“What is Zen?” A question asked many times over the centuries, sometimes by non-practitioners—who need a definition, sometimes by practitioners who need a smack, a shout, silence, or any number of answers—and not-answers. By definition, Zen is a school of Buddhism (specifically Mahayana Buddhism) that emphasizes meditation and intuition.
That's the description I use when I give the 15-minute history of Zen Buddhism any time someone who has never practiced Zen before walks into the sangha for the first time. I start with Old Age, Sickness and Death, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the skip ahead to Bodhidharma. The Sanskrit word Dhyana, which translates as “meditation,” transliterated into Ch'an when it came to China, Seon in Korea, Thien in Vietnam, and in Japan, and now in the West, Zen. So “Zen Meditation” is redundant. And I go on briefly from there about the story of our order, the teachers in the lineage, and that lineages are meaningless, but somehow important among Zen practitioners.
For me, Zen is the above definition, and a means to end the struggle of people right here, right now. (I'll go with “struggle” as the translation of “dukkha” rather than the more common “suffering”). Most importantly, Zen practice is a means to end the struggle. We take the Bodhisattva vows, study Sutras, debate endlessly, get involved in semantic arguments, and do and say lots of things, which quite often miss this point. Zen is no more/no less a skillful means than any other school of Buddhism, and quite possibly any and all other traditions that by-and-large are concerned with the well-being of their fellows.
But for whatever reason, Zen monks asked the “What is Zen” question...and “What is Buddha,” and “Why did Bodhidhama come from the West,” and so on. And that's when they might get a pithy answer like “Mind is Buddha,” or “Ordinary Mind is Buddha,” or maybe hit with a fly-whisk, a shout, a raised finger, and whatever the expedient means the Master might have deemed appropriate at that moment. So many fingers, but how much moon?
Here's the moon: From Bodhidharma on, it is said that realization of one's True Nature is to be Awakened. And to realize Awakening is to have the struggle snuffed out. And at one moment, that could be to maintain a peaceful equanimity in the face of all situations, or it can be not struggling against moments of struggle. And, most importantly, it is “How may I help you?”
“Zen” is admittedly a noun today. To me, “Zen” is a verb, and definitely not an adjective. And it's not a part of “The Zen of....” But it is also all these things. The practice of Zen Buddhism is the practice of saving all sentient beings, but does that actually mean anything? It is the realization of the interconnectedness of everything, the interdependence of everything, the impermanence of everything, the emptiness of everything.
But it is also the individuality of everything, that feeling that I am me, and that I really can't imagine the world going on without me. It's thinking about my job that “they really have to pay me to do this, because otherwise....” It's greed, ignorance, anger, aversion, all the afflictions. It's fighting against all this, and it's ending the struggle of all this...in this moment. I've heard (yet another) statement that Zen practice is to directly experience reality form moment to moment, in the here&now.
And if your reality is a feeling of instant awakening, or of confusion, of disgust with even more paradoxical statements that confuse you, that is wonderful! Be totally confused, be thoroughly disgusted, be fully awakened, but then let them pass into impermanence, watch them come and go, then feel fully whatever comes next. And, if you can, do it without judging about what it is to have those feelings. Then, maybe, see the moon, and see the fingers. See the fingers are the moon! And not the moon. But just see! When I write about Zen, that's not Zen (noun). But when I write about Zen, that is Zen (verb).
Then I try to put it all down, have breakfast, wash my bowl, brush my teeth, go to work, say, “Man, they really have to pay me to do this,” then come back home...and while I'm at it, save all sentient beings. And yeah, there are no beings, and no saving to be done, but screw that. That as a concept isn't reality any more than those beings I think are separate from me, and no less real either.
May all beings be happy...by whatever means necessary.