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What Is the True Meaning of Zen?

The True Meaning of Zen

Every time I turn around these days there’s a new blog with “Zen” in its title.

“Zen” is being linked to everything from copywriting, web design, and business strategy to personal development, food, and far more.

Some bloggers are genuinely trying to express what they believe to be the spirit of Zen via their work and their blog. Others may simply be riding the popularity wave from Zen Habits

And some credit should go to the icons who introduced Zen into mainstream consciousness starting in the ’50’s:  Jack Kerouac with the book The Dharma Bums, the philosopher and writer Alan Watts, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and Robert M. Pirsig known for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle.

But just to set the record straight, Zen is not…

  • a habit
  • simplicity
  • a state of peace
  • a state of mind
  • a minimalist aesthetic
  • living simply
  • a destination
  • nor is it just being in the moment

These are merely popular concepts about Zen.  In reality, true Zen is far beyond concepts.

What is the True Meaning of Zen?

Zen is a remarkable wisdom tradition.

It is a path to fully awaken to your original nature, which is present right here, right now.  It is the essence of wisdom and compassion embodied in spiritual masters like Shunryu Suzuki-roishi and Thich Nhat Hahn.  It is a living lineage of tradition passed on since the time of the Buddha.

What is Zen? Find out its true meaning. #zen #zenbuddhism #suzukiroishi #suzukiroishiquotes #zenmind

“Zen” is actually shorthand for Zen Buddhism.   According to the Random House Dictionary 2010, Zen is “…a Mahayana movement, introduced into China in the 6th century and into Japan in the 12th century, that emphasizes enlightenment for the student by the most direct possible means.”

Zen is practiced mainly in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam although there are many Zen centers in the United States as well.

The word Zen is derived from the Chinese word “chán” and the sanskrit word “dhyana,” which mean “meditation.” In sanskrit, the root meaning is “to see, to observe, to look.”

Zen is a noun. Zenic is an adjective.

It’s not uncommon to misunderstand Zen even when you study and practice it. That’s why it helps to have a teacher.  The great spiritual master Shunryu Suzuki-roishi once said:

“And this misunderstanding—the misunderstanding you have about Zen, I think—when we say:  Zen, oh, Zen is wonderful [laughs].  Whatever you do, that is Zen [laughing].  Even though you are doing something wrong, that is Zen.  Whatever you do is Zen.  That is why I like Zen.  [Laughs, laughter.]  This kind of misunderstanding I think you will have about Zen.  But what we actually mean is quite opposite.”

There is nothing imprecise about Zen.  At the same time, it’s almost impossible to put your finger on true Zen.

“Zen mind is one of those enigmatic phrases used by Zen teachers to make you notice yourself, to go beyond the words and wonder what your own mind and being are. This is the purpose of all Zen teaching—to make you wonder and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature.” – from the introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki-roishi.

Zen mind cannot be understood from the perspective of our ordinary, dualistic mind.

“We say “big mind,” or “small mind,” or “Buddha mind,” or “Zen mind,” and these words mean something, you know, but something we cannot and should not try to understand in terms of experience. We talk about enlightenment experience, but it is not some experience we will have in terms of good or bad, time or space, past or future. It is experience or consciousness beyond those distinctions or feelings.  …Enlightenment cannot be asked for in your ordinary way of thinking. When you are not involved in this way of thinking, you have some chance of understanding what Zen experience is.” –  from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki-roishi.

Zen practice may calm our mind, bring more clarity, and infuse us with greater kindness.  But the ultimate goal of Zen isn’t seeking or clinging to peace.  Calming the mind is just one part of the story. The purpose of Zen isn’t to put an end to the activity of mind.  That would be impossible anyway.  As Shunryu Suzuki-roishi explains when he speaks about zazen (sitting meditation),

“When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer.”

“Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water.. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one.” –  from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki-roishi.

If you would like a taste of true Zen, a good place to start would be with Suzuki Roishi’s spiritual classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

The Allure of the Word “Zen”

There’s no turning back from the fact that Zen has acquired a “colloquial” meaning in modern life.  Maybe it’s the zip and zing of the actual word “Zen” that is part of its allure.  And, it conveniently rhymes with a whole range of other words making for ever so zingy blog titles.  Chances are there will be many more blogs with “Zen” in their title and many other enterprises too.

This is just a gentle reminder, amidst the pull of popular trends, let us not forget the profound and true meaning of Zen.

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra



21 Ways to Simply Be


A Letter from the World of Emptiness


  1. If I were to write a Zen guide it would be a book of empty pages.

    One of my favorite quotes from Shunryu Suzuki

    “Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened beings, only enlightened activity.”

