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Zen Buddhism 101 - The Power of Zen Meditation

By Richard Reis

"Zen has been a deep influence in my life." - Steve Jobs

I've always been fascinated by Steve Jobs' early years.

Before he became a reality-bending magnate, he dropped a lot of acid, meditated regularly, travelled to India, followed gurus, became a fruitarian, and even joined a hippie commune.

Clearly, he was searching for something.

Whatever it was, he found it in Zen (look closely and you'll notice Zen's fingerprints all over his life - from the minimalist aesthetic to being married by his Zen teacher).

… But why Zen?

To find out, I lived in a Zen center for 4 months.

During that time, I meditated 2 hours a day, was taught directly by a Zen teacher, did several retreats, and (since I run a book startup) read everything I could on the topic.

I've gone deep down the rabbit hole. And this post will teach you the things I've unearthed.

So let's begin 🙂

Sidenote: While writing this, I noticed another tech titan hinting at Zen's influence in his life; Marc Benioff changed his Twitter profile pic to an image of him meditating in a traditional Japanese Zendō. Fun little coincidence.

Why Zen?

You've already heard the benefits of meditation (positive changes in attention, cognition, emotion, pain perception, etc…)

So I won't go there.

"More than 80% of [people I've interviewed] have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice." - Tim Ferriss

Instead, I'll focus purely on what Zen has to offer, and what makes it different.

But first, I must acknowledge that Zen isn't without criticism.

However (a) so is every other contemplative practice and (b) the good outweighs the bad.

Let's address both:

The Bad

The harmless criticism is that Zen is full of paradoxes and ambiguity. This makes it confusing for novices (more on this later).

The serious criticism is that Zen doesn't emphasize morality the way other Buddhist schools do. Why is this bad? Brian Daizen wrote an entire book explaining it (though critics point out that this is a complicated topic, and compassionate action is really an integral part of Zen).

The Good

The biggest ally in Zen's corner is simplicity.

Once Japan discovered Buddhism, they (in good ol' Japanese fashion) filtered out a lot.

Gone are the iconographies and spiritual components of Buddhism. You won't find any mentions of karma, rebirth, chakras, etc…

Zen is focused on one thing; training your mind.

Sidenote: A smaller benefit is Zen's delightful aesthetic (which is nice for those put off by the somewhat garishness of Buddhism). If you're familiar with Japanese design, this isn't surprising. Nothing is more beautiful than a Japanese garden.

The Path of Zen

Now we get to the fun stuff.

If Zen were a video game, it would have three levels:

Completing each one helps you unlock a new "superpower"

Level 1 - Jōriki

A favorite amongst ambitious people.

Jōriki is the power of concentration.

To put it simply, this helps you evolve in two areas:

  1. Willpower: You'll be less distracted/ controlled by the outside world.
  2. Concentration: You'll be able to focus more intensely.
"To accomplish any task, it is necessary to concentrate the mind totally on that one goal. […] Any person who accomplishes outstanding feats has doubtlessly developed great powers of concentration." - Kōun Yamada
"[Steve Jobs] could easily put in ten- to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week. And at least once a week in the evenings he was also being supercharged and focused by a Zen master's more metaphysical practices for building power. East fueled West and West fueled East." - Chrisann Brennan

Level 2 - Kenshō

This is the center of the bullseye.

It's also known as "self-transcendence," "losing the sense of self," or (as your buddies who did Ayahuasca in Peru like to call it) "ego death."

… Let me explain.

When you talk about your "self," you're referring to this sense that you're a subject of your experience.

In other words, you don't feel like you are a body, you feel like you have a body.

This detachment gives you a sense of being inside your head, behind your eyes, experiencing the world.

Daniel Dennett calls this the "cartesian theater."

That feeling is an illusion. There is no "you."

It's both a physical illusion and a psychological one:

  1. Physical: You're not the same physically as you were when you were born. In fact, your cells are replaced every 7 years. Not a single part of your body remains constant throughout your life (For more on no physical self, take 2min to watch this video).
  2. Psychological: Think of a city. Any city. Whatever you answered (e.g. Paris), notice how you didn't choose that thought? It just appeared out of nowhere. Meditate long enough and you'll realize all your thoughts work this way. There is no author.
Sidenote: A good metaphor is to think of your mind as boiling water, and each thought bubbles up out of nowhere. Pay attention, and you'll see this is true.

But none of these arguments matter.

I can spend all day proving to you you have no "self," and you might agree with me logically… But you won't experience it.

And (ay, there's the rub!) experiencing it makes all the difference.

Luckily, this is where Zen comes in.

Follow its guidelines, and you'll experience selflessness. Zen calls this "seeing one's true nature" (Kenshō).

Sidenote: Why would you want to lose your sense of "self"? Because this is what every meditation tradition is trying to teach you. Learn it, and you'll no longer be hostage to your thoughts/ suffering. No matter what's happening, you'll be able to have the center drop out of experience (and only the world will remain). This is a profound tool for the alleviation of psychological suffering.
"It was as if a flashbulb had gone off in my skull, and that's what it suddenly illuminated: no me. The idea of 'me' had been just that - an idea. Now it had burst like a bubble. The relief was indescribable. All the worrying, all the fretting - and all along there had been no one home." - Henry Shukman

Level 3 - Mujōdō no taigen

No matter how profound your Kenshō experience, you'll revert back to normal within a few days.

