What is Zen practice? Well, it is difficult to speak about Zen, and something I really dislike doing, because you can talk, and talk and talk about Zen, but never really experience Zen quality. It is like talking about a cooking recipe. You can talk for hours about this and that kind of recipe, but you have to eat the dish in order to know what it is all about. It is the same with Zen practice.
So, talk is necessary to a certain extent, but to experience it is quite a different story. However, you may know that in Zen, you have to sit on the floor for many hours and practice zazen, as we call it. That is meditation, sitting on a cushion, but that is not Zen yet. This is just practicing zazen, which is the kind meditation that we have developed specifically in Zen.
To come to the Zen experience, you will have to do a lot of work, sitting for many years. But the time you are using in order to get to that point where you really experience Zen is not wasted, because all along on the way to the real Zen experience, you will undergo many transformations and changes many experiences of liberation. And that is all setting the groundwork necessary for the actual Zen experience.
What the Zen experience is actually, I cannot tell you exactly in words, other than that it is something to do with your mind. Zen is by and large nothing other than mind discipline. In order to reach the level of consciousness where we can speak of Zen, you have to really work hard with your mind to prepare it to be open for the Zen experience. It is like if you plan to have a nice garden, you will have to do a lot of groundwork first clear out the stones and the old roots, remove the weeds, and really prepare the ground and put in the seeds, then tend to the seeds, water them and make sure they are OK, that they are not hit by frost and so on. Eventually the seeds will sprout and a little plant will grow from them.
It is very similar with Zen work. We have to spent a long time just to prepare the ground, but preparing the ground is in itself very beneficial to us in our daily life. And Zen is not something that we should look upon as something special we want to do to enhance our life, but Zen is our daily life. Zen should be our everyday activity, our everyday life. It should not be something set aside for special occasions. Zen is the daily activities, the ordinary activities with which all of you are very familiar. Now, you may ask, "well, what is Zen?" Well, Zen I would say is to do the ordinary in a very special way. Do the ordinary thing that you always have been doing, but in a different way. That is the only difference. By doing the ordinary daily things differently, you have a totally different experience. This way of living the daily life in a different way is more or less what Zen is all about.
However, there is more to it. On the surface, it looks like nothing has changed. You do the same thing that you have been doing all along, however, differently, but you have an entirely different picture of yourself in this world. First of all, you will experience a new way of looking at the world itself. And, of course, looking differently, the understanding of yourself living in this world is different. And here we already begin with changing our consciousness.
This is not done by some artificial means. It is done merely by sitting quietly for many hours sometimes. We call it zazen breathing correctly and paying attention to nothing else than your breathing. By doing so, the mind has a chance to quiet down. You get away from this habitual way of thinking, and discriminating judging good, bad, unpleasant, and so on. All those things will drop off little by little, and what you are left with is the experience of the essence of things.
You may think that you do this all along, but in reality you do not experience the essence. You experience the reflection of your mind's condition in everyday living. And through Zen practice you get to the point where you experience the essence of the thing present, and not what you reflect upon it.
You can probably follow from this that life will change its appearance, the quality of life will change, just by the mere fact that you take a different approach to it. Eventually you get to a higher level of consciousness and understanding, whereupon the whole world, the whole universe will appear to you in an entirely different way, a new way which you never had anticipated. It is impossible to think now with the level of consciousness down here, what the level of consciousness up here will show us. This you have to gradually work up to. It is just a natural process. What we have to learn is to remove the obstacles of our mind to reach the higher level of consciousness. We don't have to do anything forceful to catapult us to a higher level of consciousness, but remove the obstacles that stand in the way.
What stands in the way to the higher level of consciousness, is the attachment to the concept of self, of a personal self, of "I am". This is the basic premise of Buddhism, not only Zen, but of Buddhism in general that this concept of "I" is an illusion. This is very hard for the beginner to accept, but if you practice meditation for any length of time, it will become very obvious to you. Nobody will have to tell you anymore that this very concept of "I" is an illusion.
In your practice you are being guided to make those experiences yourself. Very little is being taught in Zen, in terms of teaching. All that is taking place is guidance for your own mind to find its natural way to higher levels of consciousness. This is the main characteristic in Zen that each practitioner makes his or her own experience not that you are being taught a lot of theories or dogmas, but being taught what to watch out for, what to avoid, so that your mind no longer just, let us say, moves on a horizontal plane, but gradually moves higher and higher, like a spiral. This is all.