    Activity? What kind of activity though? Habits? Thoughts? No.

    So, then – the attitude behind the habits? The attitude behind the thoughts? Yes.

    I like using the word “zen” in my writings because it is provocative and anti-Type A personality (which is so prevalent in the “DO NOW, DO MORE” blogs).

    Great post. Lots to think about and you mentioned most of the big names (Thich Naht Hahn,, Alan Watts, Robert M Pirsig)

    Never heard of Mary Jaksch, I will check her out now!

    • Steven,

      It’s so nice to hear your thoughts. This is another wonderful quote from Suzuki-roishi. I appreciate your receptivity. It’s interesting to hear how you use the word “zen” in your writing.

      You have a great mix of related content on your site, The Emotion Machine. I’m really looking forward to diving in and exploring more.

      It would be interesting to see how your book of emptiness sells! 🙂 Just kidding!

  2. Hi Sandra! Thanks for setting the record straight on the meaning of Zen. Just like you said, I’ve heard it often that it helps to have a teacher while on the spiritual path. I’m more of the Hindu tradition than the Zen tradition. I’d say that for the moment my teacher is Papaji, but he isn’t alive. As they say, “when you are ready, the teacher will come.” Maybe another teacher will come (as it often happens) and, who knows, he might be Zen. 🙂
    Loving blessings!

    • Hi Andrea,

      I have great respect for the Hindu tradition too. Right now I’m reading an advance copy of Be Love Now by Raam Dass. It’s filled with stories about Hindu teachers, which I appreciate and learn from. It’s true – a teacher doesn’t have to alive for there to be a strong connection. May you constantly receive the blessings fo Papaji.

      Thanks for telling us more about you. I love getting to know you.

  3. Hi Sandra,
    What a beautiful post! “Zen” is a great word, and I appreciate the contributions that bloggers are making who use it in their blog names.

    The only “thing” I love is the truth, and you have spoken so clearly in this post about the true meaning/experience of zen.

    • Hello Gail,

      Thanks so very much for your kind words. Just seeing Suzuki-roishi’s face communicates so much itself! I appreciate your comment.

  4. I learned a lot from this post, as I am probably one of those guilty of using the word in an in appropriate context. The word “zen” might be as overused as the word “organic”. Thank you for clarifying this for me.


    • Hi Kathleen,

      I’m happy you feel you learned a lot from this post. Yes, “organic” is certainly applied to a ton of foods that are not organic! I love seeing your colorful gravatar. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I’m with you! I’m not a big fan of fads, which certainly includes the overuse of words to the point of diminished meaning. Can you sniff a flower so often the scent disappears? The answer is yes.

    • Hi Jen,

      Thanks for adding this interesting point – how overused words lose their meaning. Excellent example as well. Thanks so much for coming by and leaving a comment. All the best to you.

  6. Hi Sandra, I’m blessed to have a zen monk guiding me, but he’d not describe himself that way. In many ways zen is the platform to heal from. Turmoil and peace co-exist, one is no more or less than the other. Understanding without guidance, secondary thought, the union between what is and what can be. The overused and misunderstood “I am”, I am no one thing, I am nothing, therefore I can be all things. Would you like to interview Gegu?

    • Hi Simon,

      Oh yes, I remember your very old Chinese monk! 🙂 Now that’s an interesting proposition. I’ll be thinking about that. Thanks for your insightful contribution. All the best.

  7. Sandra,
    What an enlightening article! You truly have set the record straight.
    I do love the spirit of Zen too and all it embodies. With great respect for all spiritual teachers….cause infact in all oneness, all teach beautiful peace….its just that the way, the language, the practices are different all leading to similar healing. And I am open to them all. I love to learn..and this post of yours has been such a beautiful learning for me. Thank you sweetie!
    So Much Love,

    • Dearest Zeenat,

      I agree there are many paths to revealing our true nature. I respect them all too, although I follow one tradition deeply. Thank you again for all your positive energy and kindness. Thank you so much for visiting.

  8. Very enlightening article. Yes the words Zen is overused, and often in the wrong way – I totally agree with Jen. I remember reading Pirsig’s book ages ago, you made me want to go back to it.

    • It’s interesting to hear from Jen and from you on how you feel the word “Zen” is overused. I know for myself, I think twice before clicking on a blog with Zen in the title for this very reason. The content can sometimes so cliché. Thanks for adding this perspective.

  9. Thanks for clarifying this- I never really knew what zen was!

    • Welcome Carolee,

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment on my blog. Glad you enjoyed the article. I look forward to reading your advice on working from home. All the best!

