What is Zen?
Updated: Apr 9, 2022
“If someone tells you they understand Zen, then the chances are they don’t know Zen.” – Alan Watts
It might be easier to start by discussing what Zen isn’t. Despite its close association with Buddhism, Zen is a way to think about the world, and not a religion in the formal sense. I’ve met Christian practitioners of Zen and at least one Jewish Zen devotee. There’s no reason that Zen practice would be incompatible with other religions, although some varieties of Buddhism are predicated on Zen and combine Zen practice with religious beliefs.
Some people seem to glory in the esoteric parts of Zen, delighting in the paradoxes of Zen and the belief that innate understanding can transcend logical thinking. If you get involved with people in love with the academic aspects of Zen, you’re also likely to be bombarded with a flurry of Sanskrit, Japanese, and Chinese words. These are technical terms describing various concepts of Zen (and often Buddhism), but learning a new vocabulary isn’t necessary to practice Zen. These Zen words are like the medical terms for parts of the body. You can still use common words to describe Zen experiences, and the Zen I prefer is a more bare-bones, blue-collar kind of philosophy.
I also don’t think you should get enticed by the mystical aspects of Zen enlightenment (as the BBC says: The essence of Zen Buddhism is achieving enlightenment by seeing one's original mind (or original nature) directly; without the intervention of the intellect. Zen is big on intuitive understanding, on just 'getting it', and not so hot on philosophizing.).
People get perplexed at how doing a mundane task or responding to a curious question (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” etc.) can lead to enlightenment I think people suddenly achieving enlightenment is like people getting a joke. To be really funny, a joke has to be understood instantly and intuitively, without a long process of analysis. You get it or you don’t. In Zen, you also can come to a similar intuitive understanding that promotes enlightenment. As the ancient King of Korea wrote when sending a couple of Zen priests to Japan, it’s hard to explain exactly what Zen is, but you will benefit if you do it.
You should understand, however, that I have no interest in promoting Zen and I am not an advocate of Buddhism. I talk about the Zen I know because it’s helped me in life and with writing. It might not be something that others find helpful.
I’ve been associated with Zen and Buddhism since I was born. Thanks to Wayne Miao in Hawaii, a fellow classmate, I even have a picture of me in 1950 at the Hilo Hongwanji Buddhist Mission pre-school class. I was four. I had a 15-year diversion with the Methodist religion growing up in California, but Zen has always had a powerful pull on me. As adults, my wife and I were lucky enough to study Soto Zen meditation with a Soto Zen Bishop. I’ve also read numerous books on Zen and listened to many podcasts and lectures. None of this has made me an expert. It has allowed me to apply Zen principles to my writing, however, and (when I’m smart enough to diligently follow Zen) it has brought comfort and understanding into my life.
It's probably not immediately obvious how Zen can help you as a writer. But it can. It doesn’t help with the details of plot, dialog, or characterization, but it does help put your mind into a proper state to write. As Shakespeare said in Henry V, “All things are ready, if our minds be so.”
I’m working on a book about how I apply Zen to my writing, both in the process of writing and in dealing with the challenges of a writing career. It’s not a “how to write” book in the conventual sense, but rather a book that talks about using Zen to cope with the problems and stresses involved with writing.
Stripped to its essence, Zen can help you write in the moment, focusing your attention on the essentials of your art, and ignoring things that are distractions or trivial. Zen also helps you recognize and deal with the realities of the writing life, things like reviewers and readers (both those that like or dislike your writing too much) or working with a publisher. Zen also teaches you to try and tame your ego and illusions. Zen gives you a philosophical framework that provides support and courage as you write.
It's not what Americans look for, but I should mention that applying Zen to your writing is not an instant process. Some people find it daunting if something requires years of practice and study. But many things in life are like this. If you play an instrument well, for instance, you have already followed this path. I think marriage is also a process that requires attention, practice, and growing insight over the years. Finally, overcoming past trauma in your life is also a long-term process.
In my concept of how a writer should develop, you should always be learning and progressing year after year, book after book, phrase after phrase. Despite what any writer may think, I don’t believe anyone has achieved a mastery of writing so complete that they can no longer improve.
If you want to learn more about Zen, one of the classic ways is to read someone like Alan Watts (“The Way of Zen” is a good start, and many libraries will have this book). There are also a lot of more modern Zen primers to select from, as well as books that talk about the Zen life (“Eat, Sleep, Sit: My year at Japan’s most rigorous Zen temple” by Kaoru Nonomura is a special favorite). There are also a surprising number of YouTube videos that cover Zen stories and ideas. There are also a large number of Zen podcasts to listen to. I like no-nonsense Zen, so podcasts like “The Zen of Everything” or “Zen Wisdom for Your Everyday Life” appeal to me. There are also a great number of Zen lectures recorded as podcasts, from all over the world and featuring teachers of all types and all levels of difficulty.
Finally, you can also visit a Zen Center or lecture, if one is near you (try Googling it). I actually think you should learn a little about Zen before you do that, however, because Zen has a variety of types and the kind of Zen you are exposed to locally may not be the kind of Zen for you.
So what is Zen? Perhaps the proper question is “What is your type of Zen and how can it help you?”