What's the point of practicing Zen

“Why do you practice Zen? You could spend your time on something else. What’s the point of practicing Zen? Questions I used to ask myself regularly. Why am I actually doing this? And what does it bring me?

I also hear these questions during the Zen introduction courses I give. Recently, I went into these questions in detail during a conversation with a communication advisor who helped me set up a new website for my Geomancy, Feng Shui, Chi Kung, and Zen activities.

A tricky matter indeed. A balancing act between commerce, making my message SMART, using simple language, focussing on results, guarantees. And on the other hand, the intangible, unspeakable, ethereal, intimate, the more spiritual motives and experiences.

I increasingly understand those old Zen masters who gave the answer ‘no idea’ or ‘no knowing’ to such questions.

My personal story

When I worked at KPMG years ago, I had the opportunity to take a course ‘Zen and Management.’ It was a pretty business-like approach to tasting Zen: more Zen gives less stress and better choices. Which manager wouldn’t want that? And when I first sat down on the meditation cushion during that course it felt like coming home! Maybe this is something I like to do much more often. Why, I didn’t actually know. There have also been more than enough moments afterward when I wasn’t so sure. In fact, sometimes I wanted to throw my Zen cushion out the window. I obviously had good reasons to do so: too busy, too calm, too healthy, too sick, too happy, too angry, too early, too late…

Over the years, the inner turmoil became quieter. It became more of a matter of just sitting, not making a fush about it. An invisible hand guided me to my meditation spot, as Nico Tydeman so beautifully puts it.

Structure helps

Structure in your Zen practice provides support. The (almost daily) online meditation with a group is a good example. Because there is a cadence in time and days, and a warm group of people being this online Sangha, it supports people in shaping their Zen practice. And thereby they feel supported in their lives. No fuss, just sitting, in connection. The early time remains a challenge for some though. 

After all those years on the cushion, I have gotten to know myself better. Or to put it another way, I increasingly recognise all kinds of patterns, beliefs, ideas, concepts that I carry with me. The fun things, but certainly also the ugly things. And by being able to recognise that, I can be more flexible, adaptable. I have less need to act out of ego perspective. I sometimes recognise the moments when I or the other person gets stuck. That works liberating. 

A beautiful practice

When I started Zen, people asked me, ‘You’re not going to become such a happy egg, right?’. And I gave the socially desirable answer: ‘of course not.’ But nowadays, I can no longer deny it. Not that I’m 24/7 that happy egg, just ask my housemates. But remarkably often, I do have the sentence in my head or mouth: ‘that’s a beautiful practice.’ My dear Zen master sometimes goes crazy about it. Such a sentence sounds flat and easy, rolls off the tongue nicely. But as far as I’m concerned, it has infinite depth. It is a summary of the four Bodhisattva vows. That beautiful practice is there for all living beings, is the inexhaustible suffering, the numberless dharma’s, endlessly long. 

Everything you encounter in your life is your Zen path. And just to be clear: I don’t always manage to see it that way. Then I’m just stuck in my me-myself-and-I-complex. 

For everyone, the Zen path is different. With more or less headwind, with more or less depth, with more or less joy. It’s not a matter of good or bad. There is just your Zen path. Practicing Zen on your cushion, the conversations you have with your Zen master, the connection you have with the Sangha members, everything supports you on your path. Whether you experience Zen as a tool, or as an art of living.