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What Is Zen?

by Mel Ash

Who are we really? What is really the meaning of Life? How can we attain lasting happiness in the face of our seemingly endless troubles? These questions are basic to our lives, and it is from these questions that the practice of Zen has its birth.

Zen can be the compassionate scalpel that removes the layers of accrued opinions, beliefs, and frozen expectations that stand between us and true experience. Zen shows us that what we mistakenly call ourselves, our personal identity, is really no more than a mask over our true selves and natures. Beliefs, opinions, prejudices, educational and cultural training, our family backgrounds: All these are merely accidental factors, if you will. They are necessary tools for survival and integration into the larger society, but they are not really who you are.

Without falling back on convenient definitions of job, religion, sex and so on, who and what are we? If you lose your job, will you lose yourself? If you convert to another religion, do you substantially change? It may seem so if you are overly attached to these limiting definitions.

Despite all these changes, however, something remains the same. What and where is the thing upon which we can stand firm? If the outside is so unstable and prone to change, then it would make sense to look withinóto ourselves. But what are we on the inside? What in the world are we?

Zen can help us answer these questions, although Zen itself is not an answer. Zen is, if anything, the biggest question of all. It is the question that becomes a wedge in the cracked shell of our true self, prying us open to a meaning and truth that will have relevance to ourselves alone. It is a dance and a tug-of-war with ourselves. It demands no belief in anything, and instead insists on a great doubt concerning everything we had heretofore taken for granted. While belief is not a requirement, faith most certainly is.

Faith is the unspoken, nameless and formless yearning for completion and wholeness. Alone and unaided, it can pull us to union with our God or true self like a great free-floating balloon. Belief is the anchor that keeps our faith from ever ascending and testing  its limits. Belief is the limiting and inhibiting of faith. Zen points out to us the area of our lives where our faith in our selves has been silenced by the rigidity of belief. Once pointed out, we are freed to ride our faith to heights unimagined and certainly not permitted by the jealous jailer called belief.

In Zen practice, the process of identify ing and reducing our attachments to our own beliefs, ideas and opinions is sometimes called "putting them down." Just as we would put down a load that has gotten too heavy for us, so too can we put down our heavy load of self, which we identify with our per sonal situations, ideas and beliefs.

Zen is simply nothing more than paying attention to your life as it unfolds in this moment and in this world. The mindful, non judgmental perception of this process is the action of your true, original self, which exists before thinking, opinions, and beliefs arise and seek to name and divide experience. By becoming mindful of our original nature, we are able to lessen the grip of the denial that separates us from true experience. As we become more spontaneous and intuitive in our relationships with ourselves, others and the world, the world and our deepest selves start to act as one, and we come to realize that there's never been a problem except in our thinking.

Zen is the ultimate and original recovery program. It exposes our denial of true self and shows us how we've suffered because of our diseases of attachment, judgment and division. It suggests a program for recovering our original nature and teaches steps we can take immediately. It shows us how all our other diseases and discontents flow from our fundamental denial of unity with each other and the universe. Zen is there when you swerve out of the way of a speeding car without thinking. It is there when you cry at a movie, feeling deeply the suffering of another. It is there in the unconscious grace of your walk, the elegant flow of your thoughts, and the automatic breathing that keeps you alive. No, Zen never forgets about you. It is you who have forgotten about Zen. It is you who takes this moment for granted and believes that you are separate from all you survey, alone and unique in your suffering. It is you who search high and low for meaning, contentment, satisfaction or deliverance. To try to fill your emptiness with meaning from outside yourself is like pouring water into the ocean to make it wet.

The practice of Zen is the alarm clock that wakes us up to our lives and enables us to stop sleepwalking through reality. It is the friendly map that says: "Right here is the place. You have always been here. Where else is there?" It is the calendar that says: "Right now is the time. Who could want another?" Zen practice identifies the liars and thieves in the temples of our hearts and casts them out so that we may live as we are meant to live: whole, fearless, and rejoined with that for which we so desperately long.


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Reprinted with permission from " The Zen of Recovery" by Mel Ash, ©1993, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, 5858 Wilshire Blvd., #200, Los Angeles 90036. Mel Ash is a certified Zen (dharma) teacher from Zen Master Seung Sahn, and an active member of the First Unitarian Church of Providence.


Purchase the book "The Zen of Recovery" by Mel Ash.

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