Oakville Zen Meditation

#30.Zen teaching: an arrow in our ego mind

How often during the day we are “sleep walking” doing things from pure habits, conventions and routine? How often are we in auto pilot mode submitted to our ongoing thoughts like thinking zombies? The answer is almost all the time.

There is nothing wrong to follow our daily routine but it should be within a certain limit. To wake up from it will help us to realize who we really are. When we always act from our habits, we are like an old record that has become stuck in a groove and is repeating the same song over and over again endlessly. Physically we are, most of the time, on cruse mode without paying too much attention to what we are doing or saying at the present moment since our mind is firing continuously thoughts after thoughts making us thinking zombies living most of the time in the past and more often in the future.

Zen teachers are infamous for suddenly saying, answering and doing crazy things. They are doing this to shock their students and bring them out of their habitual cocoon state of mind towards the immediacy and beauty of the spontaneous present moment that is NOW. When Zen Masters intuitively or consciously respond in a bizarre, funny, incomprehensible, stupid and even somewhat provocative, rude or disrespectful way, students do not know whether to be insulted, lost, angry, puzzled or simply amused. They suddenly don’t know how to react and what to do. These reactions are expected and teachers know that very well.

Here are some bizarre answers giving by Zen Masters over the last 2,000 years to the question “What is Zen?”

  •  “What was your face before your parents were born?”
  • “Did you brush your teeth this morning?”                    
  • “3 letters.”
  • I have headaches.
  • “Who are you?”          
  • “Who is asking?”                      
  • “I don’t know.”
  • “The teacher raises his right arm and points his right index to the sky.”
  • “The teacher puts his right sandal on his head and moves away.”
  • The teacher lays down on the floor and cries.
  • “5 pounds of dry shit”    
  • “NO!”  
  • “Next question please”.  
  • “Thank you.”    
  • “Meditate.”
  • “No question.”
  • “The sky is blue, the grass is green.”            
  • “Very windy today.”
  • “Wonderful question.”
  • “ No answer...no question”
  • “Good question, come back next week”.
  • Hitting the floor with her/his staff.


Many of these teachers used to answer the same way years after years.

What is the purpose of their weird answers? Do they want to be rude, upsetting ,disrespectful ?

Not at all; Zen teachers care dearly about their students and their progress. Their teaching style is designed as a wake up call and their answers are like sending arrows directly into the core of our ego. So don’t be fooled by these bizarre answers if you get them. The teaching is not aimed to please students but to test and upset their ego.

It is as if the teacher has given the record player a nudge and suddenly the whole record is playing again. These shocking answers are the tools to tear the cocoon of our ego and comfort zone forcing us to escape from the mental box in which we are trapped.

Many great Zen teachers were also known from their weird behavior in their Temple such as talking loudly to themselves, walking naked for few min., putting their shoes on their head, remaining silent for few hours, crying suddenly, etc.

When asked to explain their strange behavior they use to reply that it was one way to “wake up” and break out from their auto pilot behavior and ongoing thoughts. It was also a great tool of not taking themselves too seriously.

Think about the following:

Are you caught in the cocoon of your ego and the comfort zone of your habits, actions and mental behavior? If so try once a while to become your own Zen teacher.

When you catch yourself in your comfort zone and mental craziness do something totally absurd such as:

  • Making a strange noise,
  • Calling yourself on the phone,
  • Sending yourself an email,
  • Taking the phone and talking to nobody.
  • Watching TV without image and sound.

Do it when you are alone if possible. It will feel very strange initially but when you are behaving in such bizarre and uncharacteristic way you will find that you can learn how to be more mindful to your robotic behavior and ongoing mental frenzy. You will learn to avoid being trapped in your thoughts and not take them too seriously. Every time you do this you will realize it is harder and harder to slip into these habits and eventually you will be set free effortlessly and naturally to find new ways to appreciate and respond to the present moment.

We are stuck in our physical and mental habits and doing something “absurd” once in a while can be a very smart idea to “wake up” and learn to approach our true self again. It is also a wonderful way of not taking ourselves too seriously and have a good laugh which is also very important in Zen practice.

The Zen way is indeed very strange but also very rewarding.


Ven. Ji Gong Sunim.