What is Zen?

“Zen Master Seung Sahn said there are two central questions for every human being.

Number one: What are you doing right now?

Number two: Why do that?

These two questions point to how we live our life, moment to moment, and our great vow.”

By Zen Master Dae Kwang


In the quote above, these two questions essentially ask the great question of “What am I?” This question helps to keep our mind clear. We call this our ‘inside work’.

But there are two kinds of work: Inside work and outside work. Inside work is keeping a clear mind. Outside work is cutting off selfish desires and helping others. This is Zen.

Being concerned only about inside work is not correct Zen practice. Focusing only on inside work means trying to find peace of mind only for me.

Including outside work into our individual practice means living with a direction for others and not only for myself. How can we help others? What can each one of us do that is of service?


But Zen does not rely on words

It would be a great mistake to try to describe the essence of Zen with words and letters or specific actions. It does not allow any possible description, as it always has been such.

This is because Zen does not rely upon words, letters, consciousness or ideas.

However, it does not mean that words, letters, consciousness and ideas should be discarded—it means simply that Zen is not restrained by them.

As indicated by an old masters' teachings:

Not relying on words,
A transmission outside the sutras.


Investigation of words cannot attain it;
Thought cannot reach it.

Like the old proverb, “The art can be taught, but not the genius,” it is possible to teach Zen in a commonsense way. It can only be learned through its perception and its spontaneous practice. It cannot be learned through words or letters.

If it is describable, the description is only something secondary, and cannot be the ultimate primary meaning. Because it is indescribable, the old master said:

Word’s road is cut off,
Mind’s arena is destroyed.


True form is beyond words.