The True Meaning of Zen

What is the true meaning of zen? At one level the answer is easy. It means meditation. The Japanese for zen is from the Chinese for chan which in turn comes from the Hindu dhyana, the form of yoga through meditation. Ok, so that is the literal meaning of zen if not the true one. Asking the true meaning of zen at a deeper level is incredibly self-referential, important and useless to the point of dizziness. When the answer does come it is an intensely personal and figurative slap to the head, if stories are to be believed.

A famous zen story relates how the teacher Nanyue helped student Mazu learn the true meaning of zen. Seeing the young man in mediation Nanyue asked:

“What are you doing here?”
“Sitting in meditation.”
“Why are you sitting in meditation?”
“To become a Buddha.”
“How can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?”

This caused the young man to ignore the annoyingly inquisitive Nanyue. While Mazu was busily ignoring him, the older man picked up a brick and began rubbing it on the stone floor. The young man continued to ignore him and meditate, and this scene repeated for several days until Mazu asked,

“What are you doing here every day?”
“Polishing the brick.”
“Why?”
“To turn it into a mirror.”
“How can you turn the brick into a mirror?”
“If a brick can’t turn into a mirror by polishing, how can meditating make you a Buddha?”

This shocked the young man into the realization that the old man was not out of his mind but a master there to enlighten him. Asking the old man what he should do, Nanyue replied:

“If you are driving a cart and it doesn’t go forward, should you whip the cart or whip the ox?”

The non sequitur from brick polishing to ox whipping is classic zen story. The irony is that the is lesson is about giving up all preconceived notions of zen practice in order to see its true essence and achieve enlightenment. However this means nothing to us unless we first faithfully practice zen in whatever prescribed form. So for those of you who practice zen and just hit enlightenment, congratulations. For the rest of us, we keep polishing the brick.

This zen story has interesting parallels when we ponder the question of “what is the true meaning of kaizen?” We can say that it is important to follow form, but essential to break it and move beyond at some point. We can question whether sometimes we are polishing a brick, without questioning whether we are working on the right raw materials, purpose or goals so that continuous improvement will make a difference. When our continuous improvement efforts are stuck, we can whip the ox or whip the cart, or perhaps the driver or none of the above… And if this story has anything to teach us at all is it is that the eager young adherent should pay attention to the odd old person who wanders in asking questions of why and how…

6 Comments

  1. Arno Koch

    February 2, 2011 - 5:54 am

    Hi Jon!
    A couple of years ago I wrote this article about Zen and being a Pro.
    Zen and ‘Being a Professional’
    The more I learn about Zen, the more difficult I find it to explain to others, and yet the more clearer it gets to me that it is the basis for Zero Defect – Zero Losses manufacturing- or whatever it is you may do or want to do.
    Zen is about BEING. Not just do something,
    A touch of what Zen is, can be experienced on a site of the KODAIJI-TEMPLE in Tokyo: don’t just click over it! If you manage to be present, to really experience what the makers try to explain to you, you might get a glimpse of insight in the basis of all modern manufacturing strategies…
    http://www.do-not-zzz.com/
    ok… you are still here!
    What Zen teaches us, is to be completely present, concentrated if you like, in whatever you do. To bé what you do. If you shoot an arrow, become the arrow, and you can not miss your target. It is about being completely empty, so the things that matter can fill you completely. I know this might be confusing…
    Let me link this to 5S workplace organisation. If our mind is disrupted continuously because of all kind of abnormalities (tools not in place, lack of materials etc) take place, it is hardly possible to concentrate on the real task, on bringing optimal quality. So the goal of a well performed workplace organisation is to free up the operators mind from unnecessary burdens, to make space for concentration on those parts of the job that can not- or should not be performed on ‘auto-pilot’; in other words, to make it possible for the operator to be fully present in his/her job.
    If you have an office job you will recognize this. How much time of the day can you work fully concentrate on the job you are assigned to? Honestly, is it more than 10%? Zen teaches us the path to eliminate everything that makes us ‘not present’. Does that sound familiarly? In World Class Manufacturing techniques we can recognize this principle in eliminating all losses, everything that does not add any value.
    If you have been raised in the Zen tradition like most of the Japanese more or less have, it is fully normal to be concentrated and dedicated in everything you do. Of course one can not always be concentrated, but it is possible to be ‘present’ all the time. One can even be present in an interruption.
    If during the assembly of a windshield in a Toyota-car the windshield might get damaged, the line is stopped and all team members from previous and next assembly stations rush to help their colleagues to remove the damaged windshield, get a new one clear up the mess and start the line as soon as possible. This is done completely smooth, orderly and concentrated. Everybody knows its task. It is about being present. Nothing is distracting from the main task at that moment: eliminating the disruption to be able to carry on with the normal job.
    Is it tiring to be present in your job? Think about it… what day is worse: the day you could do your job without any disruptions where time flies while working from task to task, or the usual day where you run from incident to incident… If your mind is being filled with non value adding garbage all the time, isn’t that the real energy sucker? Personally I gét energy from being able to be present in whatever I do. Sure you are tiered after a days hard work, but that is different from being drained in those chaotic days where you hardly accomplish anything isn’t it?
    Another topic that might be insteresting is this one about ShuHaRi;
    http://www.makigami.info/cms/japanese-learning-system-japan-36
    Best,
    Arno

