You may have encountered moments of ‘Zen’ in your life – like a particularly peaceful walk in nature, or while lying down, eyes closed, at the end of a yoga session – and we all know that in today’s fast-paced world, we need to make efforts to cultivate more of it.
But what exactly is the concept of Zen and what does it mean?
For Zen Buddhists like Julian Daizan Skinner, putting the practice into words can be difficult. Skinner is one of London’s leading meditation teachers, author of Practical Zen For Health, Wealth And Mindfulness (£9.99, Singing Dragon) and, he tells me, the first Englishman to go to Japan and become a Zen Master in the ancient Japanese art of Zen.
Unlike other types of modern meditation, which may centre around relieving stress by focusing on a specific object or mantra, Skinner says finding Zen is all about learning to recognise and dismiss the everyday thoughts that pop into your mind. Rather than achieving a state of calmness, the idea is to reach a state of ‘nothingness’.
Also known as ‘Zazen’, the meditation technique involves observing and letting go of your thoughts and feelings as they pass; for this reason it’s sometimes referred to as “thinking about not thinking”. It’s a technique that can take years of practice to fully achieve.
Before it became a trendy buzzword in the West, the traditional Buddhist discipline dates back to the Tang Dynasty in 7th century China, where it then spread to Japan. In fact, the Japanese term Zen is a derivative of the Chinese word Ch’an, which means concentration or meditation.
Unlike other strands of Buddhism, Zen isn’t based on religious teachings and it doesn’t involve prayer or studying texts. Instead, it’s an internal investigation which helps to give insight into your mind and how it works. In other words, you can be a sceptical person and still benefit from it.
Skinner says the practice came into his life at just the right time. “I was living in Newcastle upon Tyne and looking for a meditation practice and stumbled on a Zen meditation group,” he recalls. “I was immediately taken by the simplicity and rigour of the practice and within a year or two, I was selling my house, quitting my job in the pharmaceuticals industry and moving to a Zen monastery.”
He continues: “I became a monk and trained over roughly a 20-year period in the UK, the United States and five years in Japan. Then I came back and began teaching in the UK in 2007.”
So what does training to become a Zen Master actually involve?
“The life is quite simple, with lots of meditation and lots of manual work,” Skinner explains. “For the first seven years, I had 3x6ft of living space, where I slept and meditated and sometimes had meals. I had 20 or so fellow monks to the left and right of me, and we each had two cupboards – one for bedding and the other for clothes. There was nowhere to hide from yourself – but that was the point.”
Skinner describes the the whole process as a “kind of apprenticeship”.
“There are various stages along the journey, and when your teacher considers that you are fit to go and be of service to the world, he names you as his successor.”
Schools of Zen usually teach sitting meditations that involve following the movement of your breath over a long period of time. During meditation, students keep their eyes semi-open, rather than closing them fully, and they can often be presented with ‘koans’; a type of unusual riddle.
The self-paradoxical koans, which have no obvious logical answer, are designed to provoke enlightenment and challenge you to unravel greater truths about the world. One of the most famous Zen koans is: “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”
As with other forms of Buddhist meditation, Skinner believes that a regular Zen practice can benefit people in many ways, particularly when it comes to things like anxiety and depression.
If you want give it a go yourself, he recommends developing a daily meditation practice; the International Zen Association can point you in the direction of a (izauk.org). He also suggests topping up your practice with regular retreats too (time and finances permitting, of course).
“My book combines text and audio to give you all the guidance you need to get through the first 100 days of establishing a Zen meditation practice,” says Skinner. “Once you’ve built the habit, I’d strongly recommend finding fellow Zen students and teachers. Companionship definitely helps.”
Whether it’s the thousands of emails that are piling up your inbox, the hectic schedule you’re constantly juggling or simply the on-the-go nature of many of our jobs, the answer might not lie in distracting yourself from the thoughts – but in learning to let go of them completely.
Julian Daizan Skinner is a Zen Master and editor of Rough Waking, available now. Profits are donated to Zenways’ charity work, offering Zen meditation and yoga to the homeless and imprisoned. To find out more, visit zenways.org.