The Confusing Zen Explanations of a Buddhist Zen Daoist


What’s crackin’ muh dudes? I’ve been lookin’ back at my essay “Muh Boy Da Buddha” about the teachings of Sid the Budh Dude (aka “The Wise Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha”) and I’ve been kinda bummed. The essay works as a great baseline entry point to the Buddha’s teachings, but isn’t anywhere near in depth enough to help you understand all the things about Gautama the Buddha’s teachings that I use in my life. To help rectify that problem, I hit up my Zen master Buddhist buddy Dan Rotnem and the two us whipped up another essay so I could elaborate on some key points, and introduce you to Dan’s particular brand of Buddhism that I’ve come to prefer, Zen.

Right up front I wanna let you know that unlike that last paper where I tried to display different interpretations from various schools of Buddhism, this essay is being written from the entirely from perspective of Zen Buddhism. When I was wrote the last essay, I wasn’t too well versed in the various forms of Buddhism and really only had a baseline understanding of the teachings. Since then, I’ve made Buddhism a more active part of my life, and after learning more I’ve decided that I prefer Zen as my personal choice. That’s just a personal preference, obviously, and there isn’t a “wrong” school to choose.

The reason there isn’t a “wrong” school is because any school, any religion, any philosophy and even a total lack of all those thing can help lead a person to higher understanding as long as higher understanding is what a person is after. Every school has teachings that can lead to misunderstandings if followed too closely, because every school uses words in an attempt to transmit understanding. The reason why I’ve decided I like Zen, and why I love Daoism so much in the first place, is both of them emphasize this message:

Don’t rely on words. Intuitive understanding can only arise naturally.

Keep that in mind as you’re reading this. Trying too hard to understand the meanings of the words in this essay is gonna lead to overthinking, which gonna make things even harder to understand. Instead, relax your mind and let the message hidden between the lines come to you naturally.

To start out, I think it might be helpful to understand exactly what distinguishes “Zen Buddhism” from other forms of Buddhism. There’s many different interpretations of the sutras and I can’t really get into them all, but the three main schools of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana/Tibetan. Vajrayana is sometimes considered a part of Mahayana, but I’m not qualified to make a call on that dispute. I’m treating them as three for the purpose of this explanation, but be aware it’s a matter of debate.

I’m not at all familiar with Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism, but the main difference between Theravada and Mahayana is how long it takes to become enlightened, who can become enlightened, and what the reason for seeking enlightenment is.

Theravada tradition holds that the main goal of studying the teachings is to become an “arhat”, which is a term for someone who’s reached enlightenment. Theravadan practitioners believe realizing Nirvana takes many lifetimes, that the realization occurs all in one instant as a sudden epiphany rather than gradually over time, and that true understanding can’t be achieved by a layperson, only a monk who’s devoted their life to study in a monastery. Mahayana differs from that greatly.

Mahayana teaches something called the path of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone who pursues enlightenment with goal of using their understanding to help the rest of the world also come to the realization called Nirvana. This differs from an arhat who isn’t necessarily seeking enlightenment for the benefit of others. Mahayana also believes that enlightenment can be reached in a single lifetime, that it can come gradually over time for some while still occurring as an epiphany for others, and that it can be achieved by anybody not just monks.

Again, I’m not too sure on details to Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism other than that it began as an offshoot of Mahayana and grew into an independent school from there.
(Again, there’s disagreement on whether or not it’s still considered Mahayana)

Zen is a further division of Mahayana Buddhism. For an explanation of that, I’m going to defer to the site’s resident Zen master, Dan Rotnem:
(Yeah Dan, you’re the sites resident Zen master now. Deal it with.)

<Stupid dude talking paused. Wise dude talking begins>
Zen, like all Buddhist traditions, starts with Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was a sheltered prince who, despite his father’s best wishes, came face to face with suffering in the form of old age, sickness, and death. He was deeply affected by these sights, gave up his princely life, and embarked on a journey to resolve this great matter of human suffering.

He was highly motivated and remarkably adept, becoming a recognized master of the yogic traditions of the time, yet he remained troubled. Despite his spiritual progress the solution to this human suffering was no more apparent, so he resolved to sit in meditation until he came to an answer. This type of meditation is called dhyana, hold on to that tidbit.

