Living life with Zen
Zen has been described variously by many. And that is why it is a bit confusing for some. Zen is a state that involves total focus on the present moment, incorporating total togetherness of body and mind. It is way of being. It is also a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusions and seeing things without distortion created by our own thoughts. It is a state when we are looking at the reality of things with total detachment. For many, Zen appears to be mumbo-jumbo without real meaning.
Besides much confusion about what Zen is, it can be conveniently described as a state of mind, having following characteristics:
- It is an attitude of mind.
- It is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than you.
- It means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.
- It means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.
- It means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts of the material world.
- It means being in the flow of the universe.
- It means experiencing fully the present, and delighting in the basic miracle of life itself
“Zen” is a Japanese pronunciation of Chinese word “Chan”, which in turn is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word “Dhyana”, which means meditation.
Zen is actually used as a short form for Zen Buddhism, which is a Mahayana movement introduced into China in sixth century and into Japan in twelfth century. It emphasizes enlightenment for students by direct possible means.
The philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism encourages man to return to the basic spirit of the Buddha. Mahayana scriptures project the mind of man as essentially pure. It teaches that all beings have Buddha-nature and points to the inherent Buddha mind in everyone.
Buddha-nature is the ground for becoming the Buddha. It is the acme of true humanity, which we all should strive to achieve. Faith in Buddha-nature provides the basis for enlightenment and the ultimate ground of human dignity. It is a passageway to fully awaken to your original nature, which is present right here, right now.
The practice of Zen involves becoming fully aware of here and now. Living in the present moment is where we should be truly living. Thinking actually takes us far into the past or into the distant future. Both past and future are fantasies, since future isn’t known and our memories of the past are often distorted accounts of what actually happened. Zen exhorts one to come to one’s senses, when one is lost in the thoughts of the past or future. When one mindfully dwells in the present moment, one completely dissolves into what is happening then. One actually becomes the activity. One’s sense of separateness dissolves into the experience of the moment. Such a peak experience is Zen.
The practice of Zazen –
Zen involves the regular practice of zazen, which is a method of meditation done by sitting with crossed legs and straight back. This method of meditation arose in ancient India in pre-Buddha era. This was the form of zazen used by the Buddha, although his philosophic standpoint differed. This type of meditation is also popularly called Vipassana meditation by the followers of the Buddhism both in India and some other countries.
Zazen is a simple practice of looking directly at life as it is. It is a non-seeking practice because its practitioner doesn’t seek anything, not even enlightenment. But, nevertheless, its regular practice has substantial effects that can greatly influence our life.
The following are some of the beneficial effects that are noticed by its regular practice:
- It facilitates recovery from certain illnesses.
- It changes metal attitudes to positivity.
- It helps one in changing bad habits.
- It helps one restrict destructive impulses.
- It gives freedom from anxiety.
- It develops greater insight into situations.
- It also regulates the modulation of brain waves.
How to practice Zazen – The following are the main steps of performance of zazen -
- For practicing zazen, a quit room is suitable. At your sitting place, spread out a thick mat and put a cushion on it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position.
- Wear comfortable loose dress. Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward.
- Keep your hands on the respective knees, thumbs and index fingers touching each other, while the rest of the hands are open with palms facing the ceiling of the room.
- Always keep your eyes open and breathe softly though nose. But many prefer to close the eyes to reduce external visual disturbance in order to enhance concentration.
- Once you have adjusted the posture, inhale and exhale when sitting immovable. Establish a slow and natural rhythm of breathing with a soft, long and deep breathing out. Airs is expelled slowly and silently through the nose, while the push created by the exhaling goes down to create a movement in the stomach wall. At the end of the exhalation, inhalation takes place naturally. The masters compare the Zen breathing to the mooing of a cow or to the breathing out of a baby who cries as soon as he is born.
- During zazen, let the images, the thoughts, the mental shapes appearing from the unconscious, pass like clouds in the sky, without fighting them, without grasping them. Like the reflections in a mirror, the expressions of the unconscious pass, pass again and then vanish. And one gets to the deep unconscious, without thinking. And beyond thoughts lie true purity.
