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A Zen student once said, “It wouldn’t be Zen if it wasn’t confusing.”


A perfectly accurate observation that is especially true if you approach Zen as if it were just another research project for which you read a lot and utilize logic and intellect to understand. If you stick to just these usual learning methods and understanding, you will never “get it.”


So, how do you “get it”?


Zen training is like an onion: To reach the center bud, you must peel away layer by layer. Likewise, to find what is Real, you will have to peel away and let go all that you previously thought or learned. Only by doing this can we reach the essence.


To learn, let go.


There was once a learned Zen scholar who lectured extensively about the Diamond Sutra. After his realization, however, he burned his texts and commentaries because he accepted that Zen involved the transmission of something outside the writings, something beyond ordinary knowledge.


Zen is not about the words, but neither is it not not about the words. Our minds tell us that the truth is either yes or no, so it cannot be both yes and no, right?


And yet, this is exactly what Zen teaches: It is both yes AND no at the same time. It is both about the words and not about the words – simultaneously.  The challenge is to transcend the duality that our intellect has logically accepted all these years.


As young children, we succeeded in school by learning more: more arithmetic, more science, more history. More, more, more.  


By contrast, in Zen, we undergo intensive training not to gain anything but to delete. We let go of attachments and habits that we have accumulated since birth. We succeed by “unlearning,” and through this process, we can finally have an awakening to Reality.


What exactly is this Reality, this “it” that we are seeking?


Because what we are talking about is in fact indescribable, any words we use to say, “This is what it is,” are inadequate. The best we can do is to say, “No, not this” or “No, not that.” This is the principle of affirmation through negation. The Diamond Sutra, one of the primary texts of Buddhism, teaches this through example after example. Its lesson is simply:  If it is, it isn’t; if it isn’t, it is.


Like all things in Zen, it both is and is not. Yes, Zen can be very confusing!




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