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What Is Meant By Zen “Practice”?

What Is Meant By Zen “Practice”?

If you have spent any time in a Zen community, or reading Zen books, you will have encountered the term “practice” countless times. Zen ancestors and teachers exhort us to practice diligently. Fellow practitioners talk to one another about their practice: “I have been practicing 20 years,” or “I just started practice,” or “Lately my practice has been focused on an acceptance of change.” We say it is hard to practice without a Sangha, or community. When facing challenges in life, we say, “It’s good practice.”

If you asked 100 Zen practitioners what they mean by “practice,” you probably wouldn’t get 100 different answers, but you would probably get about 25 different answers. With the word “practice,” some people are referring specifically to the things they do that can be clearly identified as “Zen,” like study of Buddhist texts, participation in Sangha, or meditation. Most include these things but also are referring to the day-to-day efforts they make in their own minds and hearts to understand and/or manifest Buddhist teachings.

Knowing my definition will change over time, I’ll nonetheless take a risk and offer a definition of “practice:” inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest questions, longings and fears, in order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense.  Below I will explain this definition, phrase by phrase.

Inquiry and behaviors: In general there are two paths of practice, understanding and manifestation. Inquiry leads to understanding, and the adoption and cultivation of certain kinds of behaviors leads to manifestation. Many people have more affinity for one path than the other. Some of us want to understand – not just in an intellectual way, but also in a deep knowing that comes from personal experience – before we fully commit ourselves to action. Others of us are primarily drawn to manifestation or action and want to start living out our values and aspirations as soon as possible; understanding can come later as a side effect or bonus. Of course, most people are interested in both understanding and manifestation, and ultimately our practice must include both. The Buddhist ancestors have taught many times that no matter what behavioral practices you adopt, if you don’t understand the great matter of life and death you will not really have achieved liberation. On the other hand, what good is understanding if you don’t manifest what you have learned?

Undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest spiritual questions, longings and fears: Our secular societies and other spiritual traditions typically offer us two options with respect to these issues:

  1. Don’t ask troubling questions, there aren’t any answers, so just try to fulfill your longings and cope with your fears; and
  2. Here are the answers to your questions, as well as instructions for what to do about your longings and fears.

Zen is a radical tradition in that is proposes:

  1. There are indeed answers to your deepest spiritual questions, including ones like, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How can there be so much good and evil in the world at the same time?” and there is no limit to the depth of the questions that can be asked and answered except your own courage and perseverance;
  2. It is possible to address and resolve your deepest longings and fears, including longings like those for meaning, security and connection, and fears like those of death, loss or annihilation, and again there is no limit to the depth of that which can be faced and transformed except your own courage and perseverance;
  3. The answers and resolutions cannot be taught to you by others or read in books, they must be personally explored and experienced. While Buddhist teachers have taught about the answers and resolutions for well over 2,000 years, you do not need to accept anything they offer without personal verification, and if you do, it will not be of nearly as much good to you as your own personal experience. Answers and resolutions occur, come into being, only when lived. 

In short, Zen dares you to address and explore spiritual matters that may make you quiver in your shoes, and is a method, not a system of answers.

In order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense: What does this mean to you? According to one Buddhist teaching there are five kinds of “energies” within us, and for most of us one or two energies predominate. Each energy is associated with a different kind of spiritual preoccupation:

  • intimacy (with other beings but also with everything we encounter)
  • stability (or security, the sense of being real, strong and substantial)
  • order (the universe has a structure that is, or should be, reflected in everything)
  • efficacy (ability to move, act and interact with universe in a impactful and efficient or graceful way)
  • transcendence (a sense of the “more” beyond the details of our everyday lives)

With each of these spiritual longings comes an accompanying set of typical fears and tendencies.

Whether the particular breakdown of human spiritual preoccupations offered above makes sense to you or not, it makes clear the variety of ways people will conceive of “living the best possible human life in a spiritual sense.” One person may think of living a moral life with a maximum of benefit, and a minimum of harm, to others. Another may think of rich, meaningful, intimate, brave relationships with family and friends, and an general open generosity to all beings. Another may think of developing a deep understanding of the universe and human life, and creating things that reflect their understanding of the beauty and order they have discovered. What is common to all of these is a liberation of human potential from the bondage of misunderstanding, longing and fear.

You certainly don’t have to accept my definition of “practice.” In fact, if you don’t, if you argue with it, it will be of just as much – if not more – benefit to you than if you find it true or useful. The important thing is engaging everything wholeheartedly in the spirit of practice – inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve…


Why Your (Real) Happiness Benefits Others

Why Your (Real) Happiness Benefits Others

Throughout my teen years and into young adulthood, I felt miserable about the state of the world. You probably wouldn’t have known it if you’d talked to me: I appeared fairly cheerful and well-adjusted because that’s a strong natural part of my character. Underneath, however, I carried an existential angst that threatened to pull me into neurosis and despair.

