We hear stories of ancient sages who had mastered something called “zen”. There’s an other-worldly feel about them because they don’t behave according to ordinary logic. A Zen hermit comes home to his humble little hut at night and finds that a burglar has stolen his few belongings. Glimpsing the full moon through his window, the sage says “If only I could have given him that moon, too!”
What could make him say such a thing? What would you have said in his place?
The word “zen” is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word ch’an, which itself comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means “concentration” or “meditation”. Meditation is one of the fundamental practices of Buddhism, and as Buddhism spread from India to China it evolved a new form that, since it put great emphasis on this kind of concentration, came to be called the Ch’an school. This new school eventually flourished throughout Eastern Asia, with major sub-schools appearing in Japan and Korea, and in the twentieth century began spreading to the rest of the world.
How is meditation connected to the odd behavior we think of as “zen”? This deep spiritual introspection brings the meditator to a frame of mind that is quite different from the ordinary state. The thoughts and feelings that typically roil the mind eventually settle down, like the waves on a pond when the wind has died. These waves are all concerned with “me” and “mine”, with how I’m going to get what I want and how I’ll protect myself from what I fear. And just as the surface of the pond becomes transparent when the waves have gone, as the thoughts subside the rigid separation between what is inside and outside “me” softens and eventually disappears.
Once the surface of the mind has become still, what happens to our frame of reference? If I’m no longer aware of any distinctions between “me” and everything else, is this a kind of oblivion? What we find in meditation is actually just the opposite – all our perceptions become sharp and clear. The singing of the bird in the pine tree, the glowing green underside of the elm leaves in the afternoon sun, the moon shining through your window. What is real right now is what you are aware of, whether it’s a pleasant forest sound or the rumble of a truck on a grimy city street. This is the realm of the sages, where there are no distinctions between inside and outside the mind, between me and you; here we are fully attuned to the buzzing life of this clear moment. And the more time we spend here, the less concerned we become with possessions, position in society or who has visited our little hut in the moonlight.
This realm isn’t really new to us. As a matter of fact, we are often in this state, but just don’t realize it when we’re there. In our modern culture we call it “being in the zone.” When you’re playing basketball and you pivot, jump and put the ball in the basket without any notion of the ball doing anything but going through the hoop, you’re there. Not hoping it will go in, not fantasizing about people congratulating you for making the points, just the ball going through the hoop without any possibility of missing. The aim of Zen is to find this realm, become comfortable with it, and make it just as much a part of our daily reality as the other side, the side of “me”, “you” and our individual wants and needs.
Zen isn’t just for the hermits of ancient China. Its basic principles are as relevant now as they were then. We’re well acquainted with the ordinary logic that sums up our identity as what we own and who we know; when we get a glimpse of the realm of the Zen sages we begin to understand the extra-ordinary logic that would inspire the ancient hermit to want to give more to the burglar than he had already stolen.