A friend of mine has a habit of asking me; "How Zen is that?" whenever I seem to react with any degree of emotion, particularly when I am angry about something.
A year or so ago, when one of my neighbors learned that my shaved head wasn't a fashion-statement and that I was a real-life Zen Buddhist priest, he approached me, saying, "Hey, I hear you're Zen. That's so cool. Now I know why you're so calm and mellow all the time. I love Zen. In fact, I just bought some of that Zen Green Tea! If you have some time one day, could you teach me Zen?"
Well, first things first. Knowing that my neighbor is a Christian and was not interested in Buddhism as a religion, I told him: "Oh, you wouldn't like it. It's really quite boring." He seemed disappointed. I smiled and said, "But stay with the green tea. It's good for you."
When I related this little incident to my friend, he said, "How Zen is that? This guy asks you to teach him about Zen, and that's what you tell him? No wonder there are so few Buddhists around here."
And then, a few days later, at the end of a conversation about lawn maintenance and the unseasonable weather, my neighbor asked me again: "Could you at least lend me a book about Zen? I mean... it sounds like a really cool philosophy." This time I referred him to our website and told him to read through the various works and that if he was still interested, I'd happily lend him a book. He never brought the subject up again. I still see him going to church on Sunday morning; but I think he discovered that there is a little more to Zen than green tea and cryptic pronouncements.
It's surprising how many people, even those who claim to be Buddhists, think that Zen Buddhism is a philosophy with a laid-back attitude - and nothing more. Sure, there is a large helping of philosophy within the Dharma. But philosophy alone will not allow us an opportunity for the deep spiritual experiences which the practice of Zen Buddhism brings about. It isn't the philosopher who experiences the ecstasy of divine union; it's the devotee. There has to be this other element to the path. Zen Buddhism is a religion!
Zen is not a trend, and it's not a club. There are no bylaws or written ordinances that apply universally to all Zen Buddhists. Some are vegetarian; others eat fish, while others eat all kinds of meat. Some take sixteen precepts and some take five. But there is one common experience for all Zen Buddhists. It's the Zen of Zen Buddhism. That prefix gives this path its distinction. Zen means Meditation. We are meditation Buddhists. This is our primary portal to the divine. We practice meditation methods, which eventually allow us a glimpse of that which cannot be described - yet each practitioner will know when it has occurred.
We are seeking the universal experience of divine union. Zen and Buddhism are both the end and the means to that end. The path is the goal; we cannot have one without the other. It's like saying "I like the right, but not the left." Well, if we remove the left, then the middle now becomes the left! No, we cannot have one without the other. Zen is a part of Buddhism, and Buddhism is an element of Zen.
So, if you want to join a "Zen Club" and wear neat eastern looking clothes, and practice sitting still and looking calm, and buy all the "Zen and the Art of…" books, and get the Zen pencils, the Zen tea set, the Zen incense, and the Zen lunch box, go right ahead. But understand that you are not practicing Zen. Without the interior feelings of devotion, of the desire to serve others, without the personal humility and the generous spirit, without the kindness and the faith and the pressing of the palms together in supplication to our Lord, you are acting out a fiction and simply practicing the art of self-deception.
Believe me, it's an art I had mastered at one time.
Zen is simple, then it's difficult, then impossible, then simple again. That's where the term "beginner's mind" comes from. The beginner has nothing to attain and nothing to unlearn. Everything is new and, in an innocent way, the beginner is filled with awe. But when he begins to try to understand what it all means and he discusses it and gets into the state of opinion and prejudiced viewpoints, he gets farther and farther away from it. Eventually, if the practice is regular and there is sufficient progress to keep his interest, the beginner's mind will reveal itself again. The humility gained after years of barren meditation and of suffering the path without really seeing where it's leading, will erode that false pride and vain certainty, and the experience of beginning will return.
So, you can't buy your way to nirvana, and you cant read your way to nirvana, and you can't talk your way in…There is only one way up the mountain. You have to do the work and lose the ego.
How Zen is that? It's just that. Zen.