Smile, breathe and go slowly. Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Much has been written about Zen, but there are three essentials that are especially important. These insights and practices flow from the Buddha’s teachings, yet can be applied by people of all religious faiths.
The first is the awakening of wisdom, what Buddha called right view. It’s coming to see the impermanence and empty ‘self’ nature of all that exists. Seeing through the illusions of compartmentalized thinking to a more holistic understanding of how every atom, river, planet, galaxy and living being in our Universe arise together and flow as one interdependent ever-changing whole.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as ‘inter-being.’ Einstein, Lao Tsu, Alan Watts and Walt Whitman spoke of this, Van Gogh expressed this flowing unity in his paintings. It is the wisdom of great art, poetry, mysticism, modern physics, systems thinking and ecology, as much as Zen.
Learning to Trust Our Intuitive Mind
The second is ethical conduct and compassion, valuing love and life more than material things, power or wealth. Supporting others, seeking to reduce violence and suffering, cultivating greater kindness and equality in society. Prioritizing peace, love and compassion is at the core of what many wise beings have shared with the world down through history.
This is the Way of Jesus, Gandhi, the Beatles and Martin Luther King, as much as the Buddha. Until love is put into action humanity’s countless problems can not be solved. They taught that to truly transform our world, all important decisions- at all levels of society- need to be guided by the wisdom of our hearts.
Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Finally, Zen teaches mindfulness of the present moment, observing what is happening without attachment or aversion. Being aware of what we are doing right here, right now, where ever we are. The practice of seated meditation is meant to assist with efforts to concentrate and calm the mind, but it is moment-to-moment mindfulness in all situations that Buddha most strongly emphasized.
Through the practice of mindfulness we gain deeper insight to how our minds work, come to understand–and let go of–the ego-centeric patterns of thought, desire and fear that create suffering in our lives. Over time we learn to trust in the creative intelligence of spiritual awareness, the intuitive ‘Wisdom Mind’ that exists within each of us.
Prioritizing Wisdom, Compassion and Mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness are at the core of Zen practice, but are also an essential part of many other systems. Tai chi, yoga, painting, prayer, cooking, piano playing and many forms of exercise can help us to calm our minds and connect with the present moment, when done mindfully.
Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity. – Thich Nhat Hanh
These three essentials taught by the Buddha–wisdom, compassion and mindfulness–are linked together synergistically and interdependently. When we successfully prioritize all three each serves to strengthen the development of the others. Over time (and with practice) we become more compassionate, wise, mindful, loving, joyful and at peace.