“How can I enjoy my good fortune,” I wondered, “while so much of the world is going to hell?” Was I supposed to distract myself with the pleasures of my own life while ignoring widespread starvation, oppression, injustice, extinctions, resource depletion, and environmental degradation? Contentment seemed like folly given the preposterous possibility we would destroy the entire planet with nuclear weapons within a day.

I was led to Buddhist practice by my pervasive sadness about the world and my sense of being powerless against the juggernauts of greed, hate, and delusion. Buddhism seemed to promise a way to gain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world was. I hoped to achieve an “enlightened” view of the world that would let me see how things like injustice, starvation, and mass extinction weren’t that big a deal. I hoped to gain a transcendent view of the world which would put all the misery into perspective and make sense of everything.

Fortunately, after many years of practice, I did learn to access a certain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world is. But I didn’t achieve it the way I expected, by somehow escaping the pain of empathy or the conundrum of responsibility.

Instead, I realized at some point that my real happiness would benefit the world.

What Real Happiness Is

At this point I need to clarify what real happiness is, by first explaining what it’s not. Real happiness does not result from the successful pursuit of self-interest, pleasure, power, material wealth, or stimulating experiences. Real happiness is not getting everything you want, although that’s very nice. That’s just conditional happiness, which doesn’t particularly benefit the world except that others don’t need to worry about taking care of you.

Real happiness is deciding to be appreciative and content in the midst of your life, just as it is – and in the midst of the world, just as it is. Real happiness is refusing to postpone the kind of satisfaction you usually associate with achieving all of your dreams. Real happiness is embodiment and direct experience, free from the filters of expectations and self-concern. When we embrace real happiness, we wake up to miracle of life.

In the Soto Zen scripture on the Buddhist precepts, the Kyojukaimon, it describes the treasure of sangha, or community, as “they who release their suffering and embrace all beings.” Isn’t this remarkable? It doesn’t say, “they who transcend their suffering,” or “they who manage to make their suffering disappear.” The sangha jewel is made up of people who quit holding on to their suffering – which of course implies that we are in charge of our suffering! This passage suggests we can learn how to let our suffering go, and thereby benefit others.

These Buddhist teachings about releasing suffering and attaining peace of mind can be easily misunderstood. It may sound like we’re saying, “Suffering isn’t real, so you can just put it out of your mind, achieve internal peace, and that’s good enough.” We’re not saying that at all. That’s actually an anti-Buddhist way of looking at spiritual practice. The Buddhist way is not selfish. It’s about direct experience… and when you actually let go of your suffering and embrace all beings, the result is not what you think.

How Real Happiness Benefits Others

When we practice real happiness, we wake up. We notice everything – and not just what we can see and hear in our immediate environment. We notice the state of the world, and the state of our heart. We recognize calls to respond, and then our best response naturally arises. We recognize what’s ours to do, and we’re free to do it because we’re not caught up in our own misery, or in pursuing conditional happiness.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

“Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse…

“We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”

It is not necessarily easy to be happy in this real way, at least not until you learn, for yourself, what it really means. Once you know, and once you build familiarity with the practice, all you have to do is bring together body, mind, and heart in once place and trust your awareness. The miraculous, inherently precious nature of our existence is immediately apparent if we just drop all of our concepts about the way life is or should be.

The ability to touch this way of real happiness does not in any way absolve us of responsibility to relieve suffering in the world. It also doesn’t cripple our empathy, or wrap us in a cocoon of cold detachment (things I used to be afraid would happen!). That’s because the way of real happiness is in touch with reality, and in reality, we’re not separate from any other beings, or from the universe itself. In reality we’re embodied human beings with thoughts and emotions. We have time and energy, and we inevitably have to make choices about how to spend them. We can fritter our time and energy away, dedicate ourselves to pursuing comfort or pleasure, or work to benefit self and other in a real way.

The Actual Practice of Real Happiness

I remember walking down the street one afternoon, in the early years of my Buddhist practice, and suddenly realizing my misery and guilt wasn’t doing anyone any good. I thought, “What if I dropped it?” Because of years of practice, I was actually capable of doing that – although it was only for a minute or two. When I “released my suffering,” my world instantly expanded. Instead of feeling like I was wearing blinders that kept me focused on the abstract issue of how I should respond to the sad state of the world, I noticed the trees, sidewalk, birds, flowers, and the crisp, cool air. I noticed my body, walking, breathing, and ready to get to work. I noticed people, and it occurred to me I was available to listen to them in a way I never had been before. I felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. Since that moment, I have understood that my real happiness actually benefits others.

You can recognize the benefit of real happiness from the other side, too – just think of the rare people you encounter who seem to be delighted to be just who they are, doing just what they’re doing. Even if they’re only stocking vegetables in the supermarket, you feel energized, strengthened, inspired, and encouraged when you encounter them. Your burdens feel a little lighter, and your aspirations awakened.

