Buddhism facts

Key facts about Zen Buddhism – the practice of “nothingness”

YOU may have encountered ‘Zen’ moments in your life – such as a particularly peaceful walk in nature, or lying down with your eyes closed at the end of a yoga session – and we all know that in the hectic world of today, we must make efforts to cultivate more of it.

But what exactly is the concept of Zen and what does it mean?

For Zen Buddhists like Julian Daizan Skinner, putting the practice into words can be difficult. Skinner is a leading meditation teacher, author of Practical Zen For Health, Wealth And Mindfulness (£9.99, Singing Dragon) and, he tells me, the first Englishman to travel to Japan and become a Zen master in the ancient Japanese art of Zen.

Unlike other types of modern meditation, which may center on relieving stress by focusing on a specific object or mantra, Skinner says finding Zen is about learning to recognize and dismiss the daily thoughts that arise in Your spirit. Rather than reaching a state of stillness, the idea is to reach a state of “nothingness”.

Also known as “Zazen,” the technique of meditation involves observing and letting go of your thoughts and feelings as they pass; for this reason it is sometimes called “thinking about not thinking”. This is a technique that can take years of practice to fully realize.

Before becoming a buzzword in the West, the traditional Buddhist discipline dates back to the Tang dynasty in 7th century China, where it later spread to Japan. In fact, the Japanese term Zen is derived from the Chinese word Ch’an, which means concentration or meditation.

Unlike other branches of Buddhism, Zen is not based on religious teachings and does not involve prayer or the study of texts. Instead, it’s an internal inquiry that helps to better understand your mind and how it works. In other words, you can be a skeptic and still benefit.

Skinner says the practice came into his life at the right time. “I was living in Newcastle upon Tyne and was looking for a meditation practice and came across a Zen meditation group,” he recalls. “I was immediately seduced by the simplicity and rigor of the practice and within a year or two I sold my house, quit my job in the pharmaceutical industry and moved to a Zen monastery. .”

He continues: “I became a monk and trained for about 20 years in the UK, USA and five years in Japan. Then I came back and started teaching in the UK. in 2007.”

So what does training to become a Zen Master really entail?

“Life is pretty simple, with a lot of meditation and a lot of manual labor,” Skinner explains. “For the first seven years, I had 3×6 feet of living space, where I slept and meditated and sometimes had meals. I had about 20 fellow monks to the left and right of me, and we each had two closets – one for bedding and the other for clothes. There was nowhere to hide – but that was the point.

Skinner describes the whole process as a “kind of apprenticeship”.

“There are different stages along the journey, and when your teacher considers you fit to go into service in the world, he appoints you his successor.”

Zen schools typically teach sitting meditations which involve following the movement of your breath over a long period of time. During meditation, students keep their eyes half-open, rather than fully closed, and they can often be presented with “koans”; kind of an unusual puzzle.

Self-paradoxical koans, which have no obvious logical answer, are designed to provoke enlightenment and challenge you to discover greater truths about the world. One of the most famous Zen koans is: “When both hands clap, a sound is produced; listen to the sound of a hand clapping.”

As with other forms of Buddhist meditation, Skinner believes regular Zen practice can be beneficial in many ways, especially when it comes to things like anxiety and depression.

If you want to try it yourself, he recommends developing a daily meditation practice; the International Zen Association can direct you to one (izauk.org). He also suggests supplementing your practice with regular retreats (time and finances permitting, of course).

“My book combines text and audio to give you all the guidance you need to get through the first 100 days of establishing a Zen meditation practice,” says Skinner. “Once you get used to it, I highly recommend finding other Zen students and teachers. Company really helps.”

Whether it’s the thousands of emails piling up in your inbox, the hectic schedule you’re constantly juggling, or simply the mobile nature of many of our tasks, the answer can only lie – not distracting yourself from your thoughts, but learning to let go of them completely.

:: Julian Daizan Skinner is a Zen Master and editor of Rough Waking, available now. Proceeds are donated to the charity work of Zenways, providing Zen meditation and yoga to the homeless and prisoners. To learn more, visit zenways.org