What is zen?

What is Zen? Cultivating clarity and enlightenment

Zen is a profound philosophy rooted in Buddhism. It’s a complex contradiction that transcends conventional spirituality, offering us a path to enlightenment through mindfulness, meditation, and insight into the nature of existence. Zen challenges us to confront life’s impermanence and the illusions of the ego, guiding us towards inner peace and understanding.

The essence of Zen lies in experiencing the moment fully, harnessing simplicity in the pursuit of personal awakening.

As Stephen Hodge says in his book ‘The World of Zen’, Zen is many things to different people. Defining it can be very challenging, given the Eastern origins of Zen and the polarised view of the world and reality which comes between East and West. 

Not just language, but the very foundation of our frames of reference make it difficult for many in the West to fully appreciate Zen. To some it may just be a lust for the veneer aesthetic of Japanese culture, and for others a state of mind used as a weapon by martial artists.

Perhaps it is all of these things, but there is a core definition and set of principles that can help you understand Zen, and how it can help you. 

Zen Buddhism

Pile of rocks

Zen Buddhism is based on the Buddha’s realisations of the three characteristics of life, and forms an important understanding to exploring ‘What is Zen?’

The Hardships of Life 

Buddhist teachings assert that life is characterized by dukkha, often translated as “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness.” This suffering arises from our inability to accept the transient nature of the world and our experiences within it. 

In our Western World, we are in many ways incredibly lucky. At the touch of a button on our expensive phone, we can have delicious food ordered to our door within minutes. Advances in health care mean that we have managed to lengthen the lives of ourselves and our loved ones. 

But look around us. There is still disease, war, hunger, and unhappiness. So many people feel exquisite pain at their circumstances and despite everything they have, still struggle to understand what they really need. 


What is zen? - achieving clarity and peace like the ocean

Everything, from our thoughts and feelings to our relationships and material possessions, is subject to change. This impermanence is a fundamental aspect of existence, yet we often resist it, and carry on living as though we will live forever. 

As a child who knows each night that they must sleep, yet still refuses to go to bed with the utmost defence and tantrum to resist the inevitable, we cling on to permanence. Our continued commitment to the possibility of stability causes our unhappiness. 

The Illusion of Ego

Central to the question of ‘What is Zen?’ is our struggle with impermanence and the concept of the ego. 

According to Buddhist thought, the ego is a construct of the mind that gives us the sense of a separate, enduring self. An illusion we create to protect and preserve our identity, often leading us to act out of self-interest, attachment, and aversion. 

This illusory sense of self is at the root of much of our suffering, as it leads to avoidance of dealing with our true unhappiness. It blinds us to the interconnected nature of the universe, and makes us act in base ways. 

Have you ever felt that pang of jealousy when one of your friends talks about their promotion, holiday, or general good fortune? That’s your ego telling you that their victory can only be your loss. 

The Zen solution to your suffering

The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhist teaching and provide a pathway to liberation from this suffering:

The noble truth of suffering (Dukkha)

First you must acknowledge that suffering will happen. It’s an inherent part of existence. Being born is painful, and death can be too. Both of these things have to exist if life is to begin. There are also more subtle forms of suffering like dissatisfaction and impermanence, but it is a pervasive condition of life

The noble truth of the origin of suffering (Samudaya)

The second truth identifies desire or craving (tanha) as the primary cause of suffering. This includes the desire for sensory pleasures, the desire for existence, and the desire to avoid unpleasant experiences. It’s our attachment to these desires, driven by the illusion of the ego, that leads to suffering.

The noble truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)

This truth offers hope by asserting that it is possible to end suffering. By extinguishing desire and attachment, one can achieve Nirvana, a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

The noble truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)

The final truth outlines the Eightfold Path, a practical guide to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachment, ignorance, and suffering. The path includes right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Part of this Path involves developing mindfulness, which means recognising the feelings in the body and how your emotions are bubbling up. This takes the ability to relax and clear the chatter from the ego dominated mind. 

Using Meditation to confront the Self, and The Shadow

Many answer the question what is zen? by meditating

This leads us to the role of meditation in Zen. 

Our normal everyday lives are filled with concerns and worries that provide camouflage and cover for what is really going on inside of us.. Our ego constantly chatters so that the mind is forced to adapt, react, and defend itself to make sure that perceived threats are dealt with. But what if we could just stop rushing around in the mad ego fueled panic? Perhaps at times, we could allow our true selves to speak, and tell us what we really need to hear.

Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow can help us to explain how our ego and the need for conformity with society makes us ignore our true desires and needs. It may also explain where our negative thoughts or hatred of others comes from. 

The Shadow

Understand the shadow self

According to Jung we develop a sense of self through the ego. This becomes our values and long held truths about ourselves and our lives that we cling to such as ‘I am a hard working person’, or ‘I am honest and easy to get along with’. 

We form these truths and ways of being in line with what we believe to be cultural norms in society, and we seek approval from others.   This moral complex  is critical to the advancement of the species as it drives us to cooperate and work together. However this leads us to  bury our desires, wants, and fantasies if they don’t align to what our ego tells us is part of the cultural norms. 

This becomes our Shadow. 

As Joseph Lee at thisjungianlife.com says, ‘it bubbles underneath the surface, repressed, and then reappears violently later on life.’ He said that ‘the shadow is a veil, behind which lies a darkly splendid world of unrestrained instinct, fantasy, and drive. Yielding to it might create an ecstasy of relief and/or dismemberment of who we thought we should be.’ 

This Shadow is the great enemy to us and our society, as we generally will project our perceived failings onto others leading to our prejudices and hatred.  In turn this can damage societal order and peace, given that it can be exploited by those with evil agendas. For example, Adolf Hitler managed to enable the concentration of the German population’s Shadow on the Jewish people, and therefore attempt to legitimise the awful crimes committed (Anthony Stevens). 

The ability to engage in contemplative thought about who we really are is therefore a key step in understanding ourselves and achieving a higher state of being. Only through meditation and recognition of ourselves, can we be set free. 

Types of meditation

At the heart of Zen is the practice of meditation, known as “zazen” in Japanese. Zazen is not merely a method for relaxation or stress reduction, but a deep exploration of the mind and consciousness. It involves sitting in a specific posture and focusing on the breath, allowing thoughts and sensations to arise and pass without attachment. This practice helps to cultivate a state of mindfulness and presence, leading to a deeper understanding of the self and the nature of reality. 

Koan practice involves contemplating paradoxical statements or questions to transcend conventional thinking, leading to enlightenment. 

What is Zen? – the role of spontaneity

Alan Watts delves into Zen Buddhism’s essence, focusing on the liberation it offers from cultural confines, and the importance of spontaneity. 

Watts discusses the detrimental effects of losing spontaneity through upbringing and education, leading to self-consciousness and anxiety. He highlights the role of Zen training in regaining spontaneity, employing stories and analogies to illustrate Zen’s approach to life’s dilemmas and the quest for enlightenment.

Can you cultivate Zen? 

Zen is a contradiction. On the one hand, the teachings of the Buddha advise the cultivation of positive attitudes and the active learning of oneself with mindfulness. Yet, the very essence of Zen is to let go, and to stop trying. 

Alan Watts identifies Buddhist and Taoist texts that see the highest state of consciousness as those which are ‘empty of all contents, all ideas, feelings, and even sensations.’ This however is referring to specific circumstances where the discipline of meditation and clearing the mind is the process of purification. 

Zen teachings often use paradoxical statements or koans, which are riddles or puzzles that defy logical reasoning, to challenge and expand the practitioner’s way of thinking. The famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is an example. These koans are not meant to be solved like intellectual puzzles but are tools to transcend conventional thinking and experience a deeper, more intuitive insight.

Indeed, Watts spoke of the importance of spontaneity. He discusses the detrimental effects of losing spontaneity through upbringing and education, which then leads us to self-consciousness and anxiety. He highlights the role of Zen training in regaining spontaneity, but emphasizes the importance of balance with discipline within Zen practice. 

What is Zen? – The Cultivated Zen view

Ultimately, the world of Zen is complex and has a long history of thinkers who all bring their own colour to its definition. Our view is that there is a core to the practice of Zen:

  • Recognise that your thoughts are not necessarily you. Without cultivation, your ego and mind will be swayed by immediate sense of fear and threat, whilst remaining open to manipulation from others. 
  • Accept that you cannot control everything. The universe is constantly changing and so things will come and go. Even you. 
  • Make space and time to stop. Practice the skill of meditation, breathing, and concentration. 
  • Use meditation and prompts to explore your real self. What is it that makes you unhappy? What are you afraid of? What do you really need to deal with? 
  • Cultivate a life that will make you ultimately content, rather than appealing to your immediate pleasure, and what you think you have to do to conform with societal norms.

And most of all, don’t take any of it too seriously. Stay Zen folks.


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