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Buddhists/Zen and its application to everyday living


I am Preethi, pursuing my Masters in Engineering, in India. As part of my curriculum I have registered for a “Liberal Learning course” where I had to choose a topic of my interest and explore it by identifying some key questions I have on that topic. I have chosen my topic as “Zen and its application to everyday living” and have come up with the following questions.
1.   What is ‘Zen’ and what are its founding principles?
2.   What are the methods of practicing Zen?
3.   What is the influence of Zen on people and cultures?
4.   How is Zen applied in product design?
5.   How can we apply “Zen” in our daily life?

I am now seeking an expert who can share his/her opinion on the above mentioned questions and found you on the internet. Would you be kind enough to share your opinion?I have attached my understanding and self learning so far.

Hello Preethi,

Zen is an attempt to resolve the problematic nature of human consciousness.  Buddhism recognizes this problem in the Four Noble Truths:
Life is dukha (suffering)
The cause is Avidya (ignorance)
There is cessation of the cause
There is a path

The suffering arises with the formation of self consciousness and the mind that sees.    Mind originates with the arisal of the sense of “I”, meaning when a sense of a self arises as separate and distinct from the rest of the world the mind arises also. I creates mind and mind creates I. This, in effect, is the creation of the self and the mind and the beginning of dualistic thought or dualistic discrimination that being the distinction between self and other.  I know that this is very confusing language but it is very difficult to express.  Until you have a sense of “I am” there is no self, no self-identity and no self-reflection.  With this sense of self comes the ability to discriminate between self and other, to say I am alive and I am me and I am not all those other things I see.  This is where the self is born and the mind is born.  Before this there is no self-reflective distinction between the self and the world.  A baby exists in the world but not separate from the world.  At one point in the baby’s development and through the exposure to other self-reflective beings the baby gains a sense of self, the act of separation from the world, it becomes an ego.  The ego is the act of separation.  It is not that we have an ego, we are the ego, we are the act of separation.   Without the ability to do this there is no sense of self, there is no discriminating mind.  A baby raised without self-reflective parents, or a so-called wolf child, will not gain this ability or ego.  It is unbroken from nature. It needs the impetus of another ego to trigger this reaction.   This is the beauty of the Adam and Eve myth.  They came to know they were naked; they came to know that they were.  In this new sense of self they now cover themselves because they are self-aware.  Without the sense of other there is no self.
    So the mind arises to know there is a self but that self has no substance.  We know that we are but do not know who we are.  It is like seeing your shadow and wishing to know who casts it.  If you step back to see it you are only perpetuating it.  You can only know it by separation as you can only know who you are by separating from what you are not.  We know everything we are not but not who we are.  This ever-regressing self needs to separate to know but the fact of this dualistic process prevents us from knowing because there is always the distinction between that which is trying to know and that which is known.  How do you know you know anything?  Because you have a sense of self that holds that idea as a separate known entity.  You cannot be that which you perceive; to perceive you must stand apart from self so anything that you perceive as you must be separate from you and therefore not you. Zen practice is the attempt to overcome the dualistic process of our consciousness and to have a new and true view of reality often called ‘seeing things as they are’.

 Zen is perhaps the most distilled version of Buddhism in that its emphasis is not in the study of Buddhism but to realize what the historical Buddha himself realized.  It is said that Zen is that which is ‘not relying on words or letters’.  What that means is that Zen is not at all interested in the study of Buddhism but in the awakening of the individual through whatever means possible.  There is a sutra in Buddhism called the poison arrow sutra and the crux of it is this:  there are two men hit by a poison arrow, one wants to know who shot it, what the poison is composed of and the design of the arrow and the other just wants to get the arrow out.  This is the difference between Zen and the other schools of Buddhism.  Zen is not concerned with history, ritual or doctrine but want to bring the individual to the point of awakening, here and now.  Zen, as we know it today, began with Bodhidharma.
   Bodhidharma was a Brahman who brought Buddhism to China in about 520 A.D.  He is called the wall gazing Brahman and the first Patriarch of Zen.  In the story of Bodhidharma a man approaches him one day by the name of Hui ka.  Hui ka came to Bodhi’s cave and waited for the monk to accept him.  As the legend goes he stood there for days but the Brahman did not come forth.  It started snowing and the snow reached Hui’s waist and finally Bodhi came out and asked, “What is it you want?”  To that Hui replied ‘ My heart mind is not at ease’ (I have great existential anxiety).  Bodhi replied “ the way is long and difficult’.  With that Hui took out his sword and chopped off his left arm and handed it to Bodhi.  This obviously symbolizes the great dedication that he had to solving his problem.  With that Bodhi says he will accept him and asks again “ what is your problem?”  Hui replies “ My heart/mind is not at ease”.  Then Bodhi replies, “ Hand it to me that I may pacify it”.  With that Hui realized the true self and was awakened.  
  Please note here that Bodhidharma did not tell him to meditate, chant, pray or to do any other technique and he is the founder of Zen.  What he did do was to tell Hui to face himself, here and now in the immediate and present the source of his problem.  This forced Hui ka to see that he himself was the problem.  Now it is obvious in this story that Hui had gone through an arduous process of searching to reach the point of such extremity that his concept of self would be shattered by Bodhi’s words.  Bodhi wanted him to open his eyes to himself and the process that his mind was creating.  It is the object of Zen to stop the ruminations of the mind, to answer the question “who is it that seeks” above all other questions first.  This is not done by ritual or chanting or any other device but by a deep and profound inquiry of the individual to the point that he realizes that the very act of searching itself is self-defeating.  This is the point where we realize that we ourselves are the problem and we reach the paradox of self overcoming self to become awakened.  The first of the eightfold path is right thought and it’s extremely important to understand that we must realize with every fiber in our body that the mind cannot realize awakening and yet may be the vehicle to that realization.  Awakening cannot be contingent upon body posture or chanting or any other particular physical manifestation but any one of those things might trigger it.  Historically in Zen those on the path have been so involved with answering their own existential dilemma or natural koan that anything can trigger awakening when the moment is ripe.  This is why you have stories of monks or laymen becoming awakened when a bird chirps, a bell rings, rock hits bamboo or keys drop.  Any one of these things was at the right moment in the striving of the individual.

The most common practices of Zen are zazen, koan practice and mindfulness.  Keep in mind they are all trying to do the exact same thing and that is to stop the dualistic self reflection of the mind.  It is to be here and now and to see clearly without the pinging of the mind to differentiate.  Any of these practices can do that if fully engaged.

I am not an authority on Zen and culture.  There is a book by DT Suzuki called “Zen and Japanese Culture’ that you should easily find.  Since Zen aims at doing things the most direct way possible I think it’s influence would be to get rid of the superfluous. You can see this in design especially in what Steve Jobs tried to accomplish.  A simple obvious stroke to do things is what he sought on his products; direct, simple, effective and to the point.

When awakened to the true self everyday life is Zen.  Better put, Zen is gone and you are fully alive and freed from the constraints of myopic self consciousness.  You can see what is best to do regardless of a personal viewpoint.  The agenda of fulfilling self is gone so we can see more objectively and directly.  When we learn to regard our constant rambling thoughts as non essential and unimportant we can begin to see what really matters.  This practice of stilling the mind to see beyond our own self serving desires can help us to live more freely and effectively.  
 I hope this helps you.  Take care,


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Joe McSorley


I can answer questions dealing with Taoist philosophy and Zen and not the historicity and religion of Buddhism and its different schools. I studied under Dr. Richard DeMartino and Masao Abe of the Kyoto School of Zen.

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