Zen Backgrounder

Zen Buddhists believe that a person should acquire knowledge from all the aspects of life. This knowledge will help one in the process of enlightenment. For example, taking a broom and sweeping off entryways or courtyards provides a perfect combination of worldly usefulness (cleaning) and meditation. There are three things which induce a meditative reverie. They are rhythm, repetition and quietude, and are fully present in the act of sweeping. Such activities are to practice a way of life, and that life is Zen, the Way to enlightenment.

A little background:

“Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism[note 1] that developed in China during the 6th century as Chán. From China, Zen (Chán) spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan.[2]

The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (dʑjen) (pinyin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna,[3] which can be approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state”.[4]

Zen emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment and the personal expression of direct insight in the Buddhist teachings.[5] As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine[5][6] and favors direct understanding through zazen and interaction with an accomplished teacher.[7]”

“The first Buddhist recruits in China were Taoists.[29] They developed high esteem for the newly introduced Buddhist meditational techniques,[33] and blended them with Taoist meditation.[34] “

“…the Taoist concept of naturalness was inherited by the early Chán disciples:[36] they equated – to some extent – the ineffable Tao and Buddha-nature,[37] and thus, rather than feeling bound to the abstract “wisdom of the sūtras”, emphasized Buddha-nature to be found in “everyday” human life, just as the Tao.[37]”
from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen

In twelfth century Japan Zen was introduced as a separate school. It became—after trips by Japanese monks to China to learn Chan—known and was practiced under the three traditional schools of Zen namely Rinzai, Soto and Obaku. There are many library and online sources which can be pursued that discuss these schools in great detail. My intent here is to simply provide a few brushstrokes to flesh-in the background. It is the essence of Zen study that concerns us, for it is the foundation of much art and a great deal of popular psychology. It is hoped to furnish you with an understanding to pique your interest in adventuring into a world that is simple, beautiful and timeless.

Zen exists as a fundamental part of all life. It is neither intellectual nor dogmatic. It is gleefully rising above this world’s constrictions on mind; it makes the leap into intuition, paradox and all those things which defy rational thought. Zen has some great ideas that help us live in a unified state and at peace with ourselves and others. When properly understood, experienced and practiced, Zen fills us with a calm sense of oneness and offers us the opportunity to live truly free.

I’m not going to go into long histories or all the different schools of Buddhism or the names of master monks and how they taught. Rather, I’d like to point you to some essential Zen ideas which, when understood, will provide some insight into your life, and offer a peek behind some of my haiku and photohaiku (linking of word and image), so that you will be better served by greater understanding and heightened experience.

“To live is to be born every minute” E. Fromm


The idea of non-attachment is that of living in this world as not being in this world. This is an attitude to take when you let yourself follow the Way.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes
and the grass grows by itself
—Zenrin Kushu

To understand non-attachment it is first helpful to see clearly what attachment is. Attachment is a condition of the material world and a human’s desire to own something and keep this something. His focus is on the thing, not his state of mind. If that thing is taken away from him, that which he has developed an attachment to, the effect is often one of anger or sadness. If this state of being attached was not there, his mind would be much freer, able to adapt better, and be more philosophical about life.

“To detach our desire from all good things and to wait. Experience proves that this waiting is satisfied. It is then we touch the absolute good”
—Simone Weil

The trick is to empty our desire of all content. To do that, one must detach from all those things (wanting the latest look, having a faster car, lusting after a younger lover etc.). To a further degree, this desire, if it becomes an obsession, causes one to lose their awareness of desire itself and any effect it might have on them. Self-awareness and the effect one’s behaviour has on others is crucial to a balanced state typical of Zen. The key is to become still and calm and learn how to empty your mind through meditation. Now empty in our context means one’s openness to receive. In Zen art, space is mostly empty and has meaning in itself. For space has permanence and substance and is considered transient. When you empty your mind through practicing The Great Breath, or the practice of deep controlled breathing, and whenever you have a thought or image come into your mind’s eye, you calmly label them as thoughts and let them rise like bubbles from the deep,and let them continue their journey without holding onto them. Keep doing this until the thoughts are almost gone and you see that big dark void within you. In the East, darkness is characteristic of this void, and it is the source of creation. So you see that this void, this space is emptiness and in such a space there is no, or very little, content. With no transient content, and the space being permanent, you can move toward pureness. As Meister Eckhart wrote “Become pure till you neither are nor have either this or that; then you are omnipresent and, being neither this nor that, are all things.” I like to say “Emptying of all attachment, I transcend ownership by becoming all.” To be either this or that is to want something. Detachment wants nothing. Perfect detachment is to exhibit mastery of the self. Mastery means you have achieved balance, harmony, and equality. You have transcended this or that, risen above, or beyond, dualistic states of thinking and doing where life is typified as black or white, where you hear “You’re either with me or against me,” or this is good and that is bad.

