Who are we really? What is really the meaning of Life? How can we attain lasting happiness in the face of our seemingly endless troubles? These questions are basic to our lives, and it is from these questions that the practice of Zen has its birth.
Zen can be the compassionate scalpel that removes the layers of accrued opinions, beliefs, and frozen expectations that stand between us and true experience. Zen shows us that what we mistakenly call ourselves, our personal identity, is really no more than a mask over our true selves and natures.
Beliefs, opinions, prejudices, educational and cultural training, our family backgrounds: All these are merely accidental factors, if you will. They are necessary tools for survival and integration into the larger society, but they are not really who you are.
Without falling back on convenient definitions of job, religion, sex and so on, who and what are we? If you lose your job, will you lose yourself? If you convert to another religion, do you substantially change? It may seem so if you are overly attached to these limiting definitions. Despite all these changes, however, something remains the same. What and where is the thing upon which we can stand firm? If the outside is so unstable and prone to change, then it would make sense to look within—to ourselves. But what are we on the inside? What in the world are we?
Zen can help us answer these questions, although Zen itself is not an answer. Zen is, if anything, the biggest question of all. It is the question that becomes a wedge in the cracked shell of our true self, prying us open to a meaning and truth that will have relevance to ourselves alone. It is a dance and a tug-of-war with ourselves. It demands no belief in anything, and instead insists on a great doubt concerning everything we had heretofore taken for granted. While belief is not a requirement, faith most certainly is. Faith is the unspoken, nameless and formless yearning for completion and wholeness.
Part One of an article from inner self magazine - What Is Zen? by Mel Ash