What is zen?



What is Zen?


The answer to this question is best found by doing and through practice: by saying yes to the grand adventure of living and dying.

Gradually over time, our sense of ‘Zen’ emerges in response to practice, tradition, embodied experience and community.

On this page we explore some of the ways that Zen practice begins…


We live by the sheer generosity of a moment-by-moment miracle, and it is called the breath. Actually, we could say we live and die by this miracle. Every breath out is a practice of yielding the self to the universe; every breath in is a reincarnation event, the self reborn, fresh. Zen is the practice of agreeing to live with a mind and self as alive and fluid as breathing itself: accepting the offer of each moment, yielding to the passing of each moment.

Roshi Susan Murphy

What is Zen? What is a flower?

Any answer we might give to a seemingly simple question like “What is a flower?” names just a fraction of the flower or creates an interpretation.

An accurate description of ‘just this’ flower would need to include its particular fragrance, its infinite gradients of colour, the place where the flower was, the person who was witnessing it, everything!

But who can describe the smell of a eucalypt?

What words can begin to describe the colour of a sunflower?

Or any colour? Or the taste in your mouth right now?

Zen practice is a tradition that helps us to sit with flowers – just as they are.

Through this practice we come to learn all the ways that we add ‘extra’ layers to our perception of the world. Slowly, as our awareness of these layers expands, we begin to see the world more directly.

This is Zen practice.

Observing in this way we learn about the interconnectedness of life, we build resiliency in the face of suffering, and we find that we too are just like that flower: indescribable and part of the oneness of life.

As we come to see ourselves as an essential part of life, rather than separate from it, our relationships to each other and to the community come into focus. A sense of profound responsibility emerges and we ask:

What will we do now?

Zen: a taste of natural mind

The mind has thoughts the way the ocean has fish, seaweed, waves and bubbles.

Out of nowhere swim images and propositions about what is wanted and what is unwanted, what feels threatening, welcoming, irritating, pleasing, right, wrong, just, unjust … the list has no end.

Much of this is as fleeting as clouds forming and dissolving in the sky.

To the extent that we give substance to our thoughts as reliable accounts of reality, a whole thought pattern can slowly form like a kind of weather system.

This weather system has power to colour the mind for days, weeks, years, whole stretches of a life. It shapes thoughts and outlook in an internally consistent way that feels very solid and resistant to alternatives.

The fact that it may be completely inconsistent with external reality can become harder and harder to access.

Yet moments of finely aware non-thought visit us endlessly too.

  • Just sitting with a cup of tea in hand and gazing at the leaves or the clouds, doing nothing, wanting nothing.
  • Stepping into the shower and completely entering the fact of warm water on glad skin;
  • Catching sight of your child’s face and small body as they step from the school bus;
  • Sliding into cold sea or river on a white-hot day.

These moments of reprieve from the constant churn of self-important bulletins from the Ministry of Misinformation become, with practice, more noticed and more interesting.

They offer a taste of the mind in its most natural state, which is relaxed, poised, open, awake. This natural mind sees clearly whatever lies in its field of awareness, unclouded by any kind of fear, trusting in itself and the original nature of things.

You will find how entirely of a piece this state of non-thought is with the call of the birds, the sound of footsteps, the movement of the wind in the grass.

Entirely here and entirely at home.

Adapted from Susan Murphy: Minding the Earth, Mending the World

Zen : developing a flexible relationship to your own mind

The key difference between the mind roaming at large, and a deliberate, disciplined practice of mind, lies in the word relationship.

A steady, sustained practice of becoming curious and impartial towards your thoughts – rather than immediately being persuaded by them  – gradually lets you back into a reasonably awake relationship between your mind and its thoughts, fears and hopes.

In stead of instantly identifying with your thoughts as they arise in reaction to something, as though they are what you are, a layer of mind that is deeper and quite different to ‘I-think-and-that-is-what-I-am’ becomes available.

It turns out that with practice your mind can watch its flow of thoughts and feelings with quiet calm and unmoved interest. You begin to be aware of thoughts’ pattern and nature, as well as their forming and insubstantial dissolving.

With practice this more tolerant and flexible relationship to your own mind just as it is can open, both by slow and sudden degree, to a wide, receptive state of mind that is less confined and disturbed by the content of thought.

It appears to want nothing and have no edges.

The old name for the mind at vibrant rest is ‘samadhi’ – an all-pervading sense of there being nothing missing, lacking or needed It is a state deeper even than contentment.

In this state of mind, all that is feels reassuringly alive, intimate and present, and unconcerned with being either ‘better ‘ or ‘worse ‘ than some other set of circumstances.

Curiously enough, it is this willingly and lovingly dispassionate state of mind that is most ready and able to come up with useful and creative responses to any emergency. And we certainly have one of those on our hands at this moment in history.

Adapted from Susan Murphy: Minding the Earth, Mending the World

Zen : beyond self - we are part of one another

The experience of Zen is that we are literally not what we think.

Its path leads insistently away from the abstracting attitude and habit of mind, back to the wholeness of reality and the particularity of each thing.

The earth’s extravagant web of biodiversity, upon which everything that lives depends, is the vividly detailed face of this reality.

The Buddha called this ‘dependent co-arising’, which is to say that nothing exists intrinsically. Everything arises and is conditioned by everything else in a network of relations.

And so our centre of gravity shifts from seeing our true nature as a small sovereign sense of personal self. We discover it to be inextricable from the vast interdependent, self-organising structure of reality itself.

Our true nature is ‘to be part of one another’, as Joanna Macy puts it.

Impossible, then, to treat nature as a mere ‘standing reserve ‘ of energies and materials passively awaiting our pleasure.

The individual sense of self is a vital matter; lacking it, we are profoundly disabled as social beings. There is good reason to see its relative nature, but no reason to declare war upon it.

The experience of Zen practice is to catch a transforming glimpse beyond the confines of this sense of self. It does not disappear but is no longer sustainable as an absolute reference point of experience.

This is a shift away from a mind that establishes all meaning on a ground of duality – of this as opposed to that. The self can be wondrously realised as inseparable from all that is.

In a genuine opening of this realisation, everything is seen to participate in one essential nature empty of separation because it is overflowing with relationship.

Within this one nature, an infinite number and variety of distinct entities manifests, as both themselves and the unbroken whole. This interconnectedness makes each particular life form and distinct individual possible.

Each aspect constitutes the other.

Metaphors of a web or net of relations help convey the ineffable nature of non-duality. But even the shimmering metaphor of the Net of Indra falls short of the subtle and dynamic experience of wholeness perceived in diversity, and of diversity lit up by wholeness.

Adapted from Susan Murphy: Minding the Earth, Mending the World

What is Zen? Resources from the WWW

What is Zen? – Enkyo Pat O’Hara

Zen practice is not about getting away from our life as it is; it is about getting into our life as it is, with all of its vividness, beauty, hardship, joy and sorrow. Zen is a path of awakening: awakening to who we really are, and awakening the aspiration to serve others and take responsibility for all of life.

Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer – Norman Fischer

A Zen wave broke on North American shores in the middle of the twentieth century. Respected teacher Norman Fischer and early American Zen student gives an overview of the history, practices and different lineages of Zen and how they have been adapted in the west


Beginning Zen Online

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