The Essence of Zen

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A monk: "What is the meaning of Zen?"

Zen master: "Have you had your breakfast?"

Monk: "Yes."

Master: "Then wash your bowl."

Zen teachings often appear deceptively simple. This misconception is compounded by the Zen claim that explanations are meaningless. They are, of course, but merely because genuine Zen insights can arise only from individual experience. And although our experience can be described and even analyzed, it cannot be transmitted or shared. At most, the "teachings" of Zen can only clear the way to our deeper consciousness. The rest is up to us.

Zen is based on the recognition of two incompatible types of thought: rational and intuitive. Rationality employs language, logic, reason. Its precepts can be taught. Intuitive knowledge, however, is different. It lurks embedded in our consciousness, beyond words. Unlike rational thought, intuition cannot be "taught" or even turned on. In fact, it is impossible to find or manipulate this intuitive consciousness using our rational mind any more than we can grasp our own hand or see our own eye.

The Zen masters devised ways to reach this repressed area of human consciousness. Some of their techniques—like meditation—were borrowed from Indian Buddhism, and some—like their antirational paradoxes—may have been learned from Chinese Taoists. But other inventions, like their jarring shouts and blows, emerged from their own experience. Throughout it all, however, their words and actions were only a means, never an end.