The principle is very simple. It is just doing it in practice that is very difficult. For that you need guidance from somebody who has the experience, whom you can trust, and who will guide you to reach those higher levels of consciousness. There is no magic connected with it, no hocus pocus. It is very down-to-earth with no great deal of ceremonies or anything, but hard work, and persistence in the course you are taking in your practice.
I would say the most difficult aspect in Zen is that you have so little to embellish your practice with. In other Buddhist schools, you are given a lot of nice things images, mantras, practices of various sorts so it is rather colorful in many ways. But in Zen everything is taken away from you, everything that you might cling to. So, this is a very difficult practice, because we are not accustomed to this free way of standing or walking. We are always holding on to something or other concepts, ideas, ideals, fantasies, and most of all, ideas of what Zen is all about.
There are beautiful books available now. I don't know how many are translated into Norwegian, but you all read English, and there is quite a variety of books available in English about Zen. The danger is, particularly for those who like to read, the intellectual, to collect an idea, to make a construction or an ideal, through reading the books, of what Zen is all about. That is what everybody has to watch out for.
When you come to Zen it is good to have some foundation of knowledge already, that you know something about Zen. But when you practice, you have to forget all of it. Everything that you ever have read or known about Zen, you have to forget. This is characteristic for Zen practice no matter how long you practice. Whatever you know about Zen, you have to forget. You always have to start from the bottom, where you know nothing. As soon as you have reached a certain level of understanding, you have to leave that behind, and go a step further, always into the unknown, always into the area where you do not know.
That is the important aspect in Zen which makes it also very difficult, because in our way of thinking, in our culture, we have been raised to think that the more we know, the more educated we are, and the more educated we are, the more successful we will be in life. In Zen it is just the opposite. All the education has to be forgotten. Not that it is not important, but for Zen practice you have repeatedly throw out everything you know. You always have to be in a state of not knowing. That, of course, is difficult to do. But when you practice with a teacher, he or she will always take you to that point, wherever you are, to the point where you don't know. That is characteristic for Zen practice, that you always have to take one step further from where you are, into not knowing again.
Traditionally Zen practice was reserved for monasteries. In China, where it really started to take form, then later in Korea, and especially in Japan, Zen was practiced by monks in a monastery setting. The advantage those people had was, first of all, that they had a religious foundation. If it wasn't Buddhist, in China it was Taoist, and in Japan eventually it was Buddhism, and also in Korea, but they were always religious people living in a monastery. So when Zen was introduced, it was not difficult for them to adapt to the mode of practice of zazen meditation. Meditation, of course, has been an oriental invention. The Indians practiced it, and the Chinese and the Japanese, in one form or another, so it was nothing so alien to them as it is to us in the West. So they adopted meditation with no difficulties, and they had the basis of their religious understanding. All they had to do was to free themselves of all their religious understanding in order to have Zen realization.
Zen realization is something like enlightenment. Of course there are different degrees of enlightenment, but Zen understanding is enlightenment. This, of course, happens at the most unexpected moment, only after intensive practice. Some people have to practice ten years, others twenty, others even longer, but all of them presumably got it sooner or later, and the records that are passed on to us tell us about very many people who have reached this high level of consciousness that we can call Zen enlightenment. With all of them, it was a sudden turn of consciousness, a sudden turn of understanding. What happens in that moment is as if veils in front of the eyes suddenly drop. Suddenly you see with an entirely different understanding. Even visually it sometimes looks different from what you have seen before, because something happened in your mind.
It is all a question of consciousness. It is all happening in our heads, in our brains. It is no great mystery. Maybe science will be able to explain it someday soon, because they are doing a lot of research now on the brain. But it is all a question of old habitual patterns for proceeding in, and relating to the world that these patterns dissolve, and what you have left is your natural way of perceiving.
We all have been bred through centuries in a way of thinking, and in addition to being bred like dogs or horses, we have been trained in this life by schooling, by environment, by parents all of which were artificially doing something to our mind to behave and perceive the world in a certain way. This is not the natural way. This is an artificial development. What Zen is doing is dissolving this artificial conditioning of perceiving and behaving, and as a result, at one given moment, when this is dissolved, there you are, standing there like a new born baby seeing it for the first time in an entirely different light and with a different understanding.