Principles of Zen

by Julian Websdale


Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in China during the 6th century as Chán. From China, Zen spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and East to Japan.

 The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (dʑjen) (pinyin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state”.

 Zen emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment and the personal expression of direct insight in the Buddhist teachings. As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine and favors direct understanding through zazen and interaction with an accomplished teacher.

 Experience Only

Nothing matters save experience. Zen is not a system of philosophy, nor of psychology, nor of meditation, and when it tries to explain itself in these terms it ceases to be Zen.

 The Buddhist Scriptures, and the Zen equivalent, are records of so many men’s achievement, a description of their experience.

 Their use to us, if any, is to stimulate our minds to the like experience, and Buddhism is only of value as it serves to train its students to that end. For the like reason, Zen is concerned with experience and not with its modes of expression.

In Zen the means is the end; the end and the means are one. To find true ‘suchness’ in the job in hand is utterly sufficient. Once found, the world is never the same again to the eyes that have seen.

In Zen there is no authority for any man save his own experience, nor respect for a teacher save that he tries to assist his pupil to achieve his own.

The intellect will reason to its own approval, and may clearly prove that Zen does not exist; the heart knows otherwise, and the ‘soul’ or ‘higher Self’ is silent, knowing what it knows.

 The Intuition

What, then, is the intuition, and how do we develop it?

Dr. Suzuki, speaking of the work of the Zen master, once said that,

‘the insight he has gained into Reality must be organized into a system of intuitions so that it will grow richer in content. The insight itself is contentless, for to be so is its very condition.’

But he goes on to say that this emptiness is no abstraction, but a dynamic force which motivates all other aspects of the Buddhist life.

 Each aspect of the training should be ruled from the intuition, for all of it is designed to its development. Assume its existence, and then use it. Trust its whispering, its sudden flashes of an understanding which the reason may not follow at that time.

 Developing the intuition amounts to no more than this.

Once the faculty is known to exist it will shine the more in the darkness of our reasoning.

 ‘Seeing Directly into the Heart of Man’

This famous line in the summary of Zen attributed to Bodhidharma, the founder of the School of Zen, can form the basis of a volume of commentary, and a few notes here may help.

 The first word is to ‘see’, and seeing has a meaning of its own in Zen. The artist is trained to see things as they are, which means that he must look at them, hard and long and without reaction. In the same way a Zen student learns to look at things, hard and long, but he finds that they are not as the artist sees them.

 Hence the Chinese saying:

‘In the beginning, mountains are seen as mountains and trees as trees.’

First, then, we accept things as they seem to be. Then we find they are not so, and we analyze them into their ever-changing and unreal constituents.

 We learn to accept them as what they now seem to be, the actor without his mask, the situation stripped of its glamour, the laws of our being whether we approve of them or not. We begin to break up large and abstract concepts, and see their danger to the evolving mind.

 What is this thing called the State, what is Peace, what, indeed, is Reality?

 We do not know, and ‘define’ them merely by a further batch of concepts. So we learn to be less fooled by others’ opinions, slogans, clichés, and ignorant, one-sided views. We begin to think for ourselves, and increasingly to form no opinions or views. We learn to distinguish our own reactions of like/dislike from our decisions on true/untrue, and so distrust all of them.

We feel less fear, of the dentist or the ‘future’; we hope less, that it will keep fine or that ‘it will be all right’; we care less, whether we succeed or fail, are thanked or not, or even noticed. Situations are more coolly appraised.

 The eye sees now more deeply into the causing of all situations, and the almost inevitable effect of others’ (and our own) persistent folly.

 The heart of compassion sees what can be done, or cannot, but helps to the hilt wherever a fellow form of life has need. We learn to blame less, to take the responsibility for our own condition.

 As Epictetus, the Stoic slave remarked,

‘If any man be unhappy, let him know that it is by reason of himself alone.’

With deeper and deeper seeing we detach ourselves from things and situations, while entering them according to the moment’s need.

We can enter a mould without being caged in it, obey the laws and moral rules of our society without being bound by them.

‘Do what you will,’ as someone said, ‘but not because you must.’

We obey to be free by our obedience.