- This state of mind emerges naturally from a deep concentration on breathing, allowing the control of mental activity. Indeed, during zazen, the cortex - the area of the human brain associated with conscious thinking - relaxes, and the blood flows towards the deep layers of the brain. This gives an impression of well-being, serenity and calmness. While still being awake, the brain waves of a deep sleep "alpha" and "theta" appear.
- Zazen is very simple to practice, yet quite difficult to understand. Sincere efforts and perseverance are required. By simply sitting, without looking for any goal or any personal benefit, if your posture, breathing and state of mind are in harmony, you will understand the Buddha’s nature. Every sentient being, including insects, has Buddha nature, which means that they have consciousness – the seed of enlightenment.
Initially, the practitioner can do this meditation for few minutes, which can gradually be increased to half-an-hour or more. Depending on one’s convenience, one can schedule it twice daily in the morning and before going to bed at night. One can even perform it more times in the day.
“When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind. And if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer.”
“Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually, water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one.”
– From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki-roishi.
Living with Zen – Besides the practice of zazen that heightens presence of zen, one should practice to integrate the following in one’s daily activities in order to experience Zen.
- Live in the present - One should live every moment to the fullest. When we function fully in the present moment, it becomes alive. And we become virtually free from the bondage of past and future.
- Do one thing at a time – Doing so, one is able to concentrate better at the task being performed. The outcome is much better as one is mindful when performing one task at a time. On the contrary, multitasking prevents one from being mindful while performing more than one task at a time because the focus keeps on shifting from task to task. Moreover, the outcomes of the tasks so performed are not satisfactory.
- Do it slowly and deliberately – Doing so, one is more likely to develop mindfulness in the task being done. When one does the task mindfully, then it becomes enjoyable and satisfying.
- Designate time for certain things – In this way, an individual will be able to do certain routine things with ritual mindfulness, thereby enabling one to enjoy the experience of Zen while performing those things.
- Smile and help others – Smiles have a magical power that can dramatically transform mood of a person to happiness. It inspires positivity in the other person. Similarly, helping others also spreads happiness in the person who helps as well as the person who is being helped.
- Transcend dualism - Zen requires transcending dualism. As long as we cling to dualism, we face conflicts and anxiety. The best way is to drop discrimination by transcending dualism. Our world will become bright when we do so. Dualistic discrimination between hate and love, right and wrong, good and evil makes the human beings prey to rigid dogma. And, therefore, they cannot experience real freedom. Maintaining inner stillness when experiencing conflicting dualistic states is, in fact, a pre-requisite to the presence of Zen in life.
- Respect your self - We should respect our body and mind, and involve them fully in creating the presence of Zen in daily activities. The Buddhism essentially denies any dualism between body and mind.
- Reduce overdependence on modern technology - We have increasingly become obsessed with science and technology and, as a result, we have lost touch with the essential humanity. To practice Zen, we have to develop a sort of partial estrangement from science and technology in order to restore our intensity of awareness. The fact is that we cannot do without modern technology but we can set our personal limits to its use so that we can also attend to the development of our consciousness.
- Develop creative altruism and benevolence – Non-egoism and creative altruism go hand in hand. According to the universal law, by performing benevolent acts, one benefits oneself and others.
- Make daily chores a Zen experience – For women cooking and cleaning are great ways to practice mindfulness. Cooking and cleaning may seem boring chores to many but put your entire mind into those tasks, concentrate, and do them slowly and completely. They will become a form of meditation. In fact, we can make all daily chores acts of meditation by dong them mindfully. They can actually be wonderful ways of keeping us grounded in the Now, contributing greatly to our Zen experiences.
- Live simply – There is little in a Zen practitioner’s life that isn’t necessary. But there is much in our lives that aren’t necessary. It can be useful to give some thought to what we really need, and whether it is important to have all the stuff we have that’s not necessary. You should consider what is most important to your life, and make room for that by eliminating the other less essential things in your life.
The bottom line –
What Zen is, is misunderstood by many, but still many of us, in fact, practice it unknowingly in many situations. Looking at an array of beneficial effects of its practice, we may be tempted to have those benefits. Though it is not difficult to have those benefits, we require creating a specific state of mind before we experience them.
In reality, many will find a clue in Zen to a fresher approach to life. Real living begins, when one develops an ability to understand the reality of the moment - a pre-requisite to living with Zen.