What is zen? I have found that the philosophy of zen Buddhism is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around. Whenever I’ve read a book or an article or watched a video about zen; I never felt like it pinpointed exactly what it is. It always left me with more questions, which in itself is part of the philosophy, I guess. However, I did decide to see a coach who also happens to be a zen practitioner; he actually studied with the well known Vietnamese zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France.
If I want to learn more about zen, I thought, he would probably be my best bet.
We spoke about a lot of things, but there were two ideas in particular that stood out for me. These ideas, which I’d like to share in this article, gave me at least some clarity on what zen is.
The first idea is that zen is all about becoming more fully engaged with what you’re doing in the present moment. You can read more about this idea in my previous article. The second idea involves not judging experiences. I’m reminded here of a story that Alan Watts told, which illustrates this idea better than I can.
The story is about a farmer who had a horse. One day the horse ran away and then his neighbors came around saying, “Oh, what terrible fortune!”
But the farmer simply answered: “Maybe.”
The next day the horse returned, bringing with it a couple of wild horses. This time the neighbors exclaimed, “Oh, what good fortune!”
Again the farmer simply replied: “Maybe.”
The next day the farmer’s son tried to break in one of the horses, but the horse threw him off and he broke his leg. The neighbors came around once again saying, “Oh, what terrible fortune!”
But again the farmer simply replied: “Maybe.”
The next day, conscription officers arrived to recruit the farmer’s son into the army, but because his leg was broken, he was rejected. The neighbors came around and once again exclaimed, “Oh, what good fortune!”
But once again, the farmer simply replied, “Maybe.”
Isn’t this a great story? What it teaches us is that we generally experience life as a series of happenings strung together to form a narrative. From a young age we learn to judge and categorize our experiences into “good” and “bad” happenings. We then attempt to create only “good” experiences while avoiding “bad” experiences.
But the reality is that we cannot have the good experiences without the bad experiences and vice versa. Resisting the bad only causes tension and therefore – according to zen – a better approach is to flow with life through the good and the bad instead of resisting it. This is achieved when we learn to see experiences as nothing more than experiences – to simply experience events without judging it. The farmer simply saw these events as happenings without attaching all kinds of stories to it.
Of course, this is a lot easier said than done, as I have found.
When I pick up my children, the first thing they do is fight over who’s going to ride shotgun; then I’m already annoyed. They also fight over who’s going to be DJ. My 13 year old son played a song the other day which is basically about a guy’s Rolex. But the guy who sings/raps/mumbles it doesn’t call it a Rolex; he calls it a “Rolly”. When I was his age, my parents didn’t really get my taste in music; so a part of me doesn’t want to be that parent who doesn’t get it. However, I have to draw the line somewhere and admit that when someone mumbles something about his “Rolly” and calls it music, I honestly don’t get it.
But instead of forbidding my kids from ever playing music in my car again, I decided that this is as good an opportunity as any to practice being zen. So, I take some slow, deep breaths and try not to judge the Rolly song. I tell myself, “It’s only a song, don’t judge it – just flow with it”. For the most part this has been a helpful practice. But then I began to notice something else. I began to notice that in trying not to judge the experience, I was at the same time denying my annoyance. And if zen is a practice that involves allowing; then denying, blocking or resisting one’s “negative” feelings isn’t very zen at all.
And this really highlights the “problem” that zen attempts to address. The path towards peace means that sometimes I just need to allow situations to be what it is instead of what I want it to be. Sometimes I need to allow my kids to be who they are and find their own way without trying to control them. I also need to allow the Rolly song to be what it is and the guy who sings it to be who he is. But most importantly, sometimes I just need to allow myself to be who I am and feel the things I feel; even when it can be considered negative.
This is partly why this such a difficult philosophy to grasp, because “negative” feelings are perceived as, well, negative. And isn’t the point of zen to become all serene and get rid of all those negative feelings?
Zen is a lot more honest than that. While it is true that we can, in a sense, rise above our thoughts and emotions; we can’t do so unless we first acknowledge and allow those thoughts and emotions. If we deny, block or resist it, we won’t learn anything from it. But if we curiously observe the comings and goings of our thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental way – kind of like how the farmer observed the comings and goings of his horses without judgement – we might begin to learn something about our own inner workings. And that is when change actually becomes possible.
Zen acknowledge the fact that sometimes life is shitty – you fall off a horse and break your leg and no amount of meditation will make it less so – and that’s okay. It’s about allowing whatever arises in this moment to arise. But this isn’t an excuse for apathy either. If the desire to do something about it arises as well and it’s in your power to do something about it, then you should do something about it. But if you can’t do anything about it, then you shouldn’t either.
If, like me, you have wondered what zen is, then I hope that has given you at least some clarity. I’m going to leave you with the Serenity Prayer, which is traditionally a Christian prayer, but also captures the philosophy of zen quite beautifully:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”