The fact that little daily encounters can let others benefit from your real happiness does not let you off the hook of the bodhisattva vow, of course. We vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha way. Only you know if you’re doing your best at honoring those vows. However, don’t postpone your real happiness until you’ve achieved your ideal of bodhisattvahood. That would make sense if real happiness were a reward you have to earn, rather than a practice that’s accessible to you at any moment.

Questions Are More Important Than Answers

Questions Are More Important Than Answers

Everyone wants answers. We figure answers tell us how to live more happily. Answers let us fix things, while questions are simply problems to be solved with answers. Preferably answers come sooner than later because questions point to limitations in our understanding or ability, and they’re often associated with discomfort.

I think this view of questions is unfortunate, because the process of arousing and engaging questions is where all growth and aliveness occurs. We directly encounter life when we recognize something we don’t know, when we become curious, when we move forward into life even while knowing we don’t have things figured out. It’s well worth the discomfort, but there are many reasons we choose, instead, to stay within the limits of what we’re sure of – or overestimate how far our understanding extends.

Here’s a lovely story illustrating how someone can refuse to overestimate the power and relevance of their answers:

In the documentary “No Ordinary Genius,” Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of how he was taught to question things as child. He observed that when he pulled his wagon with a ball in it, the ball would roll to the back of the wagon. When he would stop the wagon, the ball would roll to the front. He asked his father why. His father responded, impressively, with an explanation of the law of physics that states an object in motion stays in motion, or an object at rest stays at rest, unless an outside force acts on it.

Now, most parents would be more than satisfied to have provided such an erudite answer to their child and they’d stop there. Feynman’s father, however, continued. “This tendency is called inertia,” he said, “And no one knows why it’s true.”

Admitting to ourselves that we don’t know something can trigger a sense of inadequacy or panic. To know is to be able to predict and control, to rationalize and explain, to make sense of things. To not know something after the age of 18 is usually seen as a slightly embarrassing situation that we can only hope is temporary. If we admit to others that we don’t know something, they are usually very concerned for us and try either to provide us with an answer or advise us where to find one.

Sometimes we find some good, inspiring answers. That’s great – but considering the universe is infinite, there will always be more questions waiting if we are open to them.

I once had the opportunity to ask my Zen teacher a question in the midst of ceremony that took place in front of a couple hundred people. I asked a question that had been troubling me for some time: “When he was enlightened, the Buddha said he awakened simultaneously with all beings, but how does the Buddha’s awakening benefit beings who do not see what he saw? What about those beings with heavy karma, or in whom the way-seeking mind has not arisen – those who do not experience the relief and joy of his realization?”

I was trembling a little because of how much I cared about this question. To explain it a little further, while I was fully convinced that spiritual practice can result in liberation and peace, I wondered whether such liberation was just a matter of adopting a particular alignment of mind and heart. Is awakening simply being able to see the universe as complete and precious (a view), or is the universe actually complete and precious?

If salvation lies solely in achieving a particular understanding or embracing a particular faith, it will be of limited usefulness in saving the world. We will never manage to convert everybody to the path that has resulted in salvation for us. On the other hand, if beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what – as our saints and sages tell us they do – then there’s hope.

Gyokuko, my kind teacher, answered me with a smile, “How could Buddha-nature not benefit all beings?” (Or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.)

My response: “But…”

Gyokuko asked if I could see our luminous, complete Buddha-nature.

“Yes!” I answered. “But…”

Before I could launch into another explication of my doubt, Gyokuko said, “You do not see It.”

I paused for a split second, ready to keep arguing, but then bowed abruptly in response and with deep sincerity spoke the ceremonial words that end this kind of exchange, “Thank you, great teacher, for your great compassion.” This elicited some laughter from the audience because of the timing.

For a time, Gyokuko’s answer inflamed my ego with a sense of humiliation. “Great,” I thought, “Now everyone knows I don’t know something so fundamental. Many people will assume they know the answer when they actually don’t, just as they might think describing the physical law of inertia actually explains what’s going on when a ball appears to roll when the wagon beneath it moves. They’ll pity me and think they’re more realized than I am.” But at some point I just set aside any concern about what others might think or about how my understanding rates in the world of Zen. Screw it, I thought, the only thing that matters is the truth, and wrestling wholeheartedly with questions is the only way I know to get closer to it.

After the ego-centered moment passed, Gyokuko’s answer brought great hope. If I kept engaging the question, I would see it someday. I would have the direct experience of how beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what, and how the deepest truth is not dependent on one’s understanding or faith. I would be able to tap into that in order to help save the world. And if I had never asked the question, my realization might have remained shallow.

