What is Zen?

What is Zen?

The great project of Zen is awakening.

On the one hand Zen is about the most important things in our lives. Within the practices of Zen we have an opportunity to come to our deepest knowing, to find who we are, and how we fit within the world. As such Zen is focused on the disciplines of meditation, the technologies of awakening. On the other hand Zen is about becoming ordinary, discovering who we are within the simplest moments of our lived lives. And so Zen is also about how we eat our breakfast, how we treat children, and how we care for each other.

Zen is a path deeply rooted within the teachings of the Buddha, enriched by encounters with the sages of China, and now also through additional meetings with cultures across the globe. Zen is accessible to anyone who wishes to explore the contours of her mind, the shape of his heart: women and men, young and old, scholars and those who don’t even read the morning newspaper.

Zen is both the experience of reality and a way toward that experience. As such Zen is about transformation. As we find ourselves changing, we notice that the world around us also begins to change. This path of transformation of self and the world is called the Bodhisattva way. This is a path of reconciliation where our hearts and minds and the very earth itself are discovered to be holy, where the divisions of self and other become less clear, and our every act becomes sacred.

Zen Disciplines

There are any number of ways a person can awaken to see into the heart of this matter of our profound interconnectedness to each other. But ultimately this experience of insight happens spontaneously. Awakening is a glorious happenstance, a mysterious accident. And none can claim causal responsibility. We each come to it in our own way. For some it is a flash of illumination. For others it is a gentle unfolding like the petals of a particularly fragrant flower. This insight into our true nature happens within all religions and none. This awareness of our profound interweaving with all beings is nothing other than our birthright as human beings.

At the same time we can live our whole lives without ever having this insight that heals and opens new possibilities. The Zen disciplines are simply ways that have evolved over the generations of our human experience to particularly enhance the possibility of our coming to our own intimate and direct knowing. So, if awakening is an accident, the practices of Zen make us particularly accident-prone.

Zen is not a theology or set of beliefs. The practice of Zen invites us to come into a deeper relationship with this moment — to learn how to fully participate in our life of each moment. We practice together and with the guidance of a teacher, not to learn what someone else knows, but to uncover the wisdom and aliveness that is already present within each one of us.

The principal discipline of Zen is shikantaza, literally “just sitting”. In just sitting, we allow ourselves to become aware of our experience moment to moment. Through this deceptively simple practice we begin to see how the constant activity of the mind can be a barrier between us and the aliveness of each moment. Shikantaza is both a path to and an expression of our basic sanity, wisdom, and compassion. As we learn how to cultivate a basic friendliness with ourselves as we actually are, we begin to see that what we have been looking for is already here.

The other great discipline of the Zen way is koan introspection. Koans are poems and stories that both embody and elicit a moment of penetrating insight, bringing us to the dazzling reality of presence. The western master of koan introspection John Tarrant, Roshi has described a koan as “being like a jewel and the koan system as being a treasure box of world culture”.

At Boundless Way Temple there are many opportunities for engaging with both of these ancient disciplines as well as with other traditional Buddhist practices under the direct guidance of qualified Zen teachers. We are an independent sangha bringing together the insights of both the Soto and Rinzai lines of Zen.

Regular Practice

The core of Zen discipline is regular meditation practice. We need to find time in our lives to sit down, to shut up and to pay attention. The core work of our sangha is to support individuals’ practice through providing opportunities to regularly meet and meditate together. In practicing together, we are supported and encouraged on this path of awakening.


Sesshin means “to touch the heart/mind”. Sesshin are extended silent practice periods lasting most commonly three, five or seven days. Retreats involve sitting and walking meditation, chanting and meal practice, as well as talks and individual meetings with a teacher. These extended practice periods allow us to go deeper into this mystery of awakening to our lives and are an essential part of Zen training. A Zen teacher once observed that attending a single sesshin is like practicing for a year. We offer monthly single-day retreats as well as sesshins lasting from two to 7 days, and a three week practice period, called Coming and Going Sesshin, where you may choose any number of days to be in residence.