So you see, through a relaxing and disciplined practice, you become your own master, fulfilling without distraction your own divine creation. In prolonging your discovery in the void, and being open like a huge radar dish to the universe, you come to know and feel the energy of the universe at work. You are thus in this dualistic, desiring world without being a part of it.

As the Eastern saying goes “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

A good poetic example would be the haiku of Masahide: “My store house having been burnt down, Nothing obstructs the view of the night moon.”


Is-ness is to see through finite eyes into the world from ones unconscious, infinite eye. It is to be wholly natural, genuine, authentic, passive, receptive, doing best what one has been gifted to do and becoming God-like in the sense of being who you are, unselfconsciously and completely.

Here’s a good definition:
“Like the empty sky it has no boundaries,
Yet it is right in this place, ever profound and clear.
When you seek to know it, you cannot see it.
You cannot take hold of it,
But you cannot lose it.
In not being able to get it, you get it.
When you are silent, it speaks;
When you speak, it is silent.”

from Cheng Tao Ke translated by Allan Watts in “The Way of Zen.”

As the old First Nations chief said “It is just the way things are.”

or as Zenrin Kushu wrote:
“The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection
The water has no mind to receive their image”

For me, seeing with that infinite eye is the way things are. Is-ness is also a state of acceptance of the way things are. In this way one connects with the infinite and can live in harmony with it.


Now-ness is the magic of the present moment, appreciating a thing for what it is now. It is as if you and it shifted into the realm of infinity fully and completely, sharing, becoming childlike, self-forgetful and so closely attuned to the ever-present moment that you become that which you look into (for e.g. the swaying branches of a willow tree, or a wet frog sitting upon a stone). You are mindfully aware of the echo, or as the master haiku poet Basho termed “the mutual transference of subjective selves.” And you have your awareness antennas up so as not to become distracted by time-wasters and dualistic thinking. You drop all thought and, through directly experiencing something, gain knowledge of the all.

“Seeing myself lost once more, I sighed,
“Where, where in heaven am I? But don’t tell me,”
I warned the clouds, “by opening me wide!
Let’s let my heavenly lostness overwhelm me.”

—Robert Frost in “Lost in Heaven”

So, Now-ness is the intuitive, child-like mind thoroughly enchanted by the present moment. But this is not just any moment. This moment is special. It is creative and fully lived for it is born of the void, significant and absolute. As Basho wrote:

Look, children,
Let’s rush out!

“The philosophy of intuition takes time at its full value…[taking] hold of each moment as it is born from [the Void]…Each moment is absolute, alive, and significant.” D.T Suzuki

An important part of this is fresh vision, a childlike set of eyes on the world, to see with the God in you, the God in all outside you – the Kingdom of God, World and Spirit as One. The trick is to practice this state of being not just as a temporary bit of fun, but to enshrine it in your daily life, then the rewards are palpable and profound.


Zen is to make us intuitively sure that we have discovered within us the universal spirit which allows one identification with the cosmos. This supreme unity might intellectually be called the One, but the intuitive Zen practitioner would say, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, “Not One either.” “What then?” we may ask. We here face a blind alley, as far as verbalizing it is concerned. Therefore it is said that “If you wish to be in direct communion (with Reality) I tell you, “Not two!”

I remember studying Plotinus, the Greek philosopher and mystic, who tried as hard as he might to put into words the feeling he had of this Oneness. The confounding problem was how to use words—things which are individual and separate concepts–to convey this feeling of Oneness and the experience of Suchness.
And the English poet John Donne wrote that “God is so omnipresent…that God is an angel in an angel, and a stone in a stone, and a straw in a straw.”

