Last Updated on January 28, 2024
Trying to define Zen is like trying to describe a feeling to someone who has never felt it before. You can talk about being happy or sad or scared, but you can never fully or properly convey the emotion.
At the same time, someone who has never experienced the emotion can never fully comprehend the definition until they have felt it themselves. That is Zen.
Zen or Zen Buddhism is a practice and, for some, a deep religious belief that is not meant to be fully understood or even broken down into academic constructs. It is something meant to be spiritual, to be felt but not necessarily to be understood.
Although it won’t truly explain the overall Zen experience or the feeling you’ll feel when you achieve it, understanding the principles and history of Zen can give you a better picture of the concept. Nonetheless, looking at Zen Buddhism’s origins is a good place to start.
History of Zen
Zen has a long and rich history dating back nearly 1,500 years to 6th century China. Before it came to Japan, it had its origins in India where it was known as Chan, belonging to the Mahayana school of thought. It was then brought to China by a monk called Bodhidharma after which the Ch’an School of Buddhism began.
And for almost 600 years it remained within the confines of the country. It was here that the practice grew and developed. While there are stories of Buddhist meditation even before the Ch’an School, influenced mainly by Taoist beliefs, the largely accepted beginning of Zen was in the 6th century.
Afterward, the Chan concept was brought to Japan where it was known as Zen. It was embraced and quickly became a part of Japanese life and study. It wasn’t that long when Zen began reaching other parts of Asia and the world. It traveled to Vietnam and Korea where it was also adapted to suit the locals’ lifestyles. Regardless of the differences in practice, it was all still commonly referred to as Zen Buddhism.
Despite its early adoption in other Asian countries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the practice of Zen finally made its way into Europe and North America. This is why many Western countries still see these practices and teachings as new or modern even though they have been around for centuries.
Today, Zen is a popular term that encompasses both traditional and modern teachings. While there are still many who practice the traditional methods of Zen, to many others, it simply means finding inner peace, learning to live slowly and purposefully, and learning more about yourself and how you view the world.
How to Practice Zen
Those who believe in the religious aspect say that it was through Zazen that enlightenment found Gautama and he became Buddha.
Because of this, seated meditation or Zazen became the foundation for the Zen practice. Zen practitioners share that Zen will help you on the road to self-discovery and peace through the practice of sitting meditation and inner reflection. This promotes living in the moment and truly savoring every fleeting second in the here and now.
While the art of Zen is based on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, it is not a moral teaching like other religions as it does not have a dogma or require people to believe in anything or do any rituals in its honor. Instead, Zen is more about teaching people how to think and, in some cases, how not to think. Essentially, a big part of Zen is mind training and constant learning.
Sometimes it’s difficult for people to grasp the concept of sitting down and just meditating and thinking with no clear goal in mind but just to be.
In the fast-paced world we live in, this concept may seem like a waste of time, achieving nothing for the individual’s growth. But the opposite is actually true. Zen believers believe that Zazen will clear the mind and allow you to connect with yourself and learn more about what makes you unique.
But even beyond seated meditation, Zen is a total lifestyle. It is an attitude of welcoming spiritual awakening and, when practiced regularly, it can seep into and influence every aspect of your life – in a truly positive way. Zen can determine how well you sleep, how you breathe, walk, work, think, and even how you treat others and yourself. When practiced regularly, Zen can help you know yourself and live your best life.
