self-knowledge, the causes of conflict are discovered and consumed. You should continue to write down your thoughts and feelings, intentions and reactions, not once or twice, but for a considerable number of days until you are able to be aware of them instantly…

    Meditation is not only constant self-awareness, but constant abandonment of the self. Out of right thinking there is meditation, from which there comes the tranquility of wisdom; and in that serenity the highest is realized.

    Writing down what one thinks and feels, one’s desires and reactions, brings about an inward awareness, the cooperation of the unconscious with the conscious, and this in turn leads to integration and understanding.”
    (full text is in “Book of Life”, December 25)

    Meditation is more than awareness alone, it is the mind literally measuring, giving attention to, pondering over parts, and eventually maybe, the whole content of the mind.

    If understanding is not essential, where do you put insight? How will it come about?
    Problems do not go away simply by “being Awareness”. That is a most dangerous concept, a recipe for psychopathology, now widely popularized by superficial teachers such as Eckhart Tolle.

    We still need to act in the world, using our minds, don’t we?
    .-= kuroh tzu´s last blog ..Krishnamurti vs. me =-.

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Intellectual understanding is not essential.

      “It may sound strange but this is a truth, that mind is not your intelligence. Mind can be intellectual, which is a very poor substitute for intelligence. Intellectuality is mechanical. You can become a great scholar, a great professor, a great philosopher, just playing with words which are all borrowed, arranging and rearranging thoughts, none of which are your own.”

  5. kuroh tzu

    Now you are quoting Osho? The man had some very interesting things to say, but i have no idea how he could have done that without using his mind. Intelligence does not arise mainly from that area?

    I did not add the word intellectual. I am talking about complete understanding of the self, life, fear, …

    How will insight come about without meditation?

  6. kuroh tzu

    Sorry to bother you again, but could you please mention the source?
    No way that J. Krishnamurti said such a thing, impossible.
    + i went on google and got plenty of hits for Osho…

    Transformation comes through insight comes through choiceless awareness (which goes hand in hand with meditation by nature): i can live with that formulation:)-

    Would you agree that confusion cannot dissolve without a deep, thorough examination of the confused mind, without observing how the mind works?


    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Kuroh,

      I keep Krishnamurti’s quotations in a file and this one was filed under “Intelligence”; however, I cannot find the source, so perhaps it is misfiled. I retract the attribution, but the quotation, whoever said it, is still meaningful. And there are other places where Krishnamurti refers to the difference between intelligence and intellect. (http://www.katinkahesselink.net/kr/emotion.html)

      “Transformation comes through insight comes through choiceless awareness…” Yes, exactly. It goes hand-in-hand with meditation, if meditation is effortless awareness, a whole seeing, the way Krishnamurti and Adyashanti define meditation.

      Confusion dissolves with abidance in awareness and letting go. It is observation without intellectual analysis in the present, ontoscopy :). This is my experience.


  7. Luthfi

    very deep understanding for zen. I recently read complete idiot guide for zen living , and i’m still very interesting in utilize it in any time i life (hard to do tough,still interesting ) 🙂

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Luthfi,
      It’s hard to do when we think about it with the mind. Zen is just living in awareness. I don’t mean to over-simplify it, but it start simply with being aware–aware of thought, emotion and everything else that goes on inside of us.

      Thanks for the comment!

      love and peace,

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