What is Zen ?
The Posture of Buddha's Awakening
Zen finds its source in the
experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, who, two thousand five hundred years ago,
while sitting in zazen posture , achieved awakening. This zazen practice
contains the essence of his teaching, which carries a message of universal
import: Zazen is nothing other than the return to the normal condition of
body and mind.
Buddha's teaching does not fall under the heading of philosophy, and
even less of metaphysics. It is based on lived experience. One could
compare it to medicine that offers a cure for the ills of human nature.
Buddha did not intend to create a new religion, but rather to help human
beings understand the cause of their suffering, and to free them from it.
This liberation is called the awakening of Buddha, supreme wisdom and true
freedom, achieved through zazen.
Buddha's experience was
transmitted without interruption from master to disciple, thus forming a
After a thousand-year establishment in India, this teaching was brought
to China by the monk Bodhidharma in the fifth century A.D. Zen, called
Ch'an, found fertile ground for its development in China, and blossomed
there. It was during this period that Zen confirmed its originality and
purity of practice.
In the thirteenth century, after a stay in China with Master Nyojo, the
Japanese monk Dogen brought Soto Zen to Japan. Master Dogen is considered
the greatest Buddhist philosopher (along with Nagarjuna in India in the
third century). Zen has since profoundly affected Japanese culture: Today,
more than 20,000 temples attest to its influence.
Arrival of Master Deshimaru in Europe
In the twentieth century,
the West began to be interested in the philosophical aspect of Zen;
meanwhile, in Japan, Master Kodo Sawaki was giving new strength to a very
weakened practice. At the death of Kodo Sawaki, his succcessor, Taisen
Deshimaru, came to France to bring Westerners the essence of this
teaching, just as Bodhidharma went to China fifteen hundred years
During the fifteen years of his mission, Master Taisen Deshimaru
created over one hundred dojos and zazen groups spread across four
continents, including the Paris dojo, and founded the great Western Zen
Temple of La Gendronniere (near Blois, France), as well as the
International Zen Association. His disciples continue his mission today,
practicing zazen and spreading his teaching across many European
countries, Africa and America.
A Living Experience
Although Zen developed in the heart of one of the oldest traditions
known to humanity--Buddhism--it is neither a religion nor a philosophy.
Master Deshimaru said it is "the religion before religion," meaning that
zazen awakens the natural human religious spirit, without relying on
dogma. Zazen is "the essence of religion."
Zen is beyond religion and philosophy, beyond all systems and
ideologies, beyond all the "isms," even beyond Buddhism. It speaks
directly to the human heart. It is the living experience and the creative
force before all formalism. The essence of its message has universal
significance. Zen is at the root of self-knowledge, beyond the differences
of systems, values, nations or races.
Zazen is the experience of unity before all duality. That is why it is
difficult to talk about it, because language separates, makes a division
in the reality of what is. And so Zen is not transmitted through writings,
but rather from person to person, from master to disciple, from my soul to
All social or physical sciences observe the human race from a
particular angle. But the sum of all these viewpoints will never
reconstitute a living human being, because human life is beyond all
possible analysis. This "beyond" is life, and it is Zen. And so Master
Deshimaru said, "If you want to give Zen another name, call it Life."
The Interior Revolution
The Return to the Normal Condition--Hishiryo- Consciousness
Zen practice is not
special, mysterious, or esoteric. It is not separate from the world and
everyday life. Zen is nothing other than the return to the normal
condition of body and mind.
Normal condition, as Master Deshimaru taught it, is not a norm, nor a
special state. It means rediscovering a mind that is vast, free, beyond
categories and fearless. It means harmonizing with the cosmic system and
with others, and becoming less selfish. Normal condition is a mind which
is not limited by concepts, a mind which is not stagnant. In zazen, this
is called hishiryo-consciousness: beyond thought and non-thought.
The modern world, society and education have programmed our behavior,
our vision of things and our way of life. The practice of zazen, which
does away with duality and rebalances our bodies and our brains, brings us
back to the normal condition and to unity with all things. Our bodies
become naturally strong, our breathing deep, our minds vast, open.
Embracing Contradictions: The Middle Way
To penetrate the Way is not difficult, but one needs
neither love nor hate, neither choice nor rejection.
One needs only
that there be neither love nor hate for understanding to appear
spontaneously, clear as daylight in a cavern.
Zen is neither spiritual nor material, but includes both these aspects.
Certain people follow only the social world, others seek only the
spiritual one, without any link between the two. The essential thing is to
find the Middle Way, without preference for one aspect over the other.
