Zen isn’t

March 28th, 2011

Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures with no reliance on words or letters.

I’d like to topple the tower of babel about Zen.

Zen isn’t a habit. It is the absence of all habits and conditioning. There are no habits in Zen, because everything, everywhere, everytime is altogether new.

Zen isn’t simplifying your life. Zen is simply life. When we don’t fuss with it, life simplifies itself.

Zen isn’t cleaning up your house so you have a calm and orderly mind. Zen is cleaning up your mind so you have a calm and orderly house.

Zen isn’t waking up so you can get out of bed. Zen is getting out of bed so you can wake up.

Zen isn’t eating less, spending less, talking less or working less. It’s wanting less, fearing less, worrying less and striving less. The latter takes care of the former.

Zen isn’t extra time, extra effort or extra attention. Zen is nothing extra.

Zen isn’t running, golfing, archery, flower arranging, gardening, golfing, lying down, sitting up or motorcycle maintenance, although it doesn’t exclude any of that.

Zen is not a second. Zen is not even ten seconds. It is eternal. It is now. Zen never ends.

Zen isn’t about making a change in your life. It is about living the change you already are.

Zen cannot be found, because Zen is never missing.

Now, how do you come to see and believe this for yourself? Certainly not by reading about it, although one or two good books every now and then won’t hurt. (And I’d even sign them for you.)

This post has been republished because a sharp-eyed reader reminded me about it, and another one pointed out that my next one-day meditation retreat was shortsightedly scheduled for Father’s Day. I stand reminded, and I thank everyone for their close attention.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat Sun., June 12 in LA

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  1. How happy I am to have your “tutorial”.

    “Zen isn’t waking up so you can get out of bed. Zen is getting out of bed so you can wake up.”

    I loved this line.
    I wrote it out and taped it by my bed.

    Wake up; wake up.
    This is everything.

    Comment by bella — September 9, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  2. I lost all faith in zen the last few weeks as the world spun wildly out of my control … or so I felt. But, then, I saw the ocean again, and felt the sand, and all was very good.

    I love your tutorials. I think, though, a better name could be thunked up. I have nothing to suggest, right this minute.

    Comment by Shawn — September 10, 2007 @ 10:28 pm

  3. The world is never in our control. Let go of the illusion of control, and you’ll be much happier!

    Comment by donna — October 29, 2007 @ 5:13 pm

  4. This reminds me of something a philosophy teacher said about the Eightfold Path. It was, I think, the only thing I remember from this particular philosophy course, which I took decades ago as an undergraduate.

    He said the Eightfold Path isn’t PREscriptive, it’s DEscriptive. That means it’s not a list of things you “should” to, like commandments. Instead, it’s a description–a promise, really–of what naturally happens as you continue to practice.

    It’s like saying “after winter ends, then spring comes.” That’s a description of a natural process. It’s not a command of something we “should” try to force or control.

    Comment by Lorianne — March 28, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  5. @Lorianne,
    So glad to hear that someone actually presented it that way. Same of the precepts.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 28, 2011 @ 11:19 am

  6. So so true. Love this.

    Comment by Jane — March 28, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  7. I’ve been exploring some of the ideas behind Zen, and I’ve recently found a few interesting writers who come from a strong Jewish background, because since I am Jewish, I can see how others meld their upbringing in a Western religion filled with heavy commandments with the insights of Eastern religion. Even though I don’t consider myself that religious, the biggest hurdle for me is the foreign feeling of Zen. While I can find beauty in the concepts, and certainly see the negative attributes of Western religion, I am also attracted to the reason, intellectualism, and specifically the morality that is associated with it, and I’m not sure yet where Zen ultimately leads, as if it is supposed to lead to something, which is in itself not very Zen-like.

    Comment by Neil — March 28, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Neil. I wouldn’t give any of it a second thought. Some people come to Zen and hear it like a song, love it like their natural home. It’s not a matter of recruitment. It’s recognition.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 28, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  9. “Zen isn’t a habit. It is the absence of all habits and conditioning. There are no habits in Zen, because everything, everywhere, everytime is altogether new.”

    Sitting for Zen meditation for example, at one level, is a habit, a repetition of a conditioned behavior. And at another level each time you sit, the experience is unique and it is a new moment. I get the point, yet I think both are true?

