A Zen Manifesto

 The Zen Manifesto is a synthesis of my views on Zen practice, why people should practice, how, and some of the issues that arise in the course of practice. If I had only one compact document to share with people, this would be it. My aim is that it’s complete enough that one wouldn’t have to look elsewhere.

It’s ironic that human beings rarely know how to be. Our society, language, upbringing, and culture have all conspired to make thinking the centerpiece of our personal identity. We’re lost in thought non-stop. While thinking is an incredibly useful tool, when it goes unmanaged and unchecked, it can complicate and distort our lives and relationships and even our understanding of reality itself. 

Our thinking generates an entire world of meaning that we project out onto our experience and confuse with reality itself. I like this, I don’t like that. This person is smart, this person is an idiot. This is scary, that is useless.  It layers onto our experience seamlessly, like Saran Wrap, so much that we usually don’t even notice it unless either we’ve really engaged in intense introspection, or it occasionally snaps. It really is like a delusion because we don’t even know it’s happening. We create stories about others and relate to them through our stories and associations which are sometimes positive but often negative. We react prematurely, misinterpret, and hold contempt for others because we see them through the filter of our thinking. 

We also see ourselves through these filters and hold ourselves at a distance, punishing and resenting who we think we are. Living in our thoughts is similar to dreaming (the Hindu name for it is maya meaning dream or illusion). And the thinking just makes it all the harder to repair situations, restore harmony, and feel connected. We’re experiencing this all in a very real way in today’s society, both with intimate relationships as well as along political lines.

Thinking separates us from our best parts. When thinking is rampant, it stifles our natural wisdom, strength, clarity, and determination. It distances us from what we actually care about. It stops us from feeling whole. It stops us from feeling the peace we already have in our hearts. It throws our calm energy into disarray. 

Why are we always thinking? Habit is a big reason, and our society, language, and technology encourage thinking and rarely encourage its opposite: being. But the real driver of thinking is an inherent need to be constantly changing and improving things--Buddha called this “desire” but I like to think of it as a mild, perpetual desperation. In addition to the obvious tasks and goals we have, our thinking is often aimed at improving our immediate situation, planning for the future, or somehow working problems out in our head, often with our career, family, or relationships. Each person’s thinking content, style, and frequency is different and it’s worth examining your own to see when and how you think. 

If the root of thinking is a mild desperation to change things, the root of this mild desperation is our identity. The identity I’m talking about is the thing we refer to when we say “me,” “my,” or “I”. We engage in campaigns to improve things on behalf of our identity. We might daydream about what we’re going to say to a colleague because we don’t want to be disrespected and have our identity contract. We judge others for being different so we feel better about how normal we are. We dwell on the state of the economy because we don’t want to lose materials we associate with this “I”.

But what is our identity? We’re convinced that this very thinking is actually the essence of who we are. The stream of thinking that never ends is assumed to be who we are--the thinker--i.e., the one who does the thinking. But is this thinker a real thing or is it an illusion? We also have streams of visual input, auditory input, body feedback, but we never take these to be our essence. We consider our thoughts to be closer to our essence. We’re so intimate with them, and they’re often so continuous that they seem like they’re who we are. But are they really?

You can look at your life and likely identify moments where your thinking wasn’t really yours anymore. Maybe you experienced your anxious thoughts not as you but as happening to you. That’s an interesting shift in perspective that can have an immediate impact on your wellbeing. But if your anxious thoughts aren’t you but happening to you, it just begs the question who is the real you? And why are anxious thoughts not you, whereas other thoughts are? Maybe none of them are you. But then what are you? Where does that leave things? 

The real purpose of Zen, practice or any practice with the spirit of Zen, is to examine the question of identity in a very precise, scientific, and deep way. The conclusion of Eastern philosophers and mystics is that the self, the “I”, isn’t what we think it is (literally). It’s not the stream of thoughts passing through consciousness. That stream of thoughts can’t help us understand our identity because to understand our identity, we have to experience it. And in order to experience it, we have to go outside of our thinking. So, the real purpose of Zen is to wind down our thinking and then interrogate that question of “what am I?” 

With quiet reflection we can experience that our identity literally can’t be the stream of thinking because that stream is constantly changing and reformulating itself. It may not sound like a major problem, but actually it completely dismantles the idea of a separate and continuous self that we take ourselves to be. By looking closely at the self during deep contemplation, we see that every component of our experience--what we see, what we hear, what we can feel, and even what we think--has this quality of inexorable change. Furthermore, when we look at our senses, we see that each is actually completely composed of something other than you. For example, you see people, streets, buildings; you hear chatter, airplanes, traffic. None of these things are you, and yet they comprise your experience. By changing all the time they lack an essence, and therefore can't be used to form a lasting identity we'd consider a self, or a “me”. This is called the doctrine of emptiness.

Emptiness implies that there’s nowhere a self could ever exist because the raw materials we have to work with--our experience--are in constant flux and aren't even you to begin with. It’s an environment that’s unsuitable for any type of continuous entity such as the self, the “I”. That radically changes our worldview. Rather than a “me” who experiences things, there’s just experience. Technically speaking I don’t hear a bird’s song; there’s just the sound of a bird song. There’s no I that mediates or receives the experience. It’s even a mistake to say that we are the bird song itself since that disappears in an instant. This insight is the central insight of Zen and Buddhism and is referred to as the doctrine of non-self.