Do you realize how many questions there are you don’t really know the answer to? What keeps us from opening our hearts to one another every time we meet? What is the nature of our experience of time? What is it inside us that always knows what is generous and kind? How do we fully face and appreciate the fact that we will die? Is there a time to fight? What is it that allows us to keep participating in destructive and unjust systems? Wholeheartedly engaging any one of these questions could open up a lifetime of discovery and growth.

Don’t be satisfied with half-assed answers. And ultimately all answers are half-assed.


Photo by tracy apps, Flickr Creative Commons,, Some rights reserved


It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God

It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God

Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God
The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”
A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health
The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I
The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought
How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking
Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable

Zen Buddhism is a non-theistic religious tradition. Many people find such a thing difficult to fathom: How can you have a religion without a God? Isn’t God what religion is about?

Fortunately for those of us who don’t believe in God, it’s possible to have a rich religious tradition without one. Even without a deity, Zen Buddhists get everything else a major religion offers: Traditional spiritual teachings and practices, scriptures and literature collected over the course of millennia, ritual and ceremony, religious community, mythology and iconographic imagery, initiation rites and clergy, and moral guidelines. While some Zen Buddhists do believe in God – and that’s perfectly acceptable in our tradition – Zen isn’t premised on the existence of a deity.

Still, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no God in Zen. While we don’t conceive of, or worship, an omnipotent personification of the Divine, at the heart of our tradition is the teaching that reality itself is luminous, precious, and infused with compassion. We don’t ascribe an agenda, personality, or gender to That-Which-Is-Greater, but we long to live in harmony with It, and personally experience intimacy with It. These longings infuse our spiritual practice with meaning.

In this essay, I’ll cover three related topics:

  • First, I’ll explain why Zen doesn’t usually talk about That-Which-Is-Greater, even though it’s an integral part of Zen teaching. Because Zen is non-theistic, I’ll usually refer to That-Which-Is-Greater by using the terms “the Ineffable” or “It” (emphasized in speech, and written with a capital “I”). Of course, I could also use terms like the sacred, spiritual, or transcendent.
  • Second, I’ll talk about why it’s valuable for people, including Zen Buddhists, to have a worldview that includes a sense of the Ineffable.
  • Finally, I’ll share a Zen teaching on the Ineffable and give you a sense of how Zen practitioners develop a deeper relationship with It.

Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God

In one of my favorite books, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes, “The reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature, we do well to follow Rainer Maria Rilke’s suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.”

As someone who spent part of my childhood as a Christian, there’s still part of me that resonates with the word “God” more than with vague terms like “the Ineffable.” In many ways, theistic religions do a better job than Buddhism does of reminding people about the greater, inspiring truth that underlies everything.

However, Zen is very deliberate in its choice not to conceive of a God, or even to describe That-Which-Is-Greater in any terms that will tempt us to form fixed concepts or ideas about It. The basic idea behind this approach is that the function of our mind is to discriminate – to discern that from this, this from that: Food from non-food, safety from danger, self from other, good from bad. The nature of the Ineffable is unity, or oneness; any discrimination takes you further from an experience of It.

Zen takes what theology calls an “apophatic approach” – describing the Divine by stripping away any limiting concepts you may have about It – as opposed to a cataphatic approach, which seeks to point you toward the Divine using positive terminology, such as, “God is love.” Some of us are attracted to an apophatic approach because even beautiful words like Huston Smith’s “the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature,” inspire us to think that the Ineffable is superior to – and outside of – us. Zen practice starts with shedding our limiting views and avoiding attaching to new ones – whether the view is “It does not exist,” “It exists out there,” or “It exists within me.”

Deciding what approach to take with respect to the Ineffable isn’t just an abstract philosophical issue. It’s really about what works for you. For many human beings, the cataphatic approach speaks more directly to their spiritual experience, or at least it gives them solace and hope. To be honest, even those of us who have chosen the apophatic tradition of Zen sometimes long for some of the inspiration and warmth often found in theistic religions, where That-Which-Is-Greater is described and celebrated on a regular basis.

The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”

For a moment, I’m going to set aside discussion of Zen, and return to my hero, Huston Smith. In Why Religion Matters, Smith makes a convincing case that all human beings operate within a worldview of some kind. Even if you don’t think you “believe” in anything, you still have a worldview, and it profoundly affects everything you do.

Smith describes three dominant worldviews:

  • Traditional (typically held by human beings throughout the millennia, from the earliest societies up until increasing reliance on the scientific method),
  • Modern (science through the middle of the 20th century), and
  • Post-modern (since the middle of the 20th century).

In his descriptions of these worldviews, Smith points out that while modernism gave us science, and post-modernism gave us social justice, in many ways the latter two worldviews are very bleak compared to the traditional one.

Here are five comparisons Smith makes between the traditional worldview and the two later, scientific ones:

In the traditional worldview, spirit is fundamental and matter is derivative: Matter, including embodied life, coalesces from a greater ocean of spirit, or is animated by that spirit. In the scientific worldview, the closest thing to spirit – the phenomenon of consciousness – is limited to human brains, which are like tiny islands surrounded by an infinitely large universe devoid of consciousness.