    Comment by Amy Carlson — March 28, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  10. @Amy, interesting argument! But is zazen conditioned? If it is, it is no longer zazen. You can examine all behaviors the same way. Is eating a habit? If we eat when we are not hungry, or sleep when we are not sleepy. We sit when it is time to sit. And we use discipline to sit when we do not want to.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 29, 2011 @ 5:45 am

  11. Here’s one for the refrigerator door! Thank you <3

    Comment by Aimee D — March 28, 2011 @ 9:39 pm

  12. Someone *finally* said it!

    Thank you, Karen.


    Comment by Dan — March 29, 2011 @ 2:55 am

  13. I needed this reminder. Thank you.

    Comment by Kristal — March 29, 2011 @ 2:58 am

  14. This is beautiful! I just got your book, Hand Wash Cold on my e-reader. I’m very excited to read it.

    Comment by Heather — March 29, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  15. Karen, thanks for your reply. Yes, I see what you mean that we sit when it is time to sit. Yet I think I don’t understand how using discipline, to not eat when we are not hungry or sit when we don’t want to, is wholly different from conditioned behavior? I see that you might distinguish between levels of consciousness? Not eating when not hungry being more conscious vs. eating when not hungry being more sub/unconscious behavior. Or sitting when don’t want being conscious vs. not sitting being more sub/unconscious. I see further that outside conditioning could be seen as more sub/unconscious and self-conditioning could be seen as more conscious. I also see that the generation of habits whether through outside or internal forces, are both forms of conditioning. So maybe it would help me to know how you define conditioned behavior? Mostly, I understand that coming into present makes conditioning irrelevant at some level. Presumably just like eating and sleeping, one would be regularly and naturally drawn to connecting with one’s spiritual essence, through sitting or otherwise.

    Comment by Amy Carlson — March 29, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  16. Amy, you cannot use the conditioned mind, the intellect, to understand the unconditioned mind. The present moment is completely unconditioned – always. It cannot be defined, named as this or that, or grasped. Zazen is the direct experience of the present. Zazen is to free the mind from habituation and to freely, spontaneously and appropriately respond to circumstances as they arise, and thus reveal our inherent wisdom. Hence the instructions of the enlightened teachers: “Eat when hungry, sleep when tired.” Few will do it, although all of us are able.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 29, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  17. I rank this with that list for parents … love this and thank you.

    Comment by shawn — March 29, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  18. Wonderful! Here I am checking my mail and reading a post from the blog Zen habits. Then tapping my bookmark to the cheerio road. Something tells me that you have seen the blog:)

    As for the intellect, the conditioned mind. To me it feels like my shield and armour. A lot of times I seem to believe that knowing more will lead me to the end of suffering. Sadly for me, it usually doesn’t. The more I know, the more there is to fear. And the answers I seek so desperately seem to have gone in hiding.

    There I am with a useless shield, a useless sword. Leaving me to a questionable companion, the unconditioned mind. Sometimes offering an answer and sometimes insight in the question or situation. In exchange asking me for trust. No books or experts there to tell me that the answer or insight is correct.

    The choice that remains is will I live with fear or with uncertainty? Sometimes I am able to take jump. With my eyes and hart wide open.

    I apologise for any misspelling and grammar mistakes. English is not my first language.

    Comment by Yuna — March 29, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

  19. i wish i could read all of my other comments on your blog…i feel like i always say the same thing: “wonderful” “beautiful” “perfectly said”. This time i’m mixing it up…i’m saying all those and adding…”YES! that date works for me!” i would love to go to a one-day meditation retreat, and this time i think i’ll bring my mom AND my daughter!

    Comment by Tamara — March 29, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  20. Succinctly and beautifully expressed. Thank you for this teaching today…

    Comment by Bobbi — March 30, 2011 @ 7:12 am

  21. My favorite line? “Zen isn’t about making the change in your life. It is about living the change you already are.” As someone new to your blog, I’m very glad you reposted this.

    Comment by Kara — March 31, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  22. My favourite?

    Zen isn’t cleaning up your house so you have a calm and orderly mind. Zen is cleaning up your mind so you have a calm and orderly house.

    Hope you are well.

    Comment by Christine @ Coffees and Commutes — April 4, 2011 @ 3:12 am

  23. “Zen is cleaning up your mind so you have a calm and orderly house.”

    this is really sitting deeply in me. Thank you so very much for your powerful simple words.

    Comment by Anna — April 4, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

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