Here are 85 poignant quotes about zen:
The Best Zen Quotes
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” – Rumi
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.” – Seneca
“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.” – Ray Bradbury
“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” – Alan Wilson Watts
“Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar” – Jim Butcher
“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” – Robert M. Pirsig
“I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.” – Eckhart Tolle
“Life is more or less a lie, but then again, that’s exactly the way we want it to be.” – Bob Dylan
“The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?” – Confucius
“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.” – Seneca
“Not being tense but ready. Not thinking but not dreaming. Not being set but flexible. Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement. It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.” – Bruce Lee
“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” – Meister Eckhart
“Letting go is the lesson. Letting go is always the lesson. Have you ever noticed how much of our agony is all tied up with craving and loss?” – Susan Gordon Lydon
“But when you’re in front of an audience and you make them laugh at a new idea, you’re guiding the whole being for the moment. No one is ever more him/herself than when they really laugh. Their defenses are down. It’s very Zen-like, that moment. They are completely open, completely themselves when that message hits the brain and the laugh begins. That’s when new ideas can be implanted. If a new idea slips in at that moment, it has a chance to grow.” – George Carlin
“Many have died; you also will die. The drum of death is being beaten. The world has fallen in love with a dream. Only sayings of the wise will remain.” – Kabir
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.” – Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” – Shunryu Suzuki
“The world is filled with love-play, from animal lust to sublime compassion.” – Alan Watts
“Where there are humans, You’ll find flies, and Buddhas.” – Kobayashi Issa
“Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning – already gone – thus should one regard one’s self.” – Ikkyu
“A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, ‘Why is there so much suffering?’ Suzuki Roshi replied, ‘No reason.’”- Shunryu Suzuki
“When you catch yourself slipping into a pool of negativity, notice how it derives from nothing other than resistance to the current situation.” – Donna Quesada
“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” – Masanobu Fukuoka
“The more you know, the less you need.” – Yvon Chouinard
“I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color–something which exists before all forms and colors appear… No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”- Shunryu Suzuki
“Silence is the language of Om. We need silence to be able to reach our Self. Both internal and external silence is very important to feel the presence of that supreme Love.” – Amit Ray
“If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” – Dogen
“It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.” – Jon J. Muth
“Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space?” – Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
“Wild woman are an unexplainable spark of life. They ooze freedom and seek awareness, they belong to nobody but themselves yet give a piece of who they are to everyone they meet. If you have met one, hold on to her, she’ll allow you into her chaos but she’ll also show you her magic.” – Nikki Rowe
“Too lazy to be ambitious, I let the world take care of itself. Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag; a bundle of twigs by the fireplace. Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment? Listening to the night rain on my roof, I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.” – Ryokan
“Commander, I always used to consider that you had a definite anti-authoritarian streak in you.”
“It seems that you have managed to retain this even though you are authority.”
“That’s practically zen.” – Terry Pratchett
“When you’ve understood this scripture, throw it away. If you can’t understand this scripture, throw it away. I insist on your freedom.” – Jack Kerouac
“Not thinking about anything is Zen. Once you know this, walking, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is Zen.” – Bodhidharma
“When the mind is exhausted of images, it invents its own.” – Gary Snyder
“For your past, for your flaws, and ultimately for your stress; I judge no one whom I’ve met along the way because in a sense we were all wounded in our own ways.” – Forrest Curran
“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” – Masanobu Fukuoka
“It is a wretched thing that the young men of today are so contriving and so proud of their material possessions. Men with contriving hearts are lacking in duty. Lacking in duty, they will have no self-respect.” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo
“Haiku is not a shriek, a howl, a sigh, or a yawn; rather, it is the deep breath of life.” – Santoka Taneda
“Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.” – Huang Po
“To preserve the silence within–amid all the noise. To remain open and quiet, a moist humus in the fertile darkness where the rain falls and the grain ripens – no matter how many tramp across the parade ground in whirling dust under an arid sky.” – Dag Hammarskjöld
“The things I carry are my thoughts. That’s it. They are the only weight. My thoughts determine whether I am free and light or burdened.” – Kamal Ravikant
“Your life is your practice. Your spiritual practice does not occur someplace other than in your life right now, and your life is nowhere other than where you are. You are looking for answers, insight, and wisdom that you already possess. Live the life in front of you, be the life you are, and see what you find out for yourself.” – Karen Maezen Miller
“To escape from the world means that one’s mind is not concerned with the opinions of the world.” – D?gen
“He knows not where he’s going, For the ocean will decide, Its not the destination, It’s the glory of the ride” – Edward Monkton
