Zen has been largely popular in the United States for over the last 30 years as part of the new age movement. Lately we can find a wide assortment of zen desk top fountains, sand gardens, zen lamps, zen "pop culture" books and even clothing. Zen did not start with the new age, its an ancient practice in the japaneese form of Buddhism which uses meditation as its hub.
Zen doesn't necessarily mean meditation. It extends to having a particular attitude or frame of mind. It's about living in the moment. The whole point is to want what we have, who we are right now at this point in time. Zen is about mindfulness, paying attention, and letting go insted of striving for or attaching to the more worldly things that weigh us down.
Zazen translated means "just sitting". It's the Zen form of meditation having been around for thousands of years because it's an effective way of centering the spirit, bringing peace to the soul and generally adjusting the attitude. Beyond zazen, Zen can become a helpful way of seeing, living and generally understanding the world. Zen gives us a set of ethics very similar to the yogic "Eightfold Path" that teach us that we can only control our own thoughts, actions, and reactions. We must let go of the trying to control people, manipulating situations and detach from the desperation involved with modern commercialism, materialism and consumerism. The attitude Zen conveys is simply to let go and just be.
Understanding the basic concepts of yin and yang make Zen meditation easier to understand and practice. These concepts evolved from the idea that the body is a microcosm of the universe. The idea is that everything in nature is balanced. Yin and yang are intertwined forces inherant in all things. It is the universal equivilant to the concept of homeostasis- the body's process of rebalancing to achieve harmony in relation to environment. It is the rebalancing process whereby Zen meditation is like pushing our body's reset button to clear our minds, relax our bodies and regain our center or equilibrium.
The concept of yin and yang were known, as well as the concepts of dharma and karma thousands of years ago to a young man named Siddhartha Gautama but he did not attain enlightenment until around 500 B.C.E.. After turning his back on his family and royal life of priviledge, he began a life as a wondering religious ascetic. He spent 6 years striving for enlightenment by going to extremes and self-deprivation until he abandoned all that for a more moderate philosophy. One day, as the story goes, he sat under a fig tree and decided to meditate until he attained enlightenment. In time he understood the truth, became enlightened and became the man we know as Buddha. After he attained enlightenment, he traveled around trying to help others also attain enlightenment. The ironic thing is that his message to people was the need to find their own path to enlightenmentand that he couldn't show them how to do it.
Because meditation worked for Buddha to achieve enlightenment where self-deprivation, arduous studying and other extremes did not, many forms of Buddhism emphasizes meditation as the way to the truth. Different sects use different techniques. As an example, some sects practice by focusing on a series of enigmatic riddles known as koans until the mind releases rational thought to comprehend higher truth. Other sects use the chanting of mantras or the staring at images called mandalas to sitting in complete and total awareness.
Buddha believed that suffering could be eliminated by adopting the middle way and avoiding extremes. The Buddha also believed in working to eliminate desire because because desire was an attachment to wordly things- those very things that cause suffering. Dukha, meaning suffering can also be translated to mean dissatisfaction or incompleteness. Buddha believed that only enlightenment brought freedom from these human states.
Buddha suggests eight steps to reach the area where we are beyond attachments as follows:
Right Understanding- it's about adjusting your views of life. To comprehend the true nature of life is to realise that life is impermanent and full of suffering but that we can release our minds. Traditional Buddhism centers around the belief in reincarnation or the cycles of birth, death and rebirth until one has truely comprehended right understanding.
Right Thought- this precept is about releasing ourselves from sexual desire, violence and creulity and negative thinking. Right thought is the omission of pessimism and optimism as right thought is about living in the moment and to see things only for what they are. It's not about what might be or the woulda, coulda, shoulda's.
Right Speech- this is about speaking correctly, or more the agreement to not lie, gossip or speak negatively about anyone. The philosophy behind this step is that thought and action are inseparable. What we speak, we eventually live.
Right Action-This step has five substeps:
(2) no stealing
(3) practicing self-control
(4) being sincere and honest
(5) not partaking in intoxicating substances that cloud the mind
Right Vocation-This step is about what you chose as your job, that it should never harm anyone or anything. This means you should not chose a job that involves selling drugs or alcohol, a job that includes selling firearms or weapons, no slave trading or flesh dealing including selling meat as food or anything that has to do with financial greed.
Right Effort- This means working towards bettering oneself by always attempting to keep wize thoughts, words and deeds. It also means banishing unhealthy practices. Part of the "Zen" thought is to accept oneself in the moment rather then striving to be someone or something else. Right effort is to realise each stage in your journey and right effort *is* the journey's vehicle.
Right Mindfulness- mindfulness is an inner vigilance, an awareness of the body, mind, spirit connection in relation to the cosmos. When we practice mindfulness, we are less likely to be led astray from truth or doing things we are not supposed to be doing.
Right Concentration-this step is to be able to concentrate so completely on a single object that all desire is overcome and true knowledge of the object is attained. With practice this step can be achieved and the hinderances (sensuality, ill will, lethargy, restlessness, worry and skeptical thought) will be overcome. The seeker will eventually find the way to pure consciousness.