What is Zen? Exploring the ancient Buddhist practice

Zen is the Japanese name for an ancient Buddhist practice introduced by the renowned philosopher Dōgen in the thirteenth century. If you're interested in meditation, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the ancient practice of Zen.

by Uptime Staff / 2021-09-10

What is Zen?

In 21st century Western society, most people misunderstand the meaning of the Japanese term ‘Zen’. It's often used in passing to describe a state of feeling extremely relaxed, but in reality, Zen is an ancient Buddhist practice carried out by millions all over the world. It's a determined, dedicated practice with an emphasis on nonduality - the idea that everything in life is neither wholly linked, nor wholly separate. It aims to relieve the sufferings of the mind via the art of meditation.

Zen philosophy has three pillars: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment. In Zen theory, the purpose of enlightenment is to help others, and the road to enlightenment is to accept our suffering instead of battling with it.

The art of Zen is still practised daily at the Sōtō retreat, amongst other places in Japan. This type of meditation is taught without the use of any objects: there is a total focus on simplicity. 

The art of Zen is a particularly skilled one; it’s something that requires turning one’s focus inward, and discovering the true self in its purest form. 

What are the best books about Zen?

If you're interested to learn more about this ancient practice, we’ve compiled need-to-know insights from the best books, documentaries, and courses on meditation, inner calm, and purpose over on Uptime. Here’s a couple that champion Zen as an important part of life:

The Way of Zen - Alan W. Watts

On Uptime

This introduction to the Buddhist faith aims to explain the main practices of the ancient religion to Western readers. 

quotation marksFor there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere.

Alan W. Watts explores the history of Zen, tracing its nascence and evolution through Indian philosophy and metaphysics, as well as early Buddhist thinking, right through to today. 

He also explores the art of meditation, and how we can incorporate Zen into our everyday lives. Positing the main idea that we are nothing, apart from the things that we are aware of - meaning that it is our perceived knowledge of the world that shapes our idea of who we are - Watts attempts to introduce this Eastern philosophy to Western readers. 

Watts is an avid believer in the idea that Zen meditation can transform our everyday lives. This belief underpins the entirety of the book.

quotation marksZen is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a ‘way of liberation’.

Our three main take-aways: 

  • The art of meditation is rooted in the ability to see the world just as it is. By doing this, we can achieve mental stillness. To Zen believers, meditation is a way of cleansing and purifying the mind, which often becomes clouded. 
  • Only pursuing happiness is a foolish exercise. Without sadness, one cannot appreciate true happiness, writes Alan W. Watts. Pain is unavoidable; it is just another aspect of pleasure. 
  • It is futile to try and change the way we feel. Our emotions are natural products of scenarios and events created by the world and society we live in, and they will be valuable in some way to us, even if we cannot see it at first.
quotation marksA world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only ‘getting somewhere’ as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance.

To explore how you can put these lessons into practice, and start incorporating zen meditation into your lifestyle, have a look at our The Way of Zen book summary on Uptime.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values - Robert M. Pirsig

On Uptime

One of the most influential books written in the past half-century, this book is slightly different from most others you’ve probably encountered. 

Since its publication, the book has sold a staggering 5 million copies worldwide. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is written as a fictionalised biography in which the author, philosopher Robert M. Pirsig, explores the ‘metaphysics of quality’, challenging Plato’s famous perception of reality. 

quotation marksThe place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

When we say metaphysics of quality, Pirsig refers to reconciling the spiritual (for example, Zen), artistic (for example, art) and scientific (for example, motorcycle maintenance) realms under one unifying umbrella of the Metaphysics of Quality. The plot follows the journey of a father (representing the author), and his son, on a motorcycle trip. There is also a third main character, who is the father’s alter-ego Phaedrus,  a solitary intellectual obsessed with a philosophical concept called Quality. 

The proper way to care for the motorcycle is supposed to symbolise the way that we should live, and Pirsig sees no problem with maintaining a direct relationship with material objects (the motorcycle), unlike many other philosophers and Zen practitioners. Phaedrus pushes the idea that the key to human happiness is to engage in any activity fully, which is also a Zen concept. In this book, Pirsig tries to align the values of the East and West. 

quotation marksIf someone is ungrateful, and you tell him he's ungrateful, okay, you've called him a name. You haven't solved anything.

Our three main take-aways: 

  • Pirsig argues that the main way to feel fulfilled is through high quality engagement. It does not matter what or who you are engaging with, but being engaged is a necessary condition for excellence. The opposite- poor engagement- is what he terms ‘a gumption trap’. Purposeful dedication, drive and practice produces excellence. We should have high expectations of ourselves and strive to do better than we think. 
  • Pirsig highlights the importance of journeys over final destinations, just as Zen philosophy does. Actions should never be seen as a means to an end, but as unique events in themselves. 
  • Rigid values should be abandoned. Pirsig places a lot of emphasis on the importance of being adaptable and being able to change your values as you proceed. Commitment to previous values can get in the way of change. 

To explore this important book in detail, have a look at our Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance book summary on Uptime.

Recap: how can we define zen?
  1. The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.
  2. Zen requires an intense discipline which, when practised properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom.
  3. Enlightenment can only come from within.
  4. Zen is arguably ‘anti-philosophy’, as it goes against schools of thought that value reason above all else.
  5. Zen recognises there is a connection between the body and the mind, but that they are neither the same nor completely separate.
Inspired? To find out more important works on anything and everything - from productivity tips, cryptocurrency, finding love, and the environment - have a look at our collection of book, course, and documentary summaries on Uptime.

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