“Don’t think of what you have to do, don’t consider how to carry it out!” he exclaimed. “The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.” – Eugen Herrigel
“Who we are now is all that really matters.” – Amy Joy
“When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.” – Basho
“In pale moonlight / the wisteria’s scent / comes from far away.” – Yosa Buson
“I have no news of my coming or passing away – the whole thing happened quicker than a breath; ask no questions of the moth.” – Farid al-Din Attar
“Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.” – Dogen
“Consider your own place in the universal oneness of which we are all a part, from which we all arise, and to which we all return.” – David Fontana
“What is first seen as a loss is now seen as a gain. For he finds solitude, not in far off, quite places; he creates it out of himself, spreads it around him, wherever he may be, because he loves it and slowly he ripens in this tranquility. For the inner process is beginning to unfold, stillness is extraordinarily important.” – Janwillem van de Wetering
“A falcon hovers at the edge of the sky. Two gulls drift slowly up the river. Vulnerable while they ride the wind, they coast and glide with ease. Dew is heavy on the grass below, the spider’s web is ready. Heaven’s ways include the human: among a thousand sorrows, I stand alone.” – Tu Fu
“When mind exists undisturbed in the Way, nothing in the world can offend, and when a thing can no longer offend it ceases to exist in the old way. When no discriminating thoughts arise, the old mind ceases to exist.” – Sengstan
“What makes human life–which is inseparable from this moment – so precious is its fleeting nature. And not that it doesn’t last but that it never returns again.” – Steve Hagen
“Bravery is the choice to show up and listen to another person, be it a loved one or perceived foe, even when it is uncomfortable, painful, or the last thing you want to do.” – Alaric Hutchinson
“’The right art,’ cried the Master, ‘is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.’” – Eugen Herrige
“A boddhisattva is someone who is on the way to becoming a buddha. All of us become boddhisattvas as soon as we start to take our Zen work seriously and the work we do contributes to creating a world in which all good actions become more efficacious.” – David Brazier
“The point of the spiritual life is to realize Truth. But you will never understand the spiritual life, or realize Truth, if you measure it by your own yardstick.” – Dainin Katagiri
“Earth, mountains, rivers, hidden in this nothingness. In this nothingness, earth, mountains, rivers revealed. Spring flowers, winter snows. There’s no being or non-being, nor denial itself.” – Saisho Hiroshi
“Lao Tzu once said, ‘Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’ A single seed planted, eventually becomes a garden in time – when things get tough, tend to the garden in your mind.” – Jennifer Sodini
“When you blame, you open up a world of excuses, because as long as you’re looking outside, you miss the opportunity to look inside, and you continue to suffer.”- Donna Quesada
“Zen is a liberation from time. For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality.” – Alan Wilson Watts
“The baby looks at things all day without winking; that is because his eyes are not focused on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going, and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself within the surroundings and moves along with it. These are the principles of mental hygiene.” – Chuang-Tzu
“But people of the deepest understanding look within, distracted by nothing. Since a clear mind is the Buddha, they attain the understanding of a Buddha without using the mind.” – Bodhidharma
“When you paint Spring, do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots, but just paint Spring. To paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is to paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots – it is not yet painting Spring.” – Eihei Dogen
“There had to be something wrong with my life. I should have been born a Yugoslavian shepherd who looked up at the Big Dipper every night.”- Haruki Murakami
“Pardon all runners, All speechless, alien winds, All mad waters. Pardon their impulses, Their wild attitudes, Their young flights, their reticence. When a message has no clothes on How can it be spoken.” – Thomas Merton
“To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality; to assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality. The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth. Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know.” – Sengstan
“What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” – John Cage
“Do not seek for the truth, only stop having an opinion.”- Seng-Ts’an
“The object of your desire is not an object.” – Jack Gardner
“We are searching for the core of our lives; our culture intuits that writing, that ancient activity, might be the pathway…Awakening does not feed ego’s needs and desires; it pulverizes the self. Our society couldn’t knowingly bear such reduction, so we’ve tricked ourselves into the same path but call it writing.” – Natalie Goldberg
“The thinking brain influences the body’s responses and it makes a neat little loop.”- Brad Warner
“In Zen, there is an old saying: The obstacle is the path. Know that a whole and happy life is not free of obstacles. Quite the contrary, a whole and happy life is riddled with obstacles-they simply become the very stepping-stones that help lift us to a new perspective. It is not what happens to us in this life that shapes us, it is how we choose to respond to what happens to us.”- Dennis Merritt Jones
“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’” – Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps
“The love of nature is religion, and that religion is poetry; these three things are one thing. This is the unspoken creed of haiku poets.” – Reginald Horace Blyth
“There are no problems, only solutions.” – Vesa Peltonen
“Every day Zuigan used to call out to himself, ‘Master!’ and then he answered himself, ‘Yes, Sir!’ And he added, ‘Awake, Awake!’ and then answered, ‘Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!’‘From now onwards, do not be deceived by others!’ ‘No, Sir! I will not, Sir!’” – Mumon