  2. John Taylor

    February 7, 2011 - 2:03 pm

    Jon.
    All of this talk of Zen only has meaning if you find that it helps you to realise your end task / state.
    In places like Tibet where there was no distraction from TV and the like it was the best form of recreation that people could do that did not cost money. They spent many, hours / days / years. Learning to concentrate on the subject at hand to the exclusion of all else. They are fortunate that they did not have to earn a living working of a production line to make a living to feed their families.
    In the West we would do the same but call it “Signal to Noise Ratio”. The aim is the same but the approach is some what different. In work we try to remove all of the noise from systems so that we can concentrate on the signal.
    Life is just as hard in the West as it is in the Far East. We just have different ways of attaining enlightenment.
    Lean / Kaizen is a form of ZEN in so much as it removes waste to allow the people to concentrate on the job at hand.
    When I go to the pictures I practice ZEN by not eating popcorn or ice cream during the film. So that I can concentrate on the film and try to follow the plot. It does not work very often as most of the pictures that I see are rubbish. Am I doing something wrong ?
    I watched the Monk with the fly going up his nose. This also happens to me in some of the old cinemas that I go to. I also watched a video of a Japanese Archery Master who practiced his ZEN before firing his arrow at the target. Unfortunately his arrow totally missed the target board. I think they are still looking for his arrow in the forest behind the target. This proves that like the Western approach ZEN does not work all of the time. It is a good tool but does not answer all of the trials and tribulations of life.
    I think that we can learn much from the Ostrich that removes all of the troubles of it life by burying its head in the sand. “If you can keep your head when all about you are loosing theirs”. Then you do not know the trouble that you are in.
    If you listen to Wall Street then all of the troubles of life will be resolved in a free and open market place. As long as you bail them out when their ZEN does not work. I would suggest that they get their Mojo working and get a real job.
    Many years ago the stock markets were set up to help trading companies get the funds to expand and create wealth. Now the stock markets are set up to make money without an end product being produced. This is true ZEN using only the power of the mind to create wealth. The thing is it is only for a select few.

  3. Jon Miller

    February 8, 2011 - 8:13 am

    Hi John
    That was a long walk from Tibet to Wall Street… Enjoyed the trip through the bamboo thicket looking for the arrow though.
    Zen, like kaizen or lean, neither works or does not work. It IS work. Like all work, it sometimes brings rewards.
    Now I have to go back to work.

  4. John Taylor

    February 8, 2011 - 12:26 pm

    Jon.
    Master please accept my humble apologies. Many thanks for your guidance. I will keep polishing the brick.
    Have a nice day.

  5. Jon

    February 8, 2011 - 10:26 pm

    Hi John.
    Careful what you call me, my head’s getting too big for my shoulders as it is.
    I will have a nice day. The question is, will it have me?

  6. greg

    February 9, 2011 - 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the post.
    Zen is something words can never adequately define, and when we reach for it, it is gone, but when we’re still, it’s always there. In fact, it’s all around us, but if we search we won’t find it. If we pay enough attention, we realize the power within us all and everyone else.