Zen: is it real?

Picture this: San Francisco 1970’s. The zen centre is located conveniently near Haight Ashbury. Some hippies walk into the meditation hall, seat themselves on a cushion and sit for over half an hour, in complete bodily silence: like rocks. The regulars are impressed. Then, when the bell sounds, everybody gets up for kinhin (walking meditation). The newbies get up and fall over, like dominoes. They’ve been sitting like rocks because they were stoned. They had taken LSD before coming to the centre.

By Zours (Friend of uploader's) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

By Zours (Friend of uploader’s) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

According to some, the jury’s still out on whether you can reach kensho on acid. I’ve never done acid and I’m not sure I know what kensho is, so I will not attempt to answer that one. Kensho is a Japanese word that means ‘ken’, seeing and ‘shō’, nature or essence. You could derive from that how in a state of kensho, you’ll see nature for what it is. Or you might even see your own nature for what it is. These kinds of experiences are well-documented in Zen history.

Is it real?

If you practice zen and you think you have experienced kensho, you can go to your teacher and ask them. One of the stoned hippies did exactly that and all the roshi apparently asked was: “Is it real?” The hippie then decided it wasn’t. To make matters more complicated, within the framework of zen you don’t convince the roshi using words. Words are often frowned upon, as are questions. Shunryu Suzuki used to say:

“If I give you an answer, you’ll think you understand.”

So you’ll have to find your own answers, and to do that you have to sit zazen. Preferably for many hours and many years. Alan Watts was frowned upon for saying: “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.” 

Zen masters will also give lectures. But if you expect any answers from those, you might be in for a surprise. As Jun Po Denis Kelly recalls:

“A friend of mine who was a pothead, drug addict, alcoholic, and Beat poet-philosopher said to me, “You’ve got to come to this Zen lecture!” (…) So I went and sat through this lecture given in Japanese, and my friend said to me, “Wasn’t that great?” I said, “Great? I didn’t understand a word!” He said, “Who cares? Just listen.”

I’ve met people who sat through a zen lecture in their own language and still couldn’t understand any of it. You are actually encouraged to listen with a non-judging, open mind. That is a practice in itself. But still, I ask: Is it real?


Being a sceptic, I genuinely don’t know what to make of all this. I have meditated for some years now and I’ve seen the benefits in my personal life. Therefore, I would urge anyone to try it, but it would be essential to find a reliable teacher or a good book to start with. There are hundreds of books on meditation. A nice one, albeit from a buddhist perspective is “Meditation for life” by Martine Batchelor. Even if you don’t enjoy the text, you might find the pictures scream “Kensho” at you!

But if you do remain sceptical, please share your thoughts about all this. To me, being a sceptic is not about having all the answers, it’s about questioning my experience.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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8 Responses to Zen: is it real?

  1. Argus says:

    ” ======================
    . And this I know: whether the one True Light,
    . Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
    . One Glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
    . Better than in the Temple lost outright.
    ” ======================

    • Brilliant. Is it your own? 😉

      • Argus says:

        From ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ as enhanced by Edward Fitzgerald. (He made at least four variations but I much prefer his first.)

        Arguably one of the most perceptive works ever written.

        I’ve never bothered researching (I don’t research my heroes, too often the idols have feet of clay) (i.e. they’re human) but I think ol’ Omar might have been a Sufi.
        Sufism and Zen seem to share enough in common that there may have been a single source much further back …

        • Thank you.
          Not researching heroes might be a good policy.
          Maybe they have something in common because they look at the same phenomena, the same questions. People must have had lots of time to think before the internet. 😉

  2. Argus says:

    Dammit~! There MUST be a way of fudging punctuation in rep[lies … mutter mutter mutter …

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