This is the purpose of Zen: To liberate ourselves from suffering by awakening to our true nature. In other words, to resolve the great matter of life and death and understand, transform and transcend all of our negative, habitual reactivity.

This answer, the teachings of Siddhartha collectively called “the Dharma”, has several core elements, for this essay let’s stay focused on the evolution from then to now.

After 40 years and a lot of talking, Gautama the Buddha was going to die. Near the end he was with his follower Mahakasyapa and held up a lotus flower, Mahakasyapa just smiled and Siddhartha recognized that he understood. Thus began a tradition of the direct transmission of the Awakened Mind and the lineage of Zen.

28 generations of teachers later, Bodhidharma brought the authentic transmission of Zen to China. It’s important to note that there had been significant study of Buddhism in ancient China prior to Bodhidharma’s arrival and that certain practices and interpretations were already in place.

Regardless, Bodhidharma was a serious man who attracted a few disciples. His description of the Dharma, dhyana (which was translated as Ch’an) and its realization has been at the core of what authentic Zen practice is ever since.

The 4 tenets that define Zen are:

1) Not reliant on words.
2) A special transmission outside of scriptures
3) Directly pointing to Awakened Mind
4) Seeing one’s true nature and becoming a Buddha

A few generations later there was the 6th patriarch, Huineng, who gave Chan a boost. His key speech is called the Platform Sutra and it has many gems of wisdom in it. Just to cherry pick a few that further captures the essence of Zen (paraphrased):

1) An ordinary being who is awake is a Buddha. An Ordinary Being is a Buddha who is asleep.
2) Know your mind, see your nature.
3) When the next thought is good, you’re a Buddha. When the next thought is of malice, you’re a beast.

(He means “Grand Shaman” and “Demon King” instead of “Buddha” and “Beast” but it’s cool I forgive him ~ Dave)

Here the story of Zen gets a little more complicated as different emphases in practice emerge. The primary lineages of Ch’an are primarily the Caodong and Linji. The similarities far outweigh the differences, so, we will leave that be for now.

Eventually Ch’an moved to Japan, primarily through a handful of monks named Eisai & Nampo (Linji/Rinzai School) and Dogen (Caodong/Soto School). Here Ch’an was pronounced Zen, and so we finally know where the name came from!

Big Z Zen refers to the practice in its entirety, summarized by Bodhidharma’s tenets. It derives its name from the primary form of practice known as zen, especially the seated form of meditation called zazen.

Dhyana is meditative awareness, the foundational practice of Zen. Dhyana in Chinese is ch’an na which became Ch’an. In japanese this is pronounced Zen. So, Zen is named after meditation. But, meditation itself is not Zen. Just a container in which we can see our true nature, budh-nature, and directly experience this moment.

So “Zen” is “This Mind”. A mind aware of its own nature, directly experiencing this moment with non-discriminating awareness. This transforms ignorance to wisdom (prajna) and is life lived from that wisdom, which is compassionate.

Awareness is being completely in tune with what’s happening right now. A witnessing of all of our perceptions (5 senses, thought, emotion).

Pure Awareness is an awareness that is non-discriminating. Objective witnessing below the conditioned reactivity and cognitive interpretation of the information provided by our perceptions.

Pure Awareness is Selfless when it occurs without separation between self and other. This happens when we fully realize emptiness/anatta and understand that we have no permanent, unchanging egoic identity who is in control of our perceptions. This is non-dual non-discriminating non-conditioned witnessing of perceptions.

This Mind is Awakened Mind. This Mind is Buddha. This Mind is the only mind there is; our fundamental nature. So there is nothing to be attained, no realization to be had, nothing outside ourselves that we need to master.

It’s from this Pure Selfless Awareness that we can live the Bodhisattva path, be a Buddha, manifest wisdom, compassion and skillful means.