If you seek the perfection of God, do not even consider your imperfections, but resume asking, seeking, and knocking—it shall be opened, for, as Jacob Boehme, in his answer to the question “Where does the soul go when the body dies?” replied “There is no necessity for it to go anywhere.” The soul is always present everywhere. The beauty of the present moment Now-ness is felt when one’s soul’s relationship with the universal is experienced here and now so that it is positioned at the center of the ineffable Oneness, thus becoming transcendent.

One has only to connect with their true Self—not the narcissistic self—to feel their Spirit; only then can one touch all things and feel in them the same spirit. Primordial self is united to a primordial universe, moving beyond logic, past “One” to “Not Two!”, looking “Out of” not “At” phenomena, becoming each moment the subtle essence existing in all things at all times.

The Zen Eye

The Zen eye refers to the interrelatedness of weighted, natural elements. In them the artist sees freshness, purity, and cleanness of vision. Basho wrote

We gaze
Even at horses
This morn of snow

(translated by R.H. Blyth)

The poet never ceases to have confidence in his mission to pursue, through all lulls and storms, being unceasingly lost, the eternal becoming, because he is not attached to any place or thing nor by any thing. Every natural substance and phenomenon contains the message of the Way. In every thing is what nourishes me. The love of oneself is the love of God and vice-verse. To know God is to see God in all life, to feel the power is to love life.

The willow paints the wind
Without using a brush


Martin Heidegger wrote too that “The artist must attune himself to that which wants to reveal itself and permit the process to happen through him.” This is possible by the person seeing him or her self as the Universal Person, anonymous and as a manifestation of the divine principle. The good is a void fuller than fullness; God fills the void. The intelligence has nothing to discover, it merely clears the ground for us to fix our will on the void beyond the particular natural object. This nothing-ness is not unreal. Compared with it everything in existence is unreal. In time as in space the silence of Nothingness is the greatness of Being.

So the Zen eye can be known as perpetual confidence through non-attachment which gives freedom to the artist to pursue what she must—pure appreciation of the pure and interconnectedness of natural elements in their magic moment(s). When you attune yourself to the god in all things, God finds you ready and reveals himself through you. Exercising his intuition selflessly, the artist celebrates all creation and its void of goodness.

In reality, it is not the individual that creates but the Universal man, anonymous and as a manifestation of the Principle.
– H. Benoit
More on the Zen Eye:

Through the state of non-attachment we have perpetual confidence. This gives freedom to the artist to pursue what he or she must. It is the pure and interconnectedness of natural elements in their magic moment(s). When you attune yourself to the god in all things, god finds you ready and reveals himself through you. In exercising his intuition selflessly, the artist celebrates all creation and its void of natural goodness, something alive and willing in all that is in creation.

The Zen eye refers to the interrelatedness of weighted, natural elements. There is a freshness, purity, and clean-ness of vision.

Every natural substance and phenomenon contains the message of the Way. In everything is what nourishes me. The love of oneself is the love of God and vice versa. To know God is to see God in all life, to feel this power is to love life.

Yet, some will say “What about our intelligence? Look at what it is capable of. How can nothingness, emptiness be something?” The intelligence has nothing to discover; it merely clears the ground for us to fix our will on the void beyond the particular object. This nothingness is not unreal. Compared with it everything in existence is unreal. In time as in space the silence of Nothingness is the greatness of Being. Yes, intelligence has its place in negotiating reality, but all Zen thought and practice is really about living in the eternal beauty of the eternal Spirit. It is a place where we can all get along. And if you accept that life is indeed a spiritual journey, then all of this makes sense. If you deny the existence of god simply because of mans’ imperfect meddling with religious texts and idols and structures in the name of god, then, dear me, you might be missing the point.


To make oneself empty means the openness to receive, to be open, awake, alive. It requires the surrendering of the “will” (my desire to force, direct, strangle the world outside of me and within me).

Emptiness is the ultimate truth, free even from holiness. The Tao (the Way) is what is there. The true life of Zen has no need to “Raise waves when no wind is blowing,” to drag in religion and spirituality.

The strange sense of timeless moments arise when one is no longer trying to resist the flow of events, the peculiar stillness and self-sufficiency of the succeeding instants when the mind is going along with them, like a reed in a stream, yielding without giving itself up, and not trying to arrest them.

