Zen and the Art of Zen

Zen and the art of Zen

I first got into Buddhism when I was 19. I remember it very clearly, surprisingly so since I was drunk at the time. I was rambling to a friend of a friend I had just been introduced to in a bar in Cheltenham, I was expounding my current thoughts about life the universe and everything to this poor guy and it went something like this:

“Right, what it is, yeah, is that we are unhappy because we constantly wanna have things, we strive and crave, but all that stuff will, like, just break or fade or fall apart man. The secret to being happy is to let go off all that shit, if you cannot be happy with nothing, you can never be happy with everything…”

To which he responded “Oh, I didn’t realise you were a Buddhist”

And I said “Huh…?”

He then went to explain he was in fact an ex-Buddhist monk, and what I had just been drunkenly waffling on at him about was the Four Noble Truths. Once he realised that I wasn’t actually a Buddhist and had just come up with it by myself he encouraged me to read some books and meet with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now the Triratna Buddhist Community).

(actually, that is not strictly true, I had been aware of Buddhism for many years before that through my interest and experience in martial arts, but back then it just seemed to be to some mystical religion from the East with cool iconography and bad ass monks. OK, I admit it, until the meeting with the monk, my knowledge came from the Monkey TV show and Kung Fu movies).

I became fascinated with the Zen school of Buddhism a few years later after being introduced to the writings of the Beat Generation (particularly Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder) by a good friend of mine. I consumed books by Alan Watts and DT Suzuki and eventually, through luck more than anything I became involved with Oxford Zen Group (of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage of Zen) and studied Zen formally for about four years. I drifted away from my practice as I became more and more seduced by the cult of speed…

What is Zen Anyway?

Zen has become one of the most confused words in the West today. Because, to untrained ears, a lot of Zen writings sound like mumbo jumbo (“the sound of one hand clapping” anyone?), a lot of utter mumbo jumbo is often passed off as Zen.

It has become a “catch all” phrase for anything from chilled out to focused attention. We like it in the West, as it seems a bit trippy and esoteric and cool (probably because it’s early associations with the Beat movement). Many people I see talking about how “Zen” they are, are often the most “un-Zen” people I have ever met. They either use it as an excuse to be lazy, or are just waaaaaay too intense and twitchy…

For those of you who are unsure, Zen is a contemplative form of Buddhism that focuses on experiential wisdom rather than study of the scriptures. It de-emphasises theoretical knowledge in favour of direct realisation through meditation practice. It requires discipline and focus to practice.

“Zen” is the Japanese word for the Chinese word “Chan”, which, in turn is the Chinese word translation of the Sanskrit word “Dhyana”, which means “meditation”.

So, “Zen” in its broadest possible sense means being in a meditative state (we will look at that in a little more detail in a minute).

Doing Zen vs Being Zen

There is a difference between “doing Zen” and “being Zen”.

Doing Zen – Formal Zen Training

It is impossible to formally study Zen without being under the tutelage of a Zen teacher (from a recognised lineage). Zen is about experiential knowledge more than scripture study. Meditation (or “sitting”) is the corner stone of Zen practice, the intense meditative practice of Zen study can create some very strange psychological effects and it is essential to have a trained teacher who can help guide you.

Formal Zen training is designed to break down our mental constructs of the world around us and allow us to perceive the world as it really is (to achieve, as the Buddhists call it “enlightenment”, to break away from our dreamlike state and wake up). It is hardcore high-speed (a prime example of “slow down go faster”) psychotherapy for the soul and can create some extreme sensations and can send you a bit bonkers if you try and do it without proper guidance.

Being Zen

Of course, you can “be Zen”, without ever having any formal training (Siddharha didn’t have any, after all, he just sat down for a bit of a think…). Zen has become a word that is used in the West in a similar context to what sports people may call the “zone” or (especially Jazz) musicians call the “flow”, but people seem to like it as it is still a bit mystical and exotic and “groovy”…

It has come to mean a sense or state of calm focused attention where “you” seem to dissolve and the task you are doing takes over. Where the difference between the “doer” and the “doing” disappears. I am sure you have experienced that at some point in your life? It is about living in the present moment and appreciating the simpler joys of life (the more you practice Zen, or meditation in general, the less “stuff” becomes important to you).

The Zen of Slow

After my realisation that I had been seduced by speed and the kindly and timely intervention of serendipity introduced me to the Slow Movement, Carl Honore and Tom Hodgkinson, the first place I turned to for help regaining balance and centring myself was my previous practice in Zen. I kept returning to a phrase in my mind that I had read in a book on Buddhism years ago:

“Grounded in the present moment, but not swept away by it”

I realised that I could make all the changes I wanted in my external world to try and slow down (incorporating all the facets of the Slow Movement – Slow food, slow travel, etc), but to really change the way I was living I needed to change the way I was thinking.

I explored mindfulness and started to adjust the strategies and skills I had learned as a “success coach”. However, a lot of my take on the “Slow Movement” and particularly the idea of the “Tortoise Mind” have been influenced by my studies of Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen.

To become Slower, you need to start by slowing down your mind, your thoughts and your behaviour, to let go of cravings, anger and jealousy. Changing your lifestyle to try and change the way you think, feel and behave is working the wrong the way round.

You have to change your mind first.

I am not suggesting you dash off to sign up at the nearest Zen Monastery, but elements of Zen practice are very useful tools to help you cultivate this change.


(Please note: I make no claims to be an “expert” on Buddhism, or a Zen teacher, or anything like that. I am still very much a beginner in all this and I am just humbly sharing my experiences).