Looking at Zen 1

‘If you wish to see it before your own eyes

Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it’

So says the Buddhist scriptures and in one saying we are transported into the enigmatic world of Zen, a world both fascinating and infuriating, and jam packed with the coincidence of opposites. Zen attracts because it strips away the false with the lure of what might be ultimately real; and not real in the hereafter but here and now.

The five things that no power in the universe can bring about are, according to Buddhist tradition: That what is subject to old age should not grow old, that what is subject to sickness should not be sick, that what is subject to death should not die, that what is subject to decay should not decay, that what is liable to pass away should not pass away.

It is a struggle and suffering to take these inevitabilities on board but an enlightened mind is about being reconciled to what cannot be changed and this lies at the centre of Zen. Dom Aelred Graham says that this too is the message that lies deep in the heart of Christianity – for him Catholicism. At our normal level of consciousness we are full of care, a sense of anxiety and foreboding, frustration and insecurity despite our material wealth – there is so much human sadness. And of course we can see many reasons for that too. How can the suffering of uncertainty be accepted, every day and here and now?

It is sometimes described as ‘the sorrow of existence’ and it is this problem that lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching. The sorrow is seen to arise from a general state of restlessness, agitation, desire and unawareness of reality.

The word Zen means meditation but Zen itself is indefinable: ‘Those who say do not know; those who know do not say.’ For the rational Western mind Zen is a problem because it has no philosophy and it’s not a theology. The practitioners say that in a literal sense there is nothing in it but rather it is an attitude or a state of awareness in the mind – one of simplicity and directness.

D.T Suzuki who influenced Thomas Merton and corresponded with him says: ‘When I raise the hand this, there is Zen. But when I assert that I have raised the hand, Zen is no more there.’ In other words this is about direct experience unmediated by conceptual thought, so ‘unselfconsciousness’.

In the same way it’s not so much about hours spent meditating and following techniques but rather about being open to awareness and connection. ‘Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere’. We are told that it – enlightenment – is there within us already if we could only cleanse the doors of perception.


Another term used is that it is the active principle of life itself… This reminds me of Donald Winnicott’s use of the word ‘spontaneity’ for a quality of the true self …being alive to life and to the moment.