What is Zen
The short answer is:
Zen is a methodology where you observe your suffering in your MIND (your false self) that is caught between the immortal SOUL (your true self) and the decay of PHENOMENA (your body, the material manifold-existence)
The long answer
Before we can get into what the Zen methodology is, we must first know what our MIND, SOUL, and PHENOMENA are. Knowing what these are from a Buddhist point-of-view is critical to understanding what the Zen methodology is, and how you can use that methodology.
The word ‘Zen’ is the Japanese word for the Chinese word ‘chán’ or the longer version ‘chán’nǎ’ – that roughly translates to ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation’ (in a religious/spiritual context) in ancient Chinese, who derived that word from the Sanskrit term dhyānam, that roughly translates as ‘To see, to observe’ the soul and discover the spiritual mysteries.
The Zen methodology uses discourses to educate as to the nature of the Soul, Mind, and Phenomena, uses Socratic interviewing (Mondo, dokusan or Sanzen in Japanese) to help dissolve doubts and conquer fears, and Insight Meditation is known as Zazen in Japanese or Gnosis in Greek.
This methodology is not original to China or Japan, for it has roots going all the way back to the Greek philosophies of Plotinus, refined by Socrates and Plato, and carried forward by many others. This methodology can be found in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as well, though in different flavors and twists, the methodology never-the-less is there.
Insight Meditation called ‘zazen’ in Japanese to achieve Samadhi (Japanese) or Gnosis (Greek) that being a slightly hypnotic state-of-mind with the purpose to delve inward into one’s own Mind with the intent of seeking wisdom and spiritual knowledge.
In Zen literature there is talk of The Mind, also known as the ‘little-self’ or the ‘false-self’, that is the source of all the spiritual suffering a sentient-being knows. Zen says that it is this suffering that is the cause of the ills in a person and in the world-at-large.
There are two types of suffering: phenomenal suffering, and spiritual suffering
Phenomenal suffering is like being cold, hungry, and in pain due to injury or illness. In short, any adverse sensation that one’s five senses can know (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch) is known as phenomenal suffering.
Spiritual suffering is like being lonely, melancholic, and despondent. Modern psychology would term this as ‘Depression’.
The source of the spiritual suffering
Often the two types of suffering go hand-in-hand, where there is one the other is bound to show up sooner or later as well.
The Zen methodology is used to understand the source of the spiritual suffering (Enlightenment) that the MIND, this false-self that suffers, is caught between the Eternal and undying Soul and the impermanent and decaying Phenomena.
When one Enlightens their cause of suffering, then one is known to have Awakened or called Kencho in Japanese.
Zen enlightenment is not the goal, nor the end; rather it is the beginning – and in many ways a preliminary before one can commence the great path of the Buddha that he called Brahmayana, or translated as ‘The Path to the Absolute’, and that is an ontology of Soul liberation based in wisdom.
The soul, which is often described as a lamp in religious writings, shines spiritual light on Phenomena, and that what knows this illuminated Phenomena is Mind.
The Soul is eternal, never born or dying, and always shining. This is your True-Self, permanent and unchanging.
The great path, the way of the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) is to Liberate the Soul from suffering. This is what the Buddha taught with the teachings of Brahmayana, and the Zen methodology is an expedient means to do such.
Essentially, phenomena is everything that is NOT YOUR SOUL termed as ‘Anattā’ in Pali and ‘Anātman’ in Sanskrit/Hinduism. What is born, dies, rises and falls, that grows and decays is Phenomena.
Your body is phenomena, though your Mind is not, for it is like a glue, a chain or binding that is between Phenomena and the Soul. Only your mind can know suffering, where the Soul or Phenomena knows not of it.
Siddhartha Gautama, known as The Buddha, taught ‘The Path to the Absolute’ that he termed Brahmayana. His philosophy is stated in the two documents – The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path. The Sutras are sayings of The Buddha, and Suttas are commentaries on the sayings of The Buddha. From these sources form the Buddhist canon.
Brahmayana (Path to the absolute) is a liberation ontology based in wisdom. In this process of transformation, WE OURSELVES liberate OUR OWN SOUL from the manifold-existence-suffering.
The teachings of the Buddha are very powerful and true. For many that come and understand the nature of their Suffering (Enlightenment), free their soul (The Arhats) and help others free their soul too.
There are those who will declare that there is ‘No-Soul’, that there is only what your five senses know.
Today, and as in the days of Buddha, we know these people as nihilists. For them, Buddhism is seen only as a set of moralistic codes and rules to be followed so to make this Phenomenal existence a Utopia.
These are spurious notions (false teachings) are based on denial, mistrust, and suspicion of what the Buddha is teaching and they have no understanding or experience with one’s own suffering, the methodology of Zen, or even the desire to learn. The Nihilist assumes they know all that is needed to know and will look no further!
Now, if there truly was ‘no soul’ as the nihilist claim, then the Buddha’s teaching would have directly said that, however, there is no such teaching or saying in Buddha doctrine and canonical writings.
Finally, if there was no soul, then there would be nothing to Liberate, thus no way out of suffering.
Therefore, those who claim that there is no soul deny the Buddha’s teachings and defeat the point of the Zen methodology. Such persons cannot be said to be a disciple of Buddhism or a Zen practitioner.
Skillful Means And Ways
When you are dealing with the subtitles of the spirit, one’s soul – you are always dealing with Religion.
When a methodology of Soul-liberation comes along, like Zen, it is often absorbed by the prevailing religion of the people. Zen is a methodology but Buddhism is a religious context to use it in.
Zen by no means is the only soul-liberating methodology, for there are many other methods that you can find in other religions. It is just the view of this author that Zen is the most expedient method.
Mistakes happen when people try to understand Zen. Some see Zen only as a cultural religion, others see it as a meditation practice but without any spiritual goal. Some come to know an incomplete Zen methodology that leaves them guessing at what the goal is.
Now that you know what Zen is, and what the methodology is about, you can help those who are mistaken or holding incomplete knowledge. Refer them to this document or video, so that they can understand what Zen is really about.