What Does Zen Mean?

“It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.”
John J. Muth

Rather than build a standard quotes page (plenty of sites dedicated to Buddha quotes already exist) I wanted to fold quotes into a discussion to clear up exactly what Zen Buddhism means.

My friends in the US and the UK don’t usually have a working knowledge of the term in their memory banks. People assume that Buddhism  is what our shared cultural myth says it is – a religion, a springboard for karate instruction, a practice that involves constant meditation or catching a fly out of the air with chopsticks.

It may be those things to some people – that is fine. But my approach to Buddhism involves a search for a deeper understanding of the very word Zen, originally a Chinese word (“chan“) which Japanese Buddhists mispronounced, giving us the word with a Z sound at the beginning in stead of Ch. THe word originally meant simply “meditation,” though I believe it has come to mean much more.

The best way to explain my concept of Zen is by sharing three quotes and talking about what they mean to me and my concept of the philosophy they describe.

“From a lofty summit
The panorama extends forever
I sit alone unknown.”
Han Shan

To me, this piece of a longer poem about the Zen  concept, by Buddhist poet Han Shan, is a perfect definition. The lofty summit is, to me, a symbol of our ego. The panorama is the world where we exist as bodies. The sense of loneliness and anonymity is the tool with which we destroy our ego to exist peacefully in that panorama.

“Zen Buddhism is a discipline where belief isn’t necessary.”
David Sylvian

I’m a huge fan of singer-songwriter music, and UK musician David Sylvian (who happens to be Buddhist) has been a favorite of mine over the past year. It took me months to really wrap my head around the concept he describes, whereby the philosophy of Zen exists in the places where we lack faith rather than in the places where we are consciously faithful.

“You have said it, but have not understood.”
Jesus of Nazareth

My take on Zen does not begin and end with Buddhist thought. In fact, I believe Jesus Christ was one of the great Zen teachers in history. Here, Jesus condenses into one short sentence exactly what the Buddha was trying to teach his entire life. Understanding is meaningless, knowledge is meaningless, and it may be better for us to simply exist than to chase a spiritual prize.