 Such seeing leads in time to Zen seeing. Seeing is experiencing, seeing things in their state of suchness or is-ness.

I think that there is no such virtue as tolerance; rather it is the progressive absence of intolerance. For intolerance of anything and anyone implies a measure of egotism which claims to know better than anyone what is right for someone else.

As the egotism dies with the ego, so does the intolerance. What is left is a busy minding of one’s own business, an occupation for twenty-four hours a day. For there is no authority for such comparative excellence, nor for anything else.

 No master of Zen ever claims authority for Truth; he speaks what he knows, but the other must find it to be true.

Little boy in zen meditation preparing to be good student with apple on the head

Little boy in zen meditation preparing to be good student with apple on the head


Early Results

Regular meditation will bring results.

 It has been well said that Buddhism analyses the mind which analyses, and makes discoveries; and the deeps of the mind will react to the stimulus of the search.

 The results may be unpleasant, as when a pond is stirred to the bottom.

 There may be unwelcome psychic visions, and upsets of many kinds. There will also be pleasant ‘visions’, dangerous for their attraction but equally of no importance. There will be sudden ‘hunches’ in the course of study, an intellectual click when a missing piece of our understanding falls into place. And as the intuition develops there will be flashes of deep awareness.

But with the first taste of reward may come the first call for payment. Nature preserves the balance in all things; all that is gained is paid for.

 The effort to climb the ladder of progress ahead of one’s fellow men, and therefore ahead of the norm of one’s spiritual age-group, itself calls down a reaction of the stored-up Karma of the past. At any time there are accumulated effects of action awaiting adjustment in the scales of cosmic law, whether we call these consequences good or bad.

He who takes his future in his hands, and moulds his own life accordingly, may be called on to pay these debts more quickly, that he may be free.

 The Middle Way between the Opposites

It has been said that the Zen path is a Middle Way with no middle.

This is true, though a paradoxical way of saying it. The Buddha’s Middle Way as described in his First Sermon lies between the extremes of asceticism and self-indulgence, but it is a balanced path between all pairs of opposites, not only extremes but opposing views and complementary means of ever-increasing subtlety.

We must learn to see this process from, as it were, the viewpoint of the ‘higher third’ which embraces both, and is the hinge of the pendulum which swings between them. In time we reach a point when we see that nothing said or done is ‘right’, because it is partial, and therefore off the middle line.


To the Zen practitioner, two important statements are to be emphasized.

 First, that Wisdom and Compassion are inseverable. Wisdom is useless unless and until applied in compassionate action; love must be used with wisdom as its guide or it may do harm to the beloved. And Nirvana is Samsara.

Was ever a greater statement made in the long course of recorded history, and in the longer tradition of Wisdom not yet written down?

 That the Truth, Reality, the Absolute, the utmost Heaven, Nirvana itself is here and now, and to be found, and only to be found in this, the job in hand – the very thought is staggering. But all this lies on a Middle Way whose width is nothingness.

 We miss it a thousand times a day, but when for an infinite moment of no-time we walk it, wholly and free – such is a moment of Zen.

Everyday Life

The ‘usual life’ in Zen is a very different life, old circumstance perceived with utterly new eyes, the trivial seen as an aspect of the eternal, God in the filling of a pen. In the light of this new discovery life for the moment now stops.

 Where are we going, then? If nowhere, why this effort, why walk on?

 The Answer is that we still walk on, on a path that is trodden within, yet on steps which lie without – yet where the treading is neither in nor out but just a constant treading, just a joyful yet compassionate, relaxed yet strenuous moving with the flow of life to its own inseverable identity of every part in a living and unending whole.

Our aim is to raise the quality of living, but not necessarily the standard of living.

 The saint and sage are content with a hut and the simplest living, but their minds are content with nothing less than universal consciousness. Thus the present job and home comfort is good enough; Buddhism is a ceaseless enemy to selfish ambition for the aggrandizement of self. There is nothing more important than the job in hand; there never will be, though the job may change.

Zen wearies of abstractions, and always the master brings the attention back to the here and now.

All that matters in Zen is the ‘moment’ that is born between one and two, the moment before time itself was born. And the moment is now; it is always now but the Now as newly seen has eternal value (see The Eternal Now).