So Zen says don’t invent things where they don’t exist, or where there is no need for their existence; it only muddies the water. This is important if you want to see things for what they are. We often want to impose things (our interpretations, judgments, world view, decorations, etc.) where they did not previously exist. And these are simply manifestations of our desire to control events, to impose our self on the world around us, as though making our world an externalized image of our ego. By being empty a great weight is lifted from us and, dare I say, others.

The aesthetic condition of Emptiness is constant in all things and actions. It is the true continuing adaptive and expressive presence of Spirit. And for that to happen, for one to experience the feeling, you have to live in the moment. Zen begins at a point where there is nothing further to seek, nor is there anything to be gained. You cannot live both in the eternal present moment and in the promise of some future, if it ever does arrive. If you can’t live in this present, you cannot live anywhere. All our ideas of becoming or acquiring something in the future is purely our personal abstractions. It is the perfect world of the ego, which does not exist. See that twig lying on the ground? Hear the Skylark’s song as it plummets to the earth? Those exist. We need nothing but to open our awareness to that which is already before us. Call this the ‘figure.’ Once that has been done, we are ready to experience the ‘ground’ which is what unifies all the elements, or figures. Think of the figure as a tree on a misted landscape. Think of ground as all the diffuse and empty space that is not the tree. Now consider the underlying spirit:

“An audience sometimes comments that what was not expressed was the most striking part of a performance. This comes from the hidden intention of the actor. Dance, chanting, movement, and gestures are all expressed by the body. What is not expressed is in the gap.
If we consider why this gap can be so striking, the reason is that the actor never relaxes his inner force. In between the dance, chanting, speaking, and gestures, the fullness of the actor’s inner force is maintained and this permeates the atmosphere.”
– Zeami (quoted from “Essential Zen” by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Tensho David Schneider, p.113)

And As Lien-Teng said “Only when you have no thing in your mind and no mind in things are you vacant and spiritual, empty and marvelous.” This marvel is the sensation of freedom in action which arises when the world is no longer felt to be an obstacle standing on ones shoulders. In the most ordinary tasks, when the sense of subjective isolation vanishes, you have freedom. Every action and every event come naturally by themselves from the Void; it is at once a natural condition and process, not something driven by desire.

You can begin now to see how these Zen thought groups are in reality inextricably intertwined. This is the simplicity, beauty and yet the challenge in understanding it. The real reward is in just living it.


The concept of Unborn is to understand it as faith from your conviction attained from the illuminating power of the Zen mind. You won’t be deceived or led to wrong belief by others. The eye of the Unborn is the same with everybody; when you gain it you never once judge people wrong. As D.T. Suzuki said “Truth reveals itself only after the superficial structure of one’s being gives way.” It is the content of Satori, or enlightenment, which springs up and envelopes ones whole being. Rather than being a static conception, it is lived every day; it is temporal, not spatial. It is not an abstraction or a generalization, but a living, vital, concrete, individual idea.

The Unborn is brought to actuality by means of the instinctive or unconscious reaction to sense-stimuli and their psychological complications. The main point is that all the conscious and unconscious activities on the part of each individual are gathered up in the basic notion “I feel (or perceive) therefore I am,” and when the I am is apprehended in it deepest sense we have the Unborn.

It is more than some awareness of instinct or reflex. It is our own being as we have it even prior to the world itself. In other words, it is God before God came to be cognizant of Itself. It is the unconsciousness but it does not remain so; if it did it would be non-existent. It knows itself and is responsive. The Unborn is the clenching of your fists when you are running a race. If you run around searching for something, crossing continents looking for answers, or even slightly depart from your true nature, you are already going against the Unborn.

It is free from joy as well as anger. It is an inner mind of transcendental intelligence, illuminating all things.

By firmly believing this, with no Attachment in your daily life, you have what is known as “a believing heart.” The Unborn is the unconscious in the metaphysical sense and in the cosmic sense. It is not some man-made concept that searches for a teat on some psychoanalytical body of knowledge. It is intelligent beyond logic. It is the principle of order which directs the intellect to success in the world of practical affairs. Everything has its condition (spirit). Everything has its expression (creation). Understanding this, living this, we can breathe fully, openly, with a smile like no other.