Let’s be honest: Zen is a loaded word. It conjures images of Buddhist monks, new age spas, hippies, and/or “Zen in the art of everything” in which just attaching the word makes something sound profound.
None of those things are Zen. Not fundamentally. Zen is a lot of things. In fact, it is everything. It is also nothing. It is our true self, and yet it is the realization that there is no self. It is form, and it is emptiness (and yet the two are the same). It is creation itself, and yet it is the no-thing from which all things are created. Confused? Zen, like life itself, loves paradox.
But then again, Zen is hardly as sexy or exciting as these deep statements make it sound. Best defined, Zen is simply our everyday life. It is the underlying, fundamental truth about ourselves and reality, in each and every moment. That makes it boringly ordinary. Zen is the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup. It’s sitting in the cubicle at work grinding emails. It’s sitting in traffic. In fact, it’s even just sitting (which we call Zazen, or sitting meditation). But these ordinary moments are also profound, because the truth is there, staring us right in the face. We cannot deny truth, or the true nature of reality. It is in each and every moment. We can only choose to be aware of it or not, but when we do, we realize that it is always right here, right now. Everything you ever wanted to know and/or experience you will find right now in the present moment.
In Zen, we experience the true nature of everything by practicing and cultivating our awareness. It turns out that our complicated minds are not very good at objectively paying attention to the present moment. Instead, they’re always thinking: analyzing, filtering, interpreting, labeling, wandering off to think about yesterday, or thinking about tomorrow. If we want to get in touch with the truth about everything (ourselves, God, the world around us), we have to learn to pay attention and bring awareness to the present moment, because the present moment is all there ever is, and everything true must be contained in it.
In Zen, we cultivate this awareness through the daily practice of Zazen, or seated meditation, in which we simply sit in an intentional posture that settles our minds and brings our attention to the present moment. And we simply pay attention.
This practice of awareness, of paying attention, is Zen. There is no substitute for this actual practice and experience. You can read every book available on the subject, and never get one step closer in seeing the truth. Although you can know about something, you can only really know it by experiencing it (that goes for ourselves, others, reality, God, etc).
No one can tell you what the truth is, but it’s there. And if you look, you will find it.