 This when applied to the next thing to be done removes so much of our worry, and the long sequence of emotional reaction with which we plague our days. If we do not find our enlightenment in what we are doing because it is the right thing to do we shall never find it while doing something else.

All life is changing, all the forms of it, and we flow with the river or we refuse.

 If we happily flow we see, as science has seen, that things are really events in time and space, that events are minor or major whirlpools on the river of time. If we flow with the river, the ceaseless tide of our karma, we can digest it, as it were, as we flow, and feel no suffering.

Accept it and we are one with it; resist it and we are hurt.

The false ‘I’ forms as we stop from flowing, and to those still moving on we shout, as a child on its sand castle, to attract admiring attention. But life has flowed on and we just look silly, while someone else must do the job we left undone.

 Life, then, is flow. It follows that the seeking is the finding, the deed is the doing of it, the means of the moment are themselves the end.

Now ‘the perfume of the Void’ begins to have meaning. Intangible, invisible, no ‘thing’, it is like a subtle air that penetrates each corner of the day. Finer in quality than any gas, it is the very essence of the smallest substance known.

It dwells in all forms; it is the form:

‘the form is emptiness, the very emptiness is form’.

Yet these are the words of the Heart Sutra, at the very heart of Zen.

Then a sudden flash lifts a corner of the curtain, and consciousness is suddenly ‘aware’, while the hands are typing or sewing or washing up. Suddenly it is all right, all one, no difference.

Thereafter usual life goes on as before, but not quite as before. Trees are once more trees, but differently seen. The wheel of rebirth still rolls, and men still suffer damnably. But it’s all right now, it’s all right. Karma adjusts each folly to its cause, compassion speaks and moves to heal the suffering.

 But it’s all right; we can get on with the job in hand, which is another name for Wisdom and an excellent name for Zen.

Let the mind abide nowhere, for that is its true home.

Ten Principles of Zen

  • Zen, derived from the Sanskrit Dhyana, is the subject of Zen Buddhism, and connotes a state of consciousness beyond description. Zen Buddhism provides a system of training of which the immediate object is the experience known as satori. Its ultimate object is enlightenment.                                                                                                                                                         
  • The Zen training aims to relieve the inner tension produced by profound experience of the mind’s duality. Until this problem is insufferably acute no approach to the Zen master will be profitable.                                                                                                                             
  • There are no specifically Zen scriptures, but the doctrinal background of the training is derived from the Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures and the principles of the Yogacara School. These doctrines include Sunyata, the Void of all ‘things’, Tathata, the ‘suchness’ or essential nature of each ‘thing’, and Mind-only, the source of all existence, as of each human mind.                                                                                                                                                                   
  • The experience of satori cannot be defined, for it takes place beyond the limits of concept, and out of time, in a state of non-duality before the birth of One and Two. It manifests in sudden flashes of awareness which, on the return to the plane of duality, are found to be unmistakable, impersonal and incommunicable.                                                                    
  • Yet though the experience is sudden, the preparation for it is long, hard and gradual. This process cannot be hurried, yet the pressure towards achievement must be unceasing.                                                                                                                                                                             
  • Satori cannot be achieved by the senses, the feelings or the process of thought. It can only be known through the faculty of the intuition, the power inherent in every mind of direct, immediate perception of Reality. No one knows that he is in this condition, for in satori there is no self to know.                                                                                                                                                     
  • Satori is experienced in the course of daily life, though not necessarily in the present life. It is solely concerned with ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘this’. It appears as the ‘No-middle’ on the Middle Way between all conceivable opposites, for in the division of the opposites it has ceased to be.                                                                                                                                                                    
  • There are degrees of enlightenment, in the depth, range and duration of the experience, but these terms have no meaning as limiting the experience itself.                                                   
  • The results of satori are not immediately visible save to the eye of the master. But its unseen effect is to raise the spiritual condition of mankind.                                                                                                                           
  • No Zen master teaches anything: there is nothing to teach, for each man is already enlightened. Yet there is a transmission of Zen.

See also ‘The Mystical Path.’


  • Humphreys, C. (1985). Zen: A Way of Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton.