What does “Zen” really mean?

I see the word “Zen” tossed around a lot these days. It seems to mean having a relaxing, spa-like experience. Is that what Zen’s really about?

Lion’s Roar Staff14 September 2017
Illustration by Nolan Pelletier.

This is the Whopper-with-cheese of Dharma-Burgers, as our editor Rod Meade Sperry dubbed appropriations of Buddhism for marketing or commercial purposes. Recently, “Zen” has become a synonym for relaxing, pleasurable, or mysterious experiences, or more generally, “being in the moment.”

Of course, “being in the moment” is a Zen principle. It’s just a lot easier when you’re enjoying a nice massage than sitting in a cold zendo at four in the morning. Ironically, no one describes that as “Zen.” As Zen teacher Norman Fischer explains in his overview of Zen, real Zen is the Japanese school of Buddhism that grew out of the Chan (meditation) tradition of China. The Soto school focuses more on zazen meditation (shikantaza), while the Rinzai school emphasizes the study of koans, such as “What is the sound of one hand?” Zen monastics typically meditate several hours daily, and practice all day (and sometimes all night) during periods of intensive meditation called sesshin. Zen is not all that “Zen.”

Lion s Roar Staff

Lion’s Roar Staff

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.