Why Zen and Pi: Part I // The Essence of Zen

Since I have started this blog many people have commented or contacted me to inquire about the name “Zen and Pi”, what it means and how I came up with it. I wasn’t sure exactly how to explain what both Zen, and the number π, mean to me and why they are so important. I got the jump-start I needed a little while ago when I received a question from a reader through my contact form:

Hi Lisa,

you relate your writings to zen or your way of life. But how can you say “There are choices we can make. We can shape our own futures if only we become aware of what we do and why” Isn’t the essence of Zen, that we can’t do anything, we are just a process which is endlessly going on and every thinking about trying to do something for something is dualistic and due to that fact the idea of an ego… and you/we can’t do nothing against it? So you can’t shape your future, because there is no “You” which could be shaped and there is no more or less suffering Situation, to realize this – is ZEN! What are your thoughts on this? Heartful greetings Jonathan

I think despite the name of this blog I haven’t touched a whole lot on what Zen actually is, or why I think it’s important. Zen isn’t easy to write about because it’s such a slippery thing to grasp. Not to mention there are about as many ways to interpret and put into practice the principles of Zen as there are people practicing. Any thing you read or hear on the subject is just one persons way. What I have done is pull my definition of Zen from many sources, then I discarded what didn’t feel right, and added whatever I felt needed adding. To me, this is also the essence of Zen.


a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.

At the very base of Zen is zazen, seated meditation. It sounds easy, you sit, you breathe, you let your thoughts go, but it’s harder than you think. Sometimes you think of nothing, sometimes you can think of something. The point is to be aware of your thoughts without getting emotional about them. Just let everything come and go, you just breathe. I admit I haven’t been keeping up with this practice lately but I did find a very helpful app that guides you and teaches you how to mediate. It’s called Headspace and it is amazing.

When I first began to meditate I found that my brain felt a bit bored. I wanted to check my phone the whole time! I got through it though and I can tell you that it worked. I never would have believed it when I first started but after I meditate I really do feel…different. I feel relaxed and focused. I feel light and content. If there wasn’t science backing it I would swear I was being brainwashed or something.

What makes it so hard to grasp the essence of Zen is that it really isn’t a religion or dogma. Zen isn’t a moral teaching and doesn’t require you to believe in anything. It is only practical experience and it’s texts are comprised of short stories and sayings, called Koans, to teach you how to think, or what not to think.

Ikkyu, the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked: “Why do people have to die?”

“This is natural,” explained the older man. “Everything has to die and has just so long to live.”

Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: “It was time for your cup to die.”

Beyond the simplicity and the early results I got from meditation, I also like that Zen is about seeing the world as it really is, and without judgement. This also means evaluating your beliefs and actions and finding the why. Part of that is letting go of anger and fear and your own damn ego. This state is called Mushin. Once you let go of that you see how much time you waste jumping to conclusions and fighting the world. You realize that if you just think rationally about what is, you alleviate a lot of negativity naturally. It’s not forced, do not force yourself not to be angry, think and work through the why of your anger and it will dissipate on it’s own.

Another aspect of this is Zanshin, or mindfulness. It is the art of being present in every moment. I find it related to Mushin in that once you become aware of what you do you immediately begin to think about why you do what you do. This leads very quickly into changing your bad habits, and developing good ones. There is also an air of meditation to paying attention to every task you engage in. One example is doing a mundane, and often hated, activity like washing the dishes. Next time you do, pay attention to the way the soap suds feel, take a minute to notice the bubbles popping, enjoy the feel of the warm water. You will find there is a lot to wonder at and enjoy doing something you barely paid attention to before.


One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.

“Sun is warm, grass is green.”

Urban Dictionary

And finally there is the harmony between your body and mind. This can seem like a goal you ought to be working toward but I like to think of it as something that you can already do everyday. Just take a little time, during meditation is a good start, and just listen to and accept yourself as you are. Realize that you are, and forever will be, a beautifully flawed person. Remind yourself that that’s okay. Once you are able to do this well, start to remind yourself that this applies to other people and really all of nature as well. We are what we are and that is all.

A lot of people don’t like all the woo-woo talk and the riddles of Zen and often call bullshit. I think people take Zen too seriously. My favorite way of explaining it is from the philosopher, writer and speaker Alan Watts:

“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

Zen is about the here and now. The means are the end. The journey is the destination. Stop looking for some way of being to achieve, realize you are already there. All you need to do it focus on peeling the damn potatoes and BAM enlightenment!

So, in answer to the original question, no I don’t think Zen is about us not being able to change our futures. Just the act of meditating and being mindful will cause automatic changes to your life. Where your ego comes in is when you fight to change things that cannot be changed, or when you feel unnecessary anger at the world for not giving you what you feel you deserve.

Part of being Zenic is knowing that there will always be an element of suffering in the world but I believe that suffering is lessened by acceptance. I do not believe Zen is about acceptance of everything. Zen is about accepting what is and what cannot be changed. It is about letting yourself and the rest of the world be. It is about flowing like water. Water is always moving and changing but it chooses the path of least resistance. Find a way to make the changes you want in life but recognize that these changes need not be forced or overly difficult.

I guess Zen can be summed up quote nicely in this quote from the Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons


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