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What is Zen? Meaning & Clear Explanation [‘Becoming Zen’ & Zen meditation]

What is Zen? Meaning & Clear Explanation [‘Becoming Zen’ & Zen meditation]

What is Zen? How do you become Zen? In this article you will find all about the meaning of Zen and how Zen meditation works. So read on for this clear explanation about Zen!

The quick answer: The meaning of zen …

Zen is a spiritual practice that is all about being aware of every moment. So it is in a way synonymous with the here and now and the meditative state.

Look at these simple Zen moments in everyday life:

  • When you’re eating and when you realize you’re getting full, that’s a Zen moment.
  • When you are working and you realize that you need to rest for a while, that is also a Zen moment.
  • When you are busy with something and you realize that you are hungry, you are going to eat.
  • Then when you realize that you are tired, you go to sleep afterwards.

Zen is that simple, but actually I shouldn’t even have written this paragraph. Just look at the next paragraph …

Zen cannot be explained in words, but must be experienced

Zen cannot be reduced to a book or a few definitions. This would weaken the meaning of Zen. Nor can you describe the taste of honey to someone who has never tasted it. As long as you have not tasted it, you are in an illusion of what Zen is. Zen must therefore be experienced: it is not a concept (which you can understand with your mind). So see this article only as a starting point for what Zen is.

How did Zen originate?

Zen originated in the heart of Japanese culture. It was only passed from teacher to disciple and it had no precise “date of origin.” Over the centuries it has spread from country to country from Buddhism.

So what is Zen? It’s extremely simple

zen meaning

Zen is a hands-on experience. This is the experience of living moment to moment, in the here and now. So it is not a theory, idea, knowledge or moral sermon, so it can also be dogma-free. Moreover, knowledge transfer is too limited to transfer Zen.

What is Zen then? You could call it ‘habit’. You ‘just’ do things, without having a goal or intention. “Do that if you are doing that while you are doing that.” Do not think and do all kinds of other things in the meantime. This is in fact monotasking . This ‘normalcy’ of Zen – eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, working, talking, thinking – is an entrance to spiritual awakening.

Don’t think about God while peeling potatoes, just peel potatoes.

A student had already arrived at the monastery for several weeks to learn Zen, but he had not yet received an assignment. “May I have an assignment?” The teacher replied, ‘Have you already had breakfast? Then clean your bowl. ‘ The student considered a possible deep meaning of this assignment. Maybe the bowl had already been cleaned by the tea that is always drunk in it after breakfast … But there was no underlying message at all!

The meaning of Zen is sometimes described as follows:

Wat is verlichting? “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.”

An interpretation of this: live now, and there will be no problems.

You could argue that Zen is a kind of ‘anti-spirituality’. You become a very ordinary person, and in doing that, you will be awakened spiritually.

“Master, there is another Zen master who can walk on water. What can you do?” “When hungry I eat, when tired I sleep.”

But isn’t everyone already doing that? Eat and sleep? What he means is that he doesn’t do anything else. In that moment. He does not add ‘things’ when he eats or goes to bed. He has no resistance. No requirements. The moment is just the way it is. There is no ‘self’ that interferes with the act of eating or sleeping. No expectation. This moment is enough.

We eat, relieve ourselves, sleep, and get up again: That is our world. All we have to do after that … is die.
– Ikkyu, 15th century Zen monk

The core of Zen Buddhism is sitting meditation: ‘ZaZen’ (sitting meditation)

The most famous form of Zen is ZaZen: just sitting, or sitting meditation. You have no intention or purpose. You just sit. You sit to sit. By doing ZaZen Gautama got his Divine inspiration after which he became The Buddha.

What are the steps for ZaZen (sitting meditation)?

what is zen meditation

Zen is monotasking. That means that there is only one step if you want to do ZaZen:

  1. Step 1 (the only step) is: just sit down. You have no intention or purpose. You just sit. You sit to sit.

In addition, if you want, you can choose to make it more complicated. You can, but you don’t have to. Then a number of steps are added:

  1. Sit quietly.
  2. Stop moving.
  3. Let go of your thoughts.
  4. Pay attention to your posture: keep your back straight.
  5. Watch your breathing.
  6. Let your ego melt away: become one with the universe.

Zen was transmitted through a koan (riddle without words)

If you wanted to learn Zen, you got a Koan. This is kind of a riddle without words. In fact, students would stumble over it for years. On his last day in the teacher’s monastery, one of the students became desperate: “There is no time left and I must have this sorted out!” And then he suddenly realizes that there is nothing to be realized.

And so it goes throughout your life: ‘There is still something insufficient about me. There is a problem I have to solve to fix this problem of this life. ‘ But in the end there was nothing to be solved. You were already perfect. It is a bit like the empty fist the child finds at the end of the game after being fooled for a long time and thinking about what could be inside. There’s nothing in it at the end. The student learns that he should not have given anything to the problem of the Zen master: there is no problem.

Zen can be achieved instantly

what is zen meditation

You cannot strive for Zen.

  • Christians say it will take you many years to be spiritually awakened, all the while praying correctly and fully following God’s teachings.
  • Hindus say that you need a lot of discipline, meditation and practice over multiple incarnations.
  • Psychoanalysts tell you: you have to follow 2 sessions a week for many years before you are back to normal.

However, the acute insight of Zen can be achieved immediately. You will be apprenticed to a Zen master for 3 years, but that can also take 30 years. The special thing, however, is: you have direct access to the power of the now . This does not prevent you from continuing to meditate: you meditate in order to drink more from the source of immediate awakening.

Zen can simply be found in monotasking, here, now. Be ‘total’ with what you are doing in the moment.

One who can speak beautifully about Zen is Alan Watts

Alan Watts has a particularly eloquent way of articulating spiritual concepts. The book ‘Way of Zen’ is a clear and compelling transcript of Alan Watts’ narrations. Recommended!

I’ve said too much about Zen now

I say too much when I say I know what Zen is. Anyone who says they know what Zen is is a charlatan. Zen is about  pointing  to the physical universe so that you can look at it without having any ideas about it.

About The Author


Hello! Thanks for reading these articles. My intention is to make happiness as simple and clear as posssible. By the way, excuse my English. I am not a native English speaker since I live in Amsterdam. Much appreciated if you use the comments to make suggestions on my grammar. See ya in another blogpost!