What is enlightenment?

The short answer is: a bad translation of a word that means “awake.” It’s not that the Buddha attained something we call enlightenment. It’s that he woke up. It’s like when you’re dreaming — you think you’re walking on water, or flying over Mars, but then you wake up and see where you are — oh, I’m in bed. There’s the closet. There’s the door. When you wake up, you see what’s actually there and not what you think is there.

Buddha’s waking up was like that, except what he woke up to was his original nature, which is your original nature, which is the nature of the universe — things as they actually are and not as our thoughts distort them.

You can wake up too. That’s the point of Zen practice, to help us cut through the distortions of our thinking and wake up, just as Buddha did.

And, just as every night you fall asleep and have to wake up again every morning, waking up is something we do over and over again. It’s not something we do once and then say: okay, been there, done that. It’s something we keep doing throughout our lives.

Does Zen give you any special powers?

Stories about magical powers are certainly not unheard of in Zen — tales about great bodhisattvas and Zen masters who were able to do such things as make waterfalls flow back upstream or transport a woman to the Tushita heaven. These powers are sometimes classified as “freedom from cause and effect.” They are said to appear after long practice and the attainment of deep samadhi, a trance-like state in which everything is experienced as oneness or zero. But they are not the point of practice. Wanting them or attaching to them is a problem. Magical powers are in themselves delusional or lead to delusion. We practice to attain our true nature and help all beings. And if our minds are clear we see that the natural world and our ordinary activities are wondrous just as they are. All of this is beautifully summed up in the Kuo-an’s last poem accompanying his ten Oxherding Pictures. It is called “Entering the Marketplace”:

Barefoot and shirtless, enter the market

Smiling through all the dirt and grime.

No immortal powers, no secret spells,

Just teach the withered trees to bloom.

There is so much suffering in the world. What good does meditation do?

Zen flowered during the Tang dynasty in China, at a time when central control was breaking down and the many parts of the country were overrun by warlords and rebellions. Think of Syria with knives and swords instead of barrel bombs, drones, and automatic weapons. At one time during this period about 1/3 of the deaths were caused by the direct or indirect results of war, such as disease and starvation. Yet instead of taking up arms, our Zen ancestors took to the mountains to practice hard. They could see around them the result of confusion of mind. It wasn’t pretty. It still isn’t pretty. They realized that the real enemy is exactly this confusion. Not confusion because you have the wrong opinion. But confusion because you have an opinion, and you’re sticking to it, and you’ll mow over anyone who stands in your way.

So that’s where Zen practice was formed: in the crucible of tremendous suffering, as a way to end suffering, not just your own suffering, but the suffering of all beings. We practice to clarify our minds so that our actions alleviate suffering instead of causing more suffering.

How can I stay in a state of bliss?

Why would you want to do that? A state of bliss distorts our perceptions as much as a state of sadness. Bliss feels good, but still it is a distortion. Mental states come and go. Trying to hold on or push them away just adds to our confusion. But our true nature was never born and never dies. When we become awake to our true nature, we are free to enjoy moments of bliss, we are free to cry when we are sad, but there is never any need to identify with them or with any mental state. We no longer are so caught up in our desires, our anger, our ignorance, our joy, our happiness, our bliss, that we can’t see what has to be done, moment by moment, to help this suffering world.

Does it matter which meditation technique I use?

In Zen there are a number of techniques that are commonly recommended. Among them are attention to the breath, counting breaths, slow mantra repetition, fast mantra repetition, and holding a question such as “What am I?” I usually recommend working with a great question, but any of these methods can be effective for a given individual. It is best to work with a teacher to choose a practice that will work for you. But more important than which meditation technique you use is how dedicated you are in your practice. Once you have settled in with a certain technique it is important to stay with it and not jump around trying other techniques, committing yourself whole heartedly and persevering through the inevitable dry spells. Then your practice will be like water dripping on a rock. If it always drips in the same place, eventually an opening will appear.

How can I know that Zen practice is right for me?

Well, only you can tell, and only on the basis of your own direct experience.

Buddha taught that every spiritual practice should be evaluated on the basis of its results. Nothing is to be taken on faith, nor does Buddhism make any claims to being the one true way. This means that practitioners need to decide, after making a sincere effort, if the practice is proving to be efficacious — beneficial to their lives as individuals and in their interactions with others. Zen meditation practice is directed toward helping us wake up to our true nature and help this world. If that is your direction, then Zen practice is certainly worth trying. If you practice with a good teacher hard and steadily for a good amount of time you will be able to know if Zen practice is right for you.

I try to find peace through meditation, but whenever I practice my mind jumps all over the place and I can’t make it be quiet.

If you try to quiet your mind then of course it will dominate, because you’re trying to quiet your mind, which is just another form of chasing after it. Don’t worry about whether your mind is noisy or quiet, just do your practice — counting your breaths, mantra, great question, whatever your practice is…. Do your practice with a noisy mind. Do your practice with a quiet mind. Doesn’t matter. Just keep doing your practice. Do your practice and stick to the same practice. Don’t jump around from practice to practice. For days, weeks, months, years. Sure your mind will jump around. Just don’t follow it. On its own, your mind will start to quiet down. It will start up again. It always does. But you don’t have to follow it. That’s the point.


It’s exactly in the exercise of not checking the quality of our mind — is it noisy? is it quiet? — not getting trapped by our thoughts, it’s in the exercise of just doing our practice, that we have an opportunity to discover our true self, our true nature, which is more fundamental than all that activity in our frontal lobes.

When I first started practicing it felt really good, but sometimes now it’s hard. Does it have to be that way?

Sitting meditation, the heart of Zen practice, can be pleasant and refreshing at first and in short stints. In the long haul, the many hours of sitting in an intensive retreat and of many retreats over many years, the practice is undeniably austere. It is so by design and necessity. The direction of our practice is not to make us feel good but to bring us face to face with what we really are, and this can only be done by cutting through the layers of self, layers stronger than cast iron set in concrete, that our unremitting desire to feel good has created. This is hard work, hard enough and sometimes dry and tasteless enough, that we want to quit. But it is the only way, and in our deepest consciousness we know it, know that hard training is the only way to break through the wall of the self.

Is Zen a religion?

In the Middle Eastern traditions which dominate in Europe and America, a religion is a system of beliefs and practices which claims truth and demands loyalty: you cannot simultaneously be two of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. In Asia, at least until fairly recent European influence, the concept rather was that of ways or paths. Over millennia there was a lot of cross-fertilization among various spiritual practices (which we now call Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. — “ist” and “ism” are European concepts) and it was possible to move among them without abandoning one for another. For example, in Japan it was common for people to be married by a Shinto priest and buried by a Buddhist one. There is no concept of conversion from one religion to another. You simply practice one way or another or even many at the same time. Why not?


Zen is part of Mahayana Buddhism, so is a religion in the way that all forms of Buddhism are. But it has no belief system one has to adhere to. Buddhist precepts are promises about behavior: not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, and so on — five to start off with, and hundreds if you become a nun or monk. There is no precept about what you believe. Which is why you can find Zen practitioners and even teachers who practice various monotheistic traditions. There are Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis who are Zen masters.


So the answer to your question is: it depends how you define “religion.”