American Zen

Zen is waking up out of the unconscious patterns of our lives and into heightened presence, awareness and clarity – then, living life right here as it is. Nothing special, and, oh, so special.

I teach and guide people in a way of living that draws on the wisdom and skills of Zen Buddhism, yet is thoroughly contemporary. I call it American Zen because America is the contemporary culture in which I live and teach. It could be European, or Asian or Latin or African because Zen doesn’t have to be bound to a culture. It is a way of approaching life that transcends culture. Likewise, while Buddhism is a religion that originated in Asia, I have always found it a little off-putting that Buddhism is often practiced in the West continuing to emphasize its Asian trappings and rituals. The Asian trappings and rituals are not Buddhism. That said, to absorb fully a statue or picture of the Buddha can be an experience of wholehearted presence, an example of the clarity, peace and calmness that communicates a great deal about Buddhism.

Buddhism is about living life in an “awakened” manner, which is what the word Buddhism means, and this awakening is not about some theological dogma, but about seeing and living life naturally, vitally and skillfully, not caught in the shallow experience of life only as a backdrop to all of our hectic activity and thinking about life. Fundamental to the teachings of Buddhism, the phrase “be here, now,” is often applied, and to me, here and now means just that. Not there and then, in some other cultural and time perspective. Buddhism, and its Zen expression, is really much more a philosophy of life and a psychology of the Human experience than an anachronistic religion. It can be applied in any cultural, historic or even religious context. American Zen then is the development of the concept of “here and now” to its full transformational potential within the cultural context of contemporary America.

Central to Zen, but not as some ritual, is meditation. Meditation is the practice of deepening our capacity for relaxed, yet very alert awareness. It opens us to profound conscious contact with the present moment where our lives are actually lived, while gaining in insight as to how our psychologically conditioned minds create a very artificial and limited relationship with life. It is about learning how each moment has its own uniqueness, but that we miss this uniqueness projecting our own concepts of self and the world onto the moments of our lives.

Zen is then about learning to bring the openness and focus we experience in meditation into everyday life. The practice of sitting meditation is a powerful practice for learning the mind and opening into discovery of who we are at our deepest level. But for our sitting meditation to achieve its full transformational potential, the consciousness achieved in the sitting must then enter our ordinary everyday life as mindfulness, the practice of knowing with a deep presence what we are doing as we do it. This connects us powerfully to life as we live it.

If all our neurosis is created by the conflicting messages we get from family and society about who we are and what is right and true, then Zen seeks to liberate us by instructing us to experience life directly, and to, as one Zen exhortation instructs, to “show original face”. This means to live in a manner emerging from capacities within us that are natural and fundamental rather than solely acting out the influences and conditioning of family and social experience. In this way, Zen is a psychology with powerful transformational capacity. It opens us to experiencing life anew, with immediate, open curiosity and wonder, getting out of the mazeway of our minds, greatly freed of neurotic thought and emotion.

Simplicity, naturalness, presence, connectedness and compassion are hallmarks of the Zen life. Zen is a living philosophy, a way of experiencing life in freshness and wisdom. It is not meant to be an arcane religion, but it is meant to awaken spiritual connectedness. In that way, Zen is the experience and expression of life as a sacred dance, here and now. Even the simplest of acts and experiences is imbued with the wonder of the sacred. Zen is the experience of the sacred in us encountering and entering the sacred in the World, transcending the experience of separateness, for the sacred cannot be divided into “me” and “other”. Zen is meant to awaken us into the spiritual dimension of life while living our ordinary secular lives.

American Zen, then, is American life, done with a Zen twist. The traditional Japanese Zen instruction that Zen is in “chopping wood and carrying water”, means it is to be found in the simplest of life’s tasks when those tasks are approached with relaxed alert awareness and a sense of sacredness. American Zen, then, is chopping wood and carrying water modern American style. It is about walking in nature or just down the street, driving your car, washing the dishes, eating a meal, gardening, sports and recreation, doing your job, interacting with people. The Zen is in being very present, very aware and reverential, not distracted, as you do whatever you do. It is about embracing Life just as it is, not insisting that Life meet your conditions for happiness. In Zen, you become increasingly aware that you are Life, that you are Nature. You no longer feel separate, dissatisfied and afraid.

Zen is waking up out of the unconscious patterns of our lives and into heightened presence, awareness and clarity – then, living life right here as it is. Nothing special, and, oh, so special. Stop being trapped by your past story of who you think you are, and begin living vitally in the present. Open your mind beyond the limits of its family and social conditioning into life’s full potential, which allows life to be markedly more meaningful, satisfying and manageable. Then, just live life, wherever you are. Only now, life is saner and has a joy, spontaneity, spirituality and peacefulness that is lacking in the typical conventional modern experience. Right here in America, living American Zen.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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