What is Zen? 6 Key ideas that give insights into the way of zen

I first came across zen Buddhism when I was 20. I was so influenced by it because it opened up my mind in many ways.
Zen doesn’t impose any beliefs on you. Every religion wants you to believe things, god, rituals, this, that…But zen instantly makes you feel free because you don’t have to believe anything. It is not a religion, a theory, or a philosophy. It is a way of life.


There are no rules in zen. The aim of zen is to point directly to the true nature of existence, and the true nature of your mind. That is why I still keep going back to zen. 

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6 Key ideas of zen buddhism

The ideas that I present here are mostly extracted from the book ‘The Way of Zen’ by Alan watts. Another great book on zen is “Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki. Both are wonderful books and will open up your mind in many different ways.

Se here we go:

1.) The real miracle

When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.


Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.


‘The founder of our sect,’ boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air.


Can you do such a wonderful thing?’


Bankei replied lightly: ‘Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.’

Life in its essence is so simple that in our rush to always become something else or something more, we miss the point of life which is staring directly in our face all the time.


In today’s world, we feel that whatever is difficult or hard to achieve is worth more. Unless someone shows off their intellect, we don’t consider that person as intelligent. In the crowd of people walking on their feet, we are amazed by someone who goes against the basic laws of nature and walks on their hands.


Unless we don’t achieve something by putting in sweat and blood, we don’t feel that we deserve happiness…There is a stupid mindset popular today that ‘life is a hustle’, and ‘I have to be something more’, and ‘I have to be successful’.That is the attitude that keeps us away from the beauty of life which is so simple, natural, and always present.

‘Suchness’ as they call it, is simply seeing the way things are, putting aside all concepts, ideas, words, judgments, and facing the reality as it is, Here and now!  Zen cannot be understood by those who always look for something ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’. Because the essence of zen is that nothing is ordinary. Everything is beautiful and full of life when seen exactly the way it is!

2.) Illogical Zen

“Empty handed I go, and behold a spade in my hand”

“When both hands are clapped, listen to the sound of one hand”

“In the midst of puring rain, I am not wet.”

These sentences don’t make sense? So does life. To experience reality as it is, we must put aside our logic and our tendency to make sense out of everything. Logic puts a limit to our perception of life. Logic emphasizes that everything must have an order that can fit into a system of my thinking. But existence has no rules…


Our logic is a part of existence. Existence isn’t a part of our logic.

Thought and logic have a practical use. But they are only an obstacle when it comes to experiencing life as it is. Birds sing without purpose, Clouds move aimlessly, Sun has been circling for ages with nowhere to reach! Their purposelessness makes them beautiful, they make you stop. You wish that you could also be aimless, be free and be just exactly as you are! They remind you that life doesn’t have to make sense to be enjoyable!

“Upon what do the fish in the water meditate?

Upon what do the fowl of the air meditate?

They swim, they fly.”

Life is complete in its own experience.

3.) Sponataenity in Zen

“The story is told of a Zen monk who wept upon hearing of the death of a close relative.

When one of his fellow students objected that it was most unseemly for a monk to show such personal attachment he replied, “Don’t be stupid! I’m weeping because I want to weep.”

In both life and art, the cultures of the Far East appreciate nothing more highly than spontaneity or naturalness (tzu-jan). ‘Should do’, or ‘should not do’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ creates a divided mind. A divided mind is always in conflict. Whatever happens, happens on its own. If I remain only an observer who doesn’t interfere, I retain the original and natural mind.

It happens to most of us. When the mind has a fixed image of something, it cannot let go of itself. It feels that it should not do what it is doing, and that it should do what it is not doing. Now, intending to be natural is also interference. Naturalness can’t be ‘achieved’ by planning, deciding, or trying. It takes place on its own when the ‘I’ moves aside, realizing that ‘I’ was never the doer, the universe works by itself.

“In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” For the essential quality of

naturalness is the sincerity of the undivided mind which does not dither between alternatives.

4.) Zen and learning

When I started learning piano, I remember how frustrating it was to bring together both hands to play in harmony. How can you pay attention to two hands simultaneously, which are playing different notes??  

But after practicing thousands of times, the hands got the feel of it. A time came when only after some conscious attention, the hands started playing piano themselves, freeing up my mind to listen and enjoy what they played. 

We learn in two stages. At first, we must learn through symbols, part by part, conceiving the art intellectually. But then, we must do. When we start doing, after a while the ‘feel’ of it is understood and we no longer need to ‘think’ about each and every detail. The way of thinking teaches piano, but the way of feeling teaches music.

My nephew recently learned to walk. I am sure he would have felt the same frustration coordinating his feet to walk as I felt coordinating my hands on the piano. But once the pattern was known by his feet, he keeps running around the house all the time.

Universe is happening ‘All-at-once’ or as a ‘whole’. But our way of thinking and communication is ‘one-at-a-time’ or in parts. We have to use thinking and intellect to learn those parts, but ultimately we have to learn to be the ‘whole’. That is the way of zen.

5.) Non-grasping

“When everyone recognizes beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness;

When everyone recognizes goodness as good, there is already evil.

“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually. To succeed is always to fail–in the sense that the more one succeeds in anything, the greater is the need to go on succeeding. To eat is to survive to be hungry.

There is no choice between good and evil. Even to say that they exist together is a mistake because they are not ‘two’ but just one with two different forms. Then it is understood that there is nothing worth grasping because ‘sweet is bitter’ and ‘pleasure is pain’. What would you chase?

Non grasping is the core of zen buddhism. Yet, it is not to be achieved with an attempt to ‘let go’. Because ‘trying to let go’ in itself is ‘holding on’. ‘Trying to forget something’ is ‘remembering’. I find it funny how the ‘opposites’ as we call them are actually just one thing appearing in two different forms to mess with our minds.

“The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep.”

6.) Detachment

Every thought and every feeling gets its energy only and only through one fact, that is when I think that ‘I am feeling it’ or ‘I am thinking it’. That it is happening to ‘me’. When I am identified with it, the emotions are kept fed, the thoughts keep rolling over and ‘I’ am crushed under the conflict. 


if you separate yourself from your mind, The split mind comes to an end. Because you instantly realize that there is only one mind who is acting by its own nature. To have a conflict, it takes two. But your mind is only one, which you can only realize if you create some distance from your mind.


Here is a short video I made on dealing with overthinking by the way of detachment.


Zen Buddhism is a subject you understand when you become simple. If you put aside all ‘cleverness’, ‘concepts’, ‘ideas’ and ‘symbols’, and simply be in touch with every moment of life, you get closer to the aim of Zen.

Ultimately, I would like to say that life is simple if you really look at it just as an infant does. Every moment is new and unknown. That is the beauty of life. There is nothing to hold on to because we are not here to live forever. Therefore let the world happen on its own as we become the silent observers.

If you liked this post, also check out my book ‘Concentration and Detachment’

It gives amazing insights on two of the most powerful abilities that we as humans have..!

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