In the traditional worldview, humans are the “less” who have derived from the “more:” Human beings, with all of their talents and flaws, are part of something much larger, and this larger reality is more beautiful and amazing than anything humans can come up with. In the scientific worldview, we are the highest products of evolution. As Smith says, “Nothing in science’s universe is more intelligent than we are.”

In the traditional worldview, there is a happy ending: The happy ending may come at the end of a human life or at the end of an age. In the scientific worldview, Smith says, “Death is the grim reaper of individual lives, and whether things as a whole will end in a freeze or a fry, with a bang or a whimper… is anybody’s guess.”

In the traditional worldview, everything is pervaded with meaning: Life was created by or flows from Perfection and is meaningful throughout. In the scientific worldview, any meaning we find seems subjectively projected (e.g. some people are lucky enough to “find meaning in their lives”).

In the traditional worldview, humans feel at home: Humans belong to their world and play an important role, and, Smith says, “They are made of the same spiritually sentient stuff that the world is made of.” Nothing like this can be derived from the scientific worldview. In fact, given our actions and destructiveness, many of us wonder if humans are scourge on an otherwise beautiful planet.

A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health

I included Smith’s comparisons of pre- and post-scientific worldviews not because I am going to formulate a Zen worldview for you (that’s a huge topic and I want to stay focused on the Ineffable). Instead, I brought them up because I wanted to point out how bleak human life can appear once we’ve been converted to the scientific worldview. This conversion, for many of us, means we lose our belief in God, or our sense of the Ineffable. We then become vulnerable to something Victor Frankl called “the existential vacuum.”

Frankl was Jewish and spent years imprisoned in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. He came out of his experience convinced that people were much more likely to survive the kinds of horrors he experienced if they were sustained by a deep sense of meaning in their lives. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl argues that having a sense of meaning is essential to our mental health, but finding meaning in our lives can be difficult. Unlike animals, our lives are no longer ruled by instinct and we constantly have to make choices. With “the traditions which buttressed [our] behavior… rapidly diminishing,” Frankl says, no instinct tells us what we have to do, no tradition tells us what we ought to do, and sometimes we don’t even know what we want to do. We end up in an existential vacuum, and often end up succumbing to things like anxiety, depression, aggression, or addiction.

In his book, Frankl quotes Friedrich Nietzche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” I think most of us have a strong sense that this is true. Those of us who no longer hold a traditional worldview may look back at it somewhat wistfully, imaging what it would be like to believe we were part of something larger, our lives were meaningful, and we belonged in this universe. How comforting and strengthening it would be to believe that God or the Great Spirit thoughtfully designed this world and has an overall, benevolent plan! How inspiring to believe He loves us and that our little individual lives actually matter!

The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I

However, if we don’t actually believe the traditional worldview, we don’t get to just “go back” to it in order to make ourselves feel better. What can we do? Fortunately, Zen offers us some beautiful teachings about That-Which-Is-Greater, how It pervades our lives with meaning, and how we can directly experience It. To adequately explore these teachings – or even just give you an overview of them – would take much more time than I have right now, but I may devote future essays to the topic. Here I will simply introduce one prime example of a Zen teaching on what I feel is the Zen version of God. (Others may argue this point with me – and I invite you to send me comments because that will be a fascinating conversation. However, I suspect true atheists will see more commonality than differences between theism and the Zen teachings I’m about to describe.)

Many people don’t know it, but the great 12th-century Zen master Dogen frequently taught and wrote on the Ineffable, although he uses many different words and images to point to It. Dogen is certainly not the only person in the Zen tradition to have done this, of course, but I’m focusing on Dogen because he dedicated a whole essay to discussion of the Ineffable in his masterwork, the Shobogenzo. The essay, or chapter, is called Inmo.

According to Dogen translators Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, “Inmo” is a colloquial Chinese word that is used to indicate something when there is no need to explain what it is – like the pronouns “it,” “that,” or “what.” Nishijima and Cross explain that Chinese philosophers would sometimes use the term “inmo” to indicate the ineffable, or that which is beyond words. Subsequently, they say, Buddhist writers used it to indicate reality itself, which can never be fully conveyed by words. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider the best translation of inmo to be “It-with-a-Capital-I,” combining the pronoun-like character of inmo with the tradition of capitalizing English words when they refer to God, or the Divine.

In the essay “Inmo,” Dogen writes [the italicized it is a translation of Inmo]:

“How do we know that it exists? We know it is so because the body and the mind both appear in the Universe, yet neither is ourself. The body, already, is not ‘I.’ Its life moves on through days and months, and we cannot stop it even for an instant… The sincere mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment. Although the state of sincerity does exist, it is not something that lingers in the vicinity of the personal self. Even so, there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind. Once this mind is established, abandoning our former playthings we hope to hear what we have not heard before and we seek to experience what we have not experienced before: this is not solely of our own doing.”

Dogen’s writing is pretty poetic and esoteric, so this takes some unpacking. However, it’s important to realize that Dogen used words to point to what is beyond words, so explaining his writing in straightforward prose often misses the mark. I suggest using explanations of Dogen as doorways into his teachings, but then allowing the teachings evoke things in you the way good poetry does – even if you don’t necessarily understand every line of the poem intellectually.

To explain a little, then: we wonder who we really are, and what our relationship is to the rest of the universe. We discover that we can’t locate who we really are either in our body, or in our mind. Both are constantly changing, and not fully under “our” control. Although we experience undeniable aliveness, it defies lasting identification with the things we consider to be part of our personal self. We realize, after some practice and study, that we are empty of any inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. Instead, we are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions. “We” are nowhere to be found. (This is the Zen teaching of emptiness, or no-self.)

“Even so,” Dogen says, “there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind.” In Buddhism, the bodhi-mind is the “mind that seeks enlightenment,” or the part of ourselves that seeks something greater. One day we wake up and ask, “Is this it? Is there something I’m missing? Is there a way to live more fully and compassionately?” The bodhi-mind is established and we set out on our spiritual journey, but Dogen reminds us (italics mine), “this is not solely of our own doing.”

The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought

Dogen asks us to consider where how this bodhi-mind arises. We are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions, so what inspires us to look beyond what we think we know? “We” can’t be ultimately located, so who (or what) summons the will to awaken? Dogen suggests the bodhi-mind arises because of Inmo itself, which is not actually separate from us (all the uses of “it” in this passage are translations of inmo):

“Remember, it happens like this because we are people who are it. How do we know that we are people who are it? We know that we are people who are it just from the fact that we want to attain the matter which is it.

Another way of putting this is “we know the Ineffable exists because we seek the Ineffable.” This might seem like circular reasoning, where you state that A is true because B is true, and B is true because A is true, and then walk away as if you actually proved something. However, what we’re trying to do here is describe a real-life relationship rather than formulate an abstract logical statement. Huston Smith addresses this relationship in the following passage (from Why Religion Matters):

“…the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.”

Without air, a bird’s wings have no function and would never have evolved. Perhaps we can also say that without the Ineffable, a human’s longing to have a sense of something greater would also have no function, and would never have evolved? However, if you’re anything like me – that is, skeptical – you may be wondering whether it’s just wishful thinking to suggest the Ineffable exists because we long for it. Fortunately, Zen doesn’t stop there.

How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking

So far, our discussion has been philosophical. Inevitably, purely philosophical discussions about Inmo get convoluted, and unconvincing. This is why Zen masters throughout the centuries have slapped their students on the head with slippers, or uttered apparently non-sequitur phrases that called the student’s attention to the nearest tree or cup of tea. At some point, we have to leave behind our attempts at intellectual understanding in order to pay attention to our direct experience.

We know the Ineffable when we encounter it. We know It in our so-called “hearts,” which can’t be located physically in our bodies but seem to function as sensors attuned to the Ineffable. Our hearts swell when we witness incredible acts of compassion; when we hear stories of individuals who dedicated their lives to a noble cause; when we witness awesome spectacles of nature, listen to beautiful pieces of music, join in hearty laughter with a child, or read good poetry. Personally, I also think we perceive the Ineffable, or It-with-a-Capital-I, whenever we look into another person’s eyes, and that’s why it’s usually too intense to do that for very long.

In these heart moments, it’s like the clouds briefly part and the sun shines through. Or, for a moment, we remember what’s really important, and all of our petty concerns and fears melt away or are at least put into perspective. For a moment, we are relieved of our skepticism and have a child’s open, hopeful, innocent heart. We know love is real and the beauty of this world is beyond comprehension. We have a sense of who we are, what is means to be human, and why life is worth it.

In the scientific worldview, these “heart” experiences are just emotional phenomena we are tempted to overinterpret in order to give our lives a sense of meaning. They’re just little “pros” on the opposite end of the scale from all the “cons” when you evaluate whether life is good or bad. However, what if, instead, there really is a deeper, inspiring reality underneath everything, and our “heart moments” are when get glimpses of it?

There’s no hard, objective evidence to be had for either view, and maybe there never will be – so which view would you rather hold? For myself, I figure the approach that brings ease and happiness to my life is probably closer to reality than the one that makes me feel forlorn, isolated, and depressed. It’s like I have two wooden blocks, one triangular and one square, and I need to slip one of them through a hole I can’t see. The hole is either triangular or square, but I can’t tell which. I clumsily feel around and try one block, then the other. One of them won’t fit through the hole, but the other does. This is like choosing to operate as if there’s a deeper meaning pervading life; it’s not really a matter of what’s true in some abstract sense, and more a matter what actually works.

Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable

Despite my appreciation for Huston Smith’s discussion of worldviews, I hesitate to use the words “view” or “worldview” when talking about Zen. This is because Zen is about shedding all views and experiencing reality directly. It’s not very helpful to adopt and hold on to a view – for example, to read this essay, form a view of the Ineffable, and then try to believe it or live by it. Instead, the emphasis in Zen is on developing your own sense of reality through your direct experience: paying attention to what your own heart senses, not to some nice thoughts you’re having about your experience.

One of the views we need to drop is our sense we are separate from the Ineffable. My descriptions of “heart moments” above were hopefully able to give you a certain sense of Inmo, but they can also leave you with the impression that the Ineffable is “out there,” hidden behind the clouds except at peak moments of experience.

In contrast, Zen teaches that the Ineffable can’t be located, sought, or discovered. Neither is it special, transcendent, better, larger, or bigger. These are all ideas we have, and they get in the way of our realizing the Ineffable quality of this very moment, just as it is. Heart moments aren’t rare glimpses of the Ineffable, they’re moments when we forget our sense of separateness – moments when we get out of our own way and perceive Reality. Once we realize this is the case, once we’re convinced that we’re actually swimming in the Ineffable like a fish swims in water, we can sense It more and more often – even in the mundane situations of everyday life.

Naturally, if the Ineffable is Reality itself, we’d like to hear descriptions of It so we know what to look for and what to expect. What is it like? Are we part of it? Is it boundless, joyous, beautiful, or full of peace? How do we know when we see it? Is it personal, or impersonal? Once you see It, do your problems go away?

Usually, Zen refuses to describe the Ineffable for us so we will stay concentrated on our practice, and not chasing after some idea. Still, one of my favorite Zen masters, the 12th-century Chinese monk Hongzhi, is generous enough to give us a few verses to inspire us:

“The place of silent and serene illumination is the heavenly dome in clear autumn, shining brightly without strain, gleaming through both light and shadow. At this juncture the whole is supreme and genuinely arrives. The clear source is enacted with spirit, the axis is wide and the energy lively, everything apparent in the original brightness. The center is manifest and is celebrated…”

One last thing: it may not make any sense intellectually, but even though Zen does not conceive of the Ineffable as being personified, we still believe there is something incredible intimate and personal about it. Dogen writes, “We ourselves are tools which [Inmo] possesses within this Universe in ten directions.” We are not part of the Ineffable in spite of being our personal self, or in addition to being our personal self. There is no Ineffable apart from the myriad manifestations of the universe, including our personal self. Just as the Ineffable shines through a beautiful piece of music, it shines through us.



Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Leighton, Taigen Dan. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
Nishijima, Gudo, and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 2. London: Windbell Publications, 1996.
Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matter: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.



Instructions for Zazen in Eight Verses – Explained

Sit in a balanced, stable position with your spine erect.
Body and mind are one and posture is dynamic; proper sitting requires your full attention.

Instructions for physical posture may seem uninteresting or elementary because we conceive of our minds and bodies being separate. To meditate, we figure all we need to do is to get our body into some relatively comfortable position, and then leave it there like a lump of clay while we engage some “meditative technique” with our minds.

However, our practice is shikantaza, which means “nothing but precisely sitting.” Wholehearted sitting is our meditative technique. It challenges us to drop artificial, conceptual distinctions between the “I” who is meditating, the “mind” I am disciplining, and the “body” I am paying attention to in order to discipline the mind. I, mind, and body are all experiential aspects of one Being, who is taking a profoundly significant posture: upright, still, dignified, ready, open, and forgoing either grasping or aversion.

When we sit wholeheartedly, it is actually a rich experience. The appropriate posture can only be maintained with gentle, continued awareness of the body. Sights, sounds, smells, inner sensations, thoughts, and feelings are all part of our sitting. However, we try to keep our awareness on our experience as a whole, instead of being caught up in one aspect of it.

Be alert and appreciative, because your life may end tomorrow and everything you love is changing.

Imagine how you would feel if you really knew your life was going to end tomorrow. You’d probably pay alert, appreciative attention to whatever you were experiencing, even if all you were doing is sitting still and breathing! Even when you encountered things you would ordinarily find annoying or unpleasant, you’d probably be happy simply to be alive to experience them.

Contemplating impermanence is a traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment, and it’s not meant to be depressing or anxiety-producing. If this line of the Eight Verses causes these reactions in you, just skip it. However, see if you can contemplate the implications of impermanence in this moment, as opposed to worrying about when and how the inevitable changes will come. You will not always have this opportunity to breathe, to hear the sound of the rain, to see the face of your friend…

Energized by not-knowing, devote yourself to the sacred act of being present for each moment without agenda.

We think we know. We know what’s going to happen next, who we are, who our partner is, what we like, and what the world is like. Our sense of knowing is based on conclusions we have drawn based on past experience. These conclusions allow us to predict things, make sense of things, and maintain a sense of control over our lives. This knowing also cuts us off from engaging our experience in an open, fresh, intimate, curious way.

