Aside from painting and poetry, Zen thought permeates architecture, especially in the garden. In a Zen garden, you should feel the atmosphere of nature without being overwhelmed by ornamentation. Even in a garden without any water features, your mind should be able to conjure the soft lull of a mountain stream.
Whether in painting, poetry, or architecture, the way of Zen is at work. By observing the momentariness and spontaneity of a haiku or sumi painting, we’re brought face to face with the present moment. Through it, we learn to liberate ourselves from time, and to comprehend the extraordinary fact that the only reality is in the present moment.
You can think of your mind as a muddy river. As you go about your life, your mind becomes muddied. But what happens to muddy water when it’s left alone? Eventually, the dirt and sediment sink to the bottom, and the waters are left clear. In the same way, when you meditate, your mind is left alone to become clear.
But practicing za-zen doesn’t mean sitting and purposely trying to think about nothing. That would be counterproductive. It’s also not about concentrating on any one thing in particular, like your breathing. Instead, it’s simply a quiet awareness of whatever happens in the here and now. You and your external world are one, and you have no purpose in mind as you sit and observe.
For students in Zen schools, if there’s any goal to the practice of za-zen, it’s to be better able to answer the koan. These are difficult philosophical questions for which there are no formally published answers. As a student progresses, he is asked more and more difficult koan for which he must provide more and more creative answers.
Buddhism was the overarching philosophy from which Zen grew.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha sat under a tree one evening after seven years of meditation and ascetic living. He had been following all the correct practices to train his body, yet he still couldn’t find his true Self. So, eventually, he simply gave up and decided to eat some nourishing food beneath a towering tree.
While sitting under the tree, Buddha found a sudden clarity. He realized that as long as man continues to try to grasp what his own life is, he will fail. This aspect of Buddhism – the sudden awakening – eventually became a central aspect of Zen.
The key message here is: Buddhism was the overarching philosophy from which Zen grew.
While the Buddha lived in India sometime between the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the first Buddhist text, the Pali canon, wasn’t written until some 400 years later. Previously, Buddhism had existed only as an oral tradition. This makes it difficult to understand the views of Buddha himself, but we can still tease out the most important ideas.
Throughout all of Indian thought is the idea of God’s self-sacrifice, or atma-yajna. In giving birth to the world, God is destroyed, and fractured into many pieces. Each being contains an aspect of God, and our life’s purpose is eventually to reintegrate with the One.
So, in Buddhism, knowing yourself means knowing your original identity – God. To do that, you need to disentangle your self from all forms of identification. You’re not your body, your thoughts, or your feelings. And you’re not your role, like mother or doctor.
Notice that Buddhism places a heavy emphasis on negative knowledge – that is, knowing what you aren’t as opposed to what you are. This can be baffling to Westerners, who tend to expect concrete definitions.
But the world isn’t always as concrete as we’d like it to be. For instance, you can state that the First World War began on August 4, 1914. But did it really? A historian can reveal causes for the war from long before its official start date.
So, we can see that divisions of events, things, and facts are created by arbitrary human description – not by reality itself. An Indian Buddhist would call these artificial divisions maya, or illusion. And the goal of our lives should be to liberate ourselves from these illusions.