I published a book on Zen in the 90s. In the book, I listed at least ten qualities of Zen. Some of these qualities are based on what I learned in a self-defense class I attended while working on Wall Street. The instructor gave acronyms to each of the letters of the word Zen. Z stands for zest. E stands for energy. N stands for “nowness.”
Looking back, I think the most important quality of Zen is what I called “Zest,” meaning enthusiasm, energy, eagerness and interest. The Chinese word I would use to describe zest would be 活, meaning “living” and “aliveness.” On the whole, Zen has more to do with Taoism (which is Chinese) than with Indian Buddhism. The Chinese mind is markedly different from the Indian mind. Chinese philosophy tends to be more concrete and earthly. It does not delve much into metaphysics or the mystical like the Indian mind. If you read Chinese poetry or Japanese haiku, you will notice that these Asian poetry use very concrete imagery. It seldom gets into abstract thoughts.
If I have to condense the many different qualities of Zen into one, I would use this word 活. Zen is all about the direct, down-to-earth living experience. It does not get into intellectualization or conceptualization. Zen is the art of living. It is all about daily life — eating, sipping tea, walking, sleeping, cooking, etc. It does not involve higher thoughts. But the art of living is about doing all these mundane daily activities with zest, enthusiasm and interest. You do the mundane things with energy, mindfulness and passion. D.T. Suzuki said that “there is something rejuvenating in the possession of Zen. The spring flowers look prettier, and the mountain stream runs cooler and more transparent.” Why? I am sure that one reason is that you slow down and savor the everyday experience. In modern life, we emphasize speed, as if the objective of life is to rush through everything so that we can get to the next activity. But Zen culture is a slow culture. Unless you slow down and pay attention to what is happening now, you cannot enjoy or appreciate. In addition, there is no multi-tasking in Zen. You do one thing at a time.
It is because Zen has to do with the direct living experience that it does not philosophize. It does not get into religious doctrines either. This does not mean that the intellect is necessarily bad. But if you are always thinking, you may forget about living. When I am washing dishes, I am fully immersed in the washing experience. My mind does not wander away to think about what good show I am going to watch on TV. When washing dishes, just wash dishes. I wash dishes as if it is the single most important task in the entire universe at that moment. This way, my washing dishes becomes a dance, a sacred ritual and an offering to the Most High. I feel the coolness of the running water. I sense the texture and smoothness of the dishes. I smell the fresh scent of the detergent. I feel fully alive! A mundane task is transformed into something magical.
Zen is therefore very simple. Just focus on the task at hand. Whatever you are doing, do it with all your heart and soul. That is all. Isn’t this enough — to be alive and to live fully in the moment? Why complicate?