From our individual viewpoints, we distinguish time, life and death.
But from the cosmic view of life, time, space, life and death are not
separate. Zen is outside of the dualism produced by our minds, which are
locked-in to space-time. Zen returns to the unity of all things. In our
consciousness, the battle between true and false leads to a sickness of
the spirit. We tend to categorize--good or bad, nice or not nice--without
understanding that by these divisions we limit ourselves and produce
disharmony and chaos in the world.
Master Taisen Deshimaru said, "Harmonizing opposites by going back to
their source is the distinctive quality of the Zen attitude, the Middle
Way: embracing contradictions, making a synthesis of them, achieving
Mushotoku: Without Goal or Object
If you keep your fists closed, you will obtain only a few
grains of sand.
But if you open your hands, you will obtain all the
sand in the desert.
means "the mind that does not seek to obtain." The mind attaches to no
object and seeks neither profit nor result. Without this state of mind,
zazen is not authentic.
In modern society, profit is the motivation for all our actions. But
this search for profit is the source of tension and complications; it
separates us from others and distances us from true freedom.
Human beings always want to obtain more and are afraid of loss. But the
highest wisdom is neither goal-oriented nor self-conscious. It is said
that, "Hands open, you can receive everything; hands closed, nothing can
The right attitude consists of letting everything pass and
concentrating on immediate action, without selfishness. Abandoning becomes
the highest success. Mushotoku means to obtain the entire cosmos.
The Way of the Bodhisattva
Sitting, standing, in my verdant retreat, whatever I do,
I have but one prayer: to help all beings pass ahead of me.
The ideal of Zen is not to
attain Buddhahood or awakening for oneself, but to reject the narrow
limits of personal gain and to be open to the good of all beings. This is
the action of the bodhisattva. Bodhi: awakening, satori, understanding of
the universal law. Sattva: to dive into the world of phenomena, to work
with other living beings. A bodhisattva is someone who understands
suffering beings, helps them, and guides them on the right path with
Kodo Sawaki said, "Men are afraid, because they depend only on their
own individuality. To do zazen is to be a person in unity with heaven and
For the bodhisattva, life, far from being an obstacle or burden, is the
path by which satori is realized. The bodhisattva directs his life rather
than being directed by it. Even if he dives into the middle of demons, he
is not afraid and can save all beings. Thus, the ideal of the bodhisattva
is to guide all beings toward the truth, to bring them onto the Path of
What is the sense of our life?
It is to resolve the
problem of our existence.
Even though we possess Buddha-nature, we
have, until now, only groped in the darkness. Being hindered by neither
society nor the ego is, I believe, true freedom.
This freedom is to
Master Kodo Sawaki
We live in a world of fear:
fear of the future, fear of others, fear of the exterior world. In this
era, fear is an ever-present anxiety that destroys our vital force. It is
the cause of many sicknesses.
At the root of fear and anguish is the attachment to oneself and to
things in life. By practicing zazen regularly, by abandoning attachment,
this anxious state disappears. If the mind is tranquil, everything becomes
In zazen, it is possible to observe emotions and fears like bubbles
that come up to the surface of a river. The mind is brought back to the
present moment; it becomes like the vast ocean which, deep down, cannot be
Most fears are imaginary and correspond to no real or immediate danger.
Non-fear is the consciousness that lets emotions come, without identifying
with them. The consciousness then frees itself and attains a state of
stability which manifests as non-fear.
It is because we are in continuum with the universe that
we have life. It is a question of acting in continuum with the
Master Kodo Sawaki
diminishes the spirit, the vital force that each of us possesses. The
artificial lifestyles we lead-- processed food, overheated living
conditions, synthetic clothes, modern comforts that demand no effort--all
these artifices cause us regress into passivity.
True spiritual help means communicating this vital force to others. The
entire cosmos is filled with it; our lives are waves in its ocean. Ki is
the manifestantion of universal energy. It sets things in motion, propels
them. It makes the blood flow through our veins, stimulates nervous
impulses, regenerates cells and creates vital movement. A strong ki makes
In zazen, we are immobile. When we concentrate on a deep exhalation, a
very strong ki develops. How do we use it? By concentrating, putting our
vital energy in just one action at a time. Zazen teaches us to live this
In modern civilization, dispersion, mental agitation, disordered
thoughts and anxiety cause us to lose ki. We must rediscover this
fundamental force, because the destiny of humanity is to accomplish its