The Zen Definition Trap
Trying to find out the meaning of Zen is like trying to describe the smell of a rose. It will be an exercise in frustration. We can describe the sensory organ but not the sensorial experience – the nose is an instrument for smelling but it will be tough to describe the experience of smelling. That is why so many of us get frustrated with the Zen practice – we say tell us how a rose smells before we smell it. We cannot understand the meaning of Zen intellectually as it is beyond description – it is a realization. The moment someone claims to know what Zen means they are unfortunately far from its true meaning. Or by saying this is Zen and that is not Zen, we make it an object that can be described or perhaps perceived. In this way, we remain trapped in our own intellectual cage and keep ourselves from realizing our true nature. What we have on Zen are mostly opinions or judgments which are subject to agreements, disagreements, and confusion.
Zen is as enigmatic and simple as say running – volumes have been written on running but the experience itself is straightforward. You cannot understand or realize it by reading books, but you can experience it at any time and you can take it to any level you wish. Different people are satisfied at different levels, for example, sprinters and marathoners, yet all of it is running. Zen might be similar. It is like an ocean…you can stay on the surface or dive as deep as you like. By asking for answers or by performing semantic surgery, we basically try to take shortcuts, get trapped, and keep ourselves from realizing the true meaning of Zen. We do not give ourselves the time to contemplate, reflect, or have that internal dialogue to allow for the realization to come from within. Instead, we regularly succumb to the intellectual urge to know ‘now’.
To summarize, the experience of Zen cannot be measured by how many dharma talks we have read, heard, or published. We must remain razor focused on traversing the path to our own true nature without any attachment to a destination where we will ‘arrive’. The Buddha said the same thing about enlightenment, he pointed us in that direction and said to experience it for ourselves when we get there. The idea is not to question, measure or judge our progress towards or understanding of Zen. There is no report card or honor list at stake – the path itself is the point. If someday we realize the meaning of Zen or gain some sort of enlightenment, whatever that might be, we continue to chop wood and carry water. Even if someone can tell us right now exactly what Zen means, so what?
THERE IS NO SO WHAT HERE.