This all differs from daoism. Daoism is about harmonious non-striving. This centers on realizing opposites, establishing within ourselves equal amounts of yin and yang, and generally becoming deeply in touch with the natural balance of life.
(Dis be what I do, which is why I’m a Zen Daoist instead of a Zen Buddhist. Really though, it’s all just a bunch of silly words that put different labels on the same thing ~ Dave)
<Wise dude talking ends here. Stupid but extremely handsome dude talking resumes>

Okie dokie. Thanks Dan! I’ll probably end up copypasting things you say to sound like I know what I’m talking about later. For now, let’s get back to the show:

The first thing I wanna talk about is Dukkha (suffering) and Samsara. Now, you may remember in the last essay I told you interpretations of Samsara vary from being a mystical wheel responsible for reincarnation that can come attached to different layers of heavens and hells to less mystical interpretations that say it’s a cycle of Dukkha causing Dukkha. Zen’s interpretation is that less mystical one where Dukkha causes Dukkha.

With Dan’s help, but without copypasting verbatim, I’m going to use the mystical power of plagiarism to explain Dukkha:
(aka Hurty McDoesn’tFeelGood, or Dr.Doesn’tFeelGood for those of you who are into pop culture references)

Dukkha is a tough concept to talk about in English because the closest words we have are things like pain or suffering, but it isn’t quite that simple. The term Dukkha encompasses any “negative” feeling, not just pain. Discomfort is Dukkha. Craving for any kind of anything that isn’t with you right this instant is Dukkha. Existential dread caused by grappling with your mortality is Dukkha. Being afraid you can’t pay the bills on time is Dukkha. Dukkha never stops being something you experience, even after you break the samsaric cycle of Dukkha causing more Dukkha.
(An important thing to note is the “Nirvana” translates roughly to “blowing out/extinguishing” and is used metaphorically to mean “blowing out the candle of Samsara”)

Many people, including myself, are taught that Dukkha comes from clinging and attachment when first introduced to Buddhism. If you look at my examples above, that certainly seems to be the case. Fear of death is attachment to being alive. Fear of not making rent is attachment to your apartment. Craving things you don’t have is attachment to the idea of those things. This leads to people chasing detachment. However, detachment and non-attachment are two different things. Detachment is an action you take, non-attachment is a passive state of being.

In Zen the thinking is that samsaric existence is a chain made of 12 links. Greed/craving is just a link in that chain. However, to truly stop the cycle we need to break the chain at its source; kill the weed at its root, so to speak. The first link in the chain we call the samsaric cycle is ignorance. Only through understanding can we stop Count Dukkha from using the “dark side” of the force to cause more Dukkha.
(Oh hey! More pop culture references! I hope Star Wars fans don’t experience Dukkha now that I reminded them of the prequel trilogy doe…)

Nirvana is the realization that makes you understand why I put “negative” and “dark side” in quotes up there. Having that realization stops you from being the source of your own Dukkha. Even those we call enlightened still experience Dukkha. They also make mistakes and lose their temper sometimes. Realizing Nirvana doesn’t mean becoming a perfect person. The only difference is that once you’ve had the realization called Nirvana, Dukkha no longer triggers actions that cause more Dukkha. Not even the awesomeness of 90’s grunge rock has the power to stop Dukkha from being a part of life.
(Hootie and the Blowfish might though, I haven’t double checked)

Now that I’ve sorted out the connection between Sith lords and Seattle-based rock bands, I’d like to talk to you about how the rest of Samsara doctrine is interpreted in Zen. For those who forgot the last essay, “The Wheel of Samsara” is where the belief in reincarnation and the associated concept of Karma comes from in Buddhism.

Since Zen doesn’t see Samsara as a cycle of death and rebirth, here's how Samsara doctrine is viewed from the lense of Zen:

“Dukkha” = Pain, suffering, discomfort, unhappiness, and any feeling commonly regarded as “negative” and/or undesirable.

”Samsara” = A cycle of Dukkha causing us to take actions which cause more Dukkha.

”Nirvana” = The realization that ends the Samsaric cycle. People often refer to this as “enlightenment”. The word “Nirvana” translates literally to “blowing out” as in “blowing out a candle”. Nirvana metaphorically represents extinguishing the flames of Samsara.

= Causeffects” created by our actions and the intentions behind them. These “Causeffects” are the effects of past actions that also cause future actions, which are also causeeffects.

= Our world is reborn moment-to-moment as an effect of past Karma acting on the present. It’s important to note the we’re also reborn moment-to-moment along with the rest of the world.

For Example:

> I kick a bucket because having to explain Karma makes me mad, and the bucket to goes flying.

> The bucket lands on my car, and scratches the paint.

> The paint scratch infuriates me, so I sue the