The practical wisdom of Zen

The practical wisdom of Zen
Science of Life


Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that began in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). It is a combination of the insights of Buddha (490-410 BC) with the Tao.

The Tao is an intuitive philosophy used in China for thousands of years and pointing to the essence of what is right. Zen in practice is intensely practical, encouraging one to rise above life’s sufferings and bringing focus to all areas of one’s life. I will outline some key Zen concepts as outlined by Dick Sutphen in a set of audio-tapes (Nightingale Conant 2001) that I believe can be used with profit by everybody.

Concept No.1: What is is

This is possibly the most important concept in Zen. We encounter many things in life that we cannot change and that we must accept even when we don’t like them. For example, I am growing old – well, that’s what is.

You really have no choice about accepting what is, because it is unalterable reality. But you do have a choice about how you react to what is – you can handle it or you can make things worse. Say a dearly loved companion dies. Naturally you will grieve initially, but continuing to indulge grief longterm will induce  depression. You must lift your mood and substitute grief with fond memories of past times spent with your great companion.

Buddha believed the concept what is is to be so important that he taught: “It is our resistance to what is that causes our sufferings.” So, accept what you cannot change and work on what you can change. The Christian Serenity Prayer says the same thing: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Concept No.2: Strive to develop detached mind

The great majority of people live with minds emotionally attached to the events occurring in the external world. The mood of the attached mind rises and falls depending on whether external events favour or hinder our ambitions and wishes.  Zen advises that we develop detached minds. Accept all the joy and affirmation that life offers but let negativity flow through you without affecting you.

Thus, when outside events take a downturn your mood should not sink below neutral. The range of mood experienced by a detached mind extends from neutral on the low side to great joy on the high side.

Here is an example of detached mind in action. You are backing your car out of a parking space when you accidentally scrape the side against an adjacent wall. An attached mind reacts by getting angry and feeling bad. But the Zen approach is to accept what is. The car is scraped, that’s what is, so accept it. Instead of fuming and raging, make a plan to repair the scratch.

But, of course, in practice it is nigh impossible not to feel upset as you feel the wall scraping the car. Zen does not advise that you immediately squash the anger as that would be psychologically unhealthy. Zen asks you to think about the situation, accept that the scraped car is what is and let the anger go out of wisdom.

Concept No.3: Live in the now

Living in the now means totally focusing on what you are doing at every moment. If you are vacuuming the carpet, be there vacuuming the carpet, not fretting about an impossible-to-predict future or regretting past actions that cannot be undone. This mindfulness will bring contentment and joy to your life and a laser-like concentration to everything you do.

Because most peoples’ minds, most of the time, are engaged in random chatter, mindfulness must be developed by monitoring our thoughts and steering the mind back to the task in hand. Living in the present gradually gets easier as we practice mindfulness.

Concept No.4: Minimise dualities

Zen views the world as a seamless whole and we are part of it. We apprehend the world with our minds and most of us see a lumpy, not a seamless world. We see things as being either good or bad, fortunate or misfortunate, hot or cold and so on. These polarities are called dualities. But whether we see the world as a seamless whole or a collection of dualities depends on how we choose to see it, and we can choose to see it as a seamless whole. Zen teaches that the elimination/minimisation of dualities allows us to live more coherent and contented lives.

But you may say, it’s not that easy to eliminate dualities – is a lump of ice not cold and a glowing cinder not hot? I think the Zen attitude is to just use the one concept of heat here and instead say there is little heat in the ice and much heat in the glowing cinder.

Zen says that things are neither good nor bad – things just are. And so, the wise person meets life with an equitable spirit and is neither elated by success nor depressed by failure. Misfortune often turns out to be good fortune, and vice-versa. Ponder the odds that winning €30m in the lottery will bring happiness if you don’t have a Zen attitude to the win.

Concept No.5: Go with the flow

Visualise your life as paddling down a river from source to sea. Obviously the easiest way is to allow the main current to carry you along, avoiding counter side currents and eddies unless, occasionally, for some very important reason. Allow things to happen naturally – go with the flow.

Some people think that Zen advocates passive acceptance of whatever life throws up, but this is not true. However, many problems we encounter are problems only because of the way we choose to view them. By changing the way you view a situation you may no longer be affected by the situation and if you are not affected you don’t have a problem. To a large extent, you can create your own reality, so choose tranquillity.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.