  10. Sandra, I saw the title of your post on CommentLuv when I was at Kikolani, giving a quick thanks to Kristi. The title resonated so deeply I had to follow the link. Who cares how far behind I am on my work when there is such an enticing blog post to be read? 🙂

    The term ‘Zen’ has become commercialized and watered down because of overuse. I tend to view posts that use it in the titles as ‘gimmicky’ unless they’re discussing ‘true’ Zen in some way, as this one does.

    Thanks for this excellent post and the thoughts it provokes.

    • Hi Jean,

      Thanks for your feedback on the title, which means a lot to me coming from you given your growing expertise and talent in blogging.

      It’s fascinating to hear that you too think that the word ‘Zen’ has become commercialized and watered down because of overuse. I didn’t expect to be hearing that in the comments although I might have an inkling that it would be so.

      Thanks for taking the time to add your insight to the conversation. I really appreciate it so much. You are such a genuine person and I really feel that it all that you do in the blogosphere.

  11. Good post. While I don’t know much about Zen, I appreciate the distinction you’ve made here. And, the book you mentioned, I’ll have to get that.

    Zen definitely has a fascinating allure around it just like the general mystique of everything Asian.

    • Hell Bamboo Forest,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You can follow the link in the article to read the book online. So true – many people find the mystique of Asia alluring.

      I really appreciate your taking the time to comment. It’s nice to connect and also for me to hop over to see your pretty site.

  12. Sandra,
    This is just wonderful!!! It is so filled with the deeper meaning behind the word “Zen”, and in that – I find even deeper clarity for myself. One thing that has really made a connection for me has been the zen (Enso) circle – something I also use in the header on my site (and have as a tattoo on my back). Your writing today just takes my own understanding of this even deeper…and I am truly grateful for that….

    • Lance,

      I’m so happy your resonated with this article and it helped to deepen your understand. I’m grateful to Shunryu Suzuki Roishi! We are so fortunate to have had great masters like him among us. Thanks so much for your enthusiasm and kind words.

  13. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything.

    I thank you for this info and am going to check out that beginner book. I have read some of the authors you mention. I’m a student of A Course In Miracles and so is hubs (for 25+ years) we’ve been married since I was 17 and pregnant and it works for us. The goal of the course is peace of mind. I get the difference and like what you’re saying because I am bothered if I don’t have peace. I’m open to all things and would say I have a blended sprirituality because if something works for me I’ll do it. I don’t like to be off the “path” for more than a few minutes;) So I do what it takes to put me back on. In fact I’m going to write an ebook or article haven’t decided which about numerous spiritual practices. It reminds me of the different paths up the mountain but it’s all the same when we get there. As long as I’m not circling the bottom of the mountain I’m happy. LOL

    • Hi Tess,

      I too find this is one of the remarkable quotes from Suzuki-roishi. Through studying meditation over the years, I am finally understanding that thoughts are not the enemy not even negative ones. All sorts of things arise in my mind but if I let them float by they don’t take on any solid reality. So I don’t need to actively create peace, but just allow my mind to be naturally peaceful by not chasing after thoughts. I’m glad you resonate with this point. If you follow the link, you can read the book online. Thanks for sharing your insights. The Course in Miracles is a wonderful path indeed.

      I wish a smooth process with creating your ebook and look forward to seeing it. ~Sandra

  14. I did think of Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance when I saw your title. I also thought of the wonderful book The Wisdom of Zen I bought for Des many years ago in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City . This is full of quotes from Japanes Zen Masters.

    I have always thought of Zen as a form of meditation. A means to inner peace. It is interesting how the word is now used and the eclectic meaning s it has.

    Here is the quote from the front of the book by Master Deshimaru : The mind’s bright moonglow,pure, unsullied,spotless,breaks the waves that rush upon the shire and flood it with light.

    Thank you for a wonderful post

  15. Amen to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I have read it several dozen times and learn something new and practical every time!

    • I’m with you, Charley! I have been so moved by looking at this book again that I plan to hunker down with it for another good read. Thanks so much for your comment.

  16. Reading this reminded me of The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau. That was the first book I read about Zen Buddhism. Since reading it, I have not kept my interest in Zen up, apart from reading blogs such as Zenhabits. I’ve added Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to my wishlist at Amazon, but going to look at some local used bookstores for it in the coming days.

    I think a return to reading about zen is in store for me. Thank you, Sandra Lee.

    • Hi James,

      It delights me to have reignited your appetite for Zen via Suzuki Roishi! Enjoy! I must confess to not knowing what a polymath is (therefore, I clearly am not one). So I am happy to meet you – my first “official” polymath. No doubt I’ve met polymaths in the past but in my ignorance did not recognize them.

      Wishing you the best.

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