Remember this isn’t just an intellectual philosophy: It’s an experience you must have that exists outside (or before) thought. For that reason my Zen Master (Seung Sahn) would often say “understanding cannot help you!”. Look at your experience right now. Listen to the sounds you hear. Is there just sound, or does there need to be a you-entity to observe it? Zen mythology is filled with stories of students attaining enlightenment by perceiving sounds clearly. One monk attained enlightenment while sweeping when a rock struck a piece of bamboo.

Once the idea of our self, the “I”, as an entity dissolves, all the needs--the desperation--that drive thinking and the dream world it generates also dissolve. We feel immediately awake, connected, clear, and compassionate. Alive. Our wisdom blossoms and a deep sense of ease washes over our mind and activity. Our mind is open. We aren’t driven by our habits, fears, resentments, and insecurities anymore. We can live with wisdom and purpose and restore harmony to any area of our lives with courage and focus. 

To summarize the human condition:

A concept of I → Desire for change → Thinking → Living in a dream world → Disconnection, distortion, complication, friction

So how do we stop thinking? Before you get started on your journey, it’s worth taking a minute to reflect on moments in your life where you weren’t caught up in the mental narrative. Maybe it’s through camping, maybe it’s from meditation, maybe it’s just a few moments in your life where you felt absolute freedom from thinking. For me, it was while bowling once amidst a high-anxiety moment. For a friend of mind it was running away from a bear or taking a gold swing. There are experiences that sometimes take you out of thinking entirely and dump you right into your body and environment. You feel it.

The biggest complication in trying to stop your thinking is that a technique that’s aimed at stopping thinking can just produce more thinking. And this happens often. If I try not to think and then think, I’m liable to get frustrated and think about how bad I am at not thinking. Any goal we hold tightly in our mind is more thinking. So we need to think (pun intended) of a way to get around this problem, a technique that isn’t a technique, or a method that’s not really a method.

There are a few non-methods that have developed over time and I’ll briefly discuss each. I encourage people to experiment with all of them.

  1. Concentration (with gentle focus away from thinking)

This category includes focus on the breath, counting breaths, mantra repetition, chanting, and focusing on a visual object. The basic method (or non-method) involves sitting quietly and concentrating attention on something simple like the breath. In focusing on the breath, the practitioner focuses on the experience, i.e., the physical sensations, rather than one’s thoughts about the breath. However one breathes is okay although sometimes the practitioner is encouraged to try and elongate the exhalations. I don’t do this personally. 

When thinking comes up, whether it’s 6 times a minute or 6 times a second, the practitioner just ignores it or lets it pass through consciousness without fuss. There is no special way to experience the breath. Whatever happens happens. After some time, this practice can lead to the second method, just being.  

  1. Just Being (giving up desire)

This technique naturally arises when thinking starts to slow down to the point whether the practitioner is just sitting there. The japanese style of meditation called shikantaza literally translates to “just sitting”. With this method there really is no more meditation in the sense that there’s no longer a goal of trying to meditate. The state of being is entirely goalless and one could say that it’s not so much a mental state as an absence of one. A sense of presence in one’s environment and presence in one’s body arises naturally. 

With effort, the practitioner can carry this non-state into other areas of their lives. For example, when walking they are just walking, not lost in the mental dream, not caught up in trying to meditate or even trying to walk mindfully. The same goes for eating or even talking with a friend. In this case, thinking arises but it no longer overwhelms the mind and happens against a backdrop of inner silence that comes to the foreground when thinking is no longer needed. Through it’s goallessness, the method of Just Being cuts to the heart of desire and thinking altogether. In that way it simulates the experience of enlightenment (or its aftermath) and in fact is regarded that way in the Soto Zen tradition.

This practice is similar to mindfulness, but mindfulness ends up being the product of not trying to do anything, rather than the product of trying to be mindful. Many Zen stories and koans can be understood as pointing to this state of mind. Often in Zen, this state of goallessness is produced by frustrating the practitioner or putting them in a predicament where they’re forced to give up trying and strategizing because it doesn’t help solve the dilemma.

  1. Exhaustion

Exhaustion overwhelms the body and forces the practitioner to focus on their body to the exclusion of their narrative stream. Exhaustion practices in traditional Zen include bowing, but anaerobic activities like running, yoga, playing basketball, or hiking (really anything but ping pong) can also be effective.

  1. Inquiry

In Zen, the 3 methods above are combined with some type of inquiry practice that targets and challenges our notions of self. The techniques vary. In some forms of Buddhism there’s a systematic analysis of the components of self with particular attention to their empty qualities. In some Zen schools, practitioners are encouraged to ask “what am I?” or “what is this?” during moments of deep contemplation. In other Zen schools practitioners are taught to obsess about the question of self and use it as a meditative tool. I personally practice the second technique mentioned.

Whichever method you choose, it’s good to find a teacher to help you with your journey. A good teacher will be experienced with different methods and will listen and guide you appropriately. Progress in meditation can happen quickly or gradually and usually happens both ways at different points in the journey. Even when you think you aren’t making progress, you are, slowly, and the effects will sneak up on you.

If there’s one thing I could leave you with it would be this: take a breath right now. Feel what it feels like to just breathe. See if you can come out of your mind a bit. Feel your body, right now, not in any special way. What do you feel? Just listen to your experience in no special way, but maybe just open your heart a tiny bit to listen without expectations. Neither placing expectations on yourself nor on your experience. See the quiet that’s there. You are awake and I love you.