All your worries, fears, and suffering will come back (uninvited, I might add). In other words, your annoying "self" will have returned.

"As long as the mind doesn't act in accordance with what it has experienced in seeing into our own nature, what was seen will become mere knowledge and will fail to be integrated into our lives; it will fail to become our flesh and blood." - Kōun Yamada
Sidenote: Here's a calligraphy metaphor you might find helpful. Losing your "self" is like being able to distinguish between good and bad brushwork… But it doesn't mean you're able to write well.

To make your Kenshō experience part of who you are, you need to keep practicing Zen.

How to Practice Zen

There are two ways to practice: (1) Zazen, and (2) Everyday Zen.

1. Zazen

Za-zen literally means "sitting Zen."

… It's basically meditation.

Twice a day (I chose 7am and 5:30pm), sit up straight on a chair or cushion for 25min.

What happens next? It depends on your Zen school and training.

Usually, you focus on your breath (by counting it or silently voicing "in" on the inhale and "out" on the exhale).

You'll meditate this way for a while until you reach Level 1.

Once your Zen teacher thinks your concentration is strong enough, they'll know you're ready for Level 2. And they'll give you what's called a Kōan.

Kōans 101

Kōans are quite the hodgepodge.

Remember when I said people complain Zen is full of paradoxes and ambiguity? Kōans are the reason why.

On the surface, they're little riddles that make no sense. Here, try one yourself:

"You know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand?"

Don't look for a rational answer. You won't find it. (In fact, none of the 1,700 (!!) Zen Kōans can be answered rationally)

… And that's their goal.

Like I said before, understanding "selflessness" doesn't do much, but experiencing it can change your life.

So how do you experience it? By shutting down your rational mind.

This is why Kōans make no sense. They want to derail your rational mind.

Meditate on a Kōan long enough, and your rational mind will shut down/ give up trying to solve it. That is when something else inside of you will awake, and you'll experience selflessness.

In fact, Kōans are said to be "dark to the mind, radiant to the heart." (They're a bit like Bob Dylan songs… You have no idea what they're talking about, but your soul just "gets" them)

"[Steve Jobs] knew the equations that most people didn't know: Things led to their opposites." - Lisa Brennan-Jobs

2. Everyday Zen

Zen isn't a religion. It doesn't even have any objects of worship.  In fact it's the complete opposite! All Kōans are about super ordinary things (dogs, bridges, mountains, etc…)

That's because Zen believes that this present moment, by itself, is miraculous.

This is the opposite from how most of us live our lives. Usually, when we do an activity our minds are elsewhere.

But when you begin your Zen training, you're taught to pay full attention to everyday activities.

When walking, just walk.

When cooking, just cook.

When eating, just eat.

When cleaning, just clean.

There's something powerful about doing/ seeing things as if for the first time. This is known as Shoshin (beginner's mind).

It revived the part of me that loved simple things as a child (even something as mundane as watching clouds in the sky).

Try for yourself, and you'll have a taste of what it's like to be fully alive.

"There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." - William Shakespeare

Conclusion

Zen training is slow. Be patient.

At first you'll think nothing is happening. But trust me, things surely are.

Zen tells you to think of your true nature as a large crystal ball. Right now, the surface is covered with a hard, thick crust of dirt.

Daily practice is like rubbing away, little by little, the dirty crust.

"Even if you don't arrive at seeing into your own nature, your life situation will gradually improve and the problems of daily life will begin to resolve themselves. This is not theoretical; it is a fact. I'm sure this writer is not the only one to have experienced this." - Kōun Yamada

Bonus - Books!

If you enjoyed this post and want to dig deeper into Zen, here are four books I recommend:

1. One Blade Of Grass: Finding The Old Road Of The Heart - Henry Shukman

Recommended by Kevin Rose and Sam Harris.

My Zen teacher's autobiography. It will give you an excellent, personal look into one (very eloquent) person's Zen journey.

2. Zen: The Authentic Gate - Kōun Yamada

Recommended by Kevin Rose (in fact, he liked it so much he helped create the audiobook).

This is probably my favorite Zen book. The author was a highly respected Zen master, and this book will give you an excellent overview of the practice.

3. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks On Zen Meditation And Practice - Shunryu Suzuki

A favorite of Steve Jobs and Marc Benioff.

Truth be told, I didn't love all of it. But a few key ideas/ principles were unbelievably useful.

4. On Having No Head: Zen And The Rediscovery Of The Obvious- Douglas Harding

Recommended by Jack Dorsey and Sam Harris.

You can read it in 1–2 hours, but this little gem has the best description of Kenshō I've ever read. I loved it.


Special thanks to my Zen teacher, Henry Shukman, who masterfully blends Western rationality with Eastern wisdom.

Truth be told, I thought I'd have to travel to Japan to learn Zen (and almost did). But luckily, I listened to Henry's interviews with Sam Harris and Kevin Rose.

It turns out his Zen center is located right here in the US! 🎉

To me, he's the living proof of that old Zen saying "if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door."