Imagine you were sitting zazen and knew that at some point during your meditation period, someone might burst into the room and deliver news you were eagerly (or nervously) awaiting. Wouldn’t you be energized by the natural inclination to listen to each sound and ask, “Is that it? Are they coming?”

Challenge your habit of tuning out your present experience because you think you know what’s going to happen, or because what’s happening isn’t entertaining, pleasurable, or directly relevant to your plans. Your life, just as it is, is precious. Each day that passes is one you will never experience again. Motivated by your deep love of life, make an effort to be present for each moment, regardless of how it serves your self-interest. Because life itself is sacred (that is, worthy of reverence and respect), zazen can be an act of devotion.

Do not brace yourself against thoughts or feelings; simply sit wholeheartedly and they will come and go like clouds in a clear sky.

When we are caught up in thoughts and feelings, we are not doing zazen. At the same time, we can’t avoid getting caught up in thoughts and feelings by employing ordinary means. We are only further caught as soon as we latch on to conceptual divisions and tensions: “me” (trying to meditate) versus “my mind” (chasing thoughts), “good me” (aiming for spiritual growth) versus “lazy, stupid me” (who just wants to rehash the plot of a TV show during meditation), or “holy activity” (such as being present this moment) versus “mindless activity” (being caught up in thoughts).

Zazen asks us to adopt a radical stance of nonviolence, nonjudgment, and loving acceptance. The practice is to let go not just of our previous thoughts, but also any reaction we might have to having been caught up in thinking. As we return to “nothing but precisely sitting,” forgetting about everything that came before, there is an extremely precious moment of stillness before we get carried off into thought again. The more completely and wholeheartedly you forget about the previous moment and return to sitting, the longer and deeper the precious moment of presence will become.

Do not struggle against forgetfulness; the instant you awaken, be grateful and throw away past and future.

The forgetfulness referred to in this verse is not the act of forgetting (or letting go) talked about above. Forgetfulness is getting so caught up in thoughts and feelings you completely forget that you’re even doing zazen. You lose the thread of your intention entirely, and follow a train of thought so long that whatever you’re thinking about takes on much more an air of reality than your immediate physical surroundings.

How can you stop this from happening? You can’t, at least not directly. After all, how do you remember when you’ve totally forgotten? How do you wake up when you’re asleep? You just do. Things run their course, change, and you suddenly realize, “Oh yeah, I’m sitting zazen.” It’s important to make this instant of awakening as positive and fruitful as you can: Be grateful that it happened and just return to sitting, as described in the comments on the previous verse. If you respond to your instant of awakening with frustration, disappointment, judgment, or by evaluating your zazen, you will only make moments of waking up less likely to happen!

How can you get better at zazen if you’re not supposed to do anything about mind wandering and forgetfulness except forget about them and return to just sitting? You arouse greater passion for being present, as described in the third and fourth verses, or you explore the next two verses with great curiosity and determination.

Sink below the level of thinking and be aware of your direct experience, realizing it can never be grasped, but flows endlessly.

We can’t fight getting caught up in thinking directly, but we can turn our attention to our faculty of awareness. We are aware of our direct experience in a way that is utterly independent of discriminative thinking. Below your mental efforts to parse things out, describe, differentiate, understand, predict, and judge, you are aware of your body, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts. This awareness is ever-present, silent, and intimate. It is the medium within which we navigate as living beings, even when we’re preoccupied with our mental chatter. When we remember what’s below the level of thinking, we recognize we’re much bigger than we think we are.

It’s important to remember, though, that being “aware of your direct experience” is not a place to stop, or something to be achieved because it will deliver a reward. “Ah, I’m aware of my direct experience, now what?” Our direct experience – our life – is a flow, and “being aware of our direct experience” is the way to be intimately alive, moment after moment. It is its own reward.

Settle into your true nature: boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready to respond with wisdom and compassion.

At the same time, once you really, truly stop looking for anything else – once you stop expecting anything else to happen, once you’re really doing “nothing but precisely sitting” – the whole universe opens up to you. This is not because zazen is a method by which you work yourself into a special state where it’s possible to achieve insight. Rather, this is because when you’re doing zazen, you’re no longer separating yourself from reality and you can see it clearly.

If you know, from personal experience, that your true nature is boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready to respond skillfully to whatever happens, this verse serves as a reminder not to forget. If you don’t yet have a sense of being boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready, this verse is not meant to discourage you by pointing out spiritual goodies you don’t yet have. Instead, it’s meant to inspire you to summon the courage and passion to look beyond what you think you know, and surrender yourself more completely to the practice of zazen.

Click here for a printable copy of the Instructions for Zazen in Eight Verses, along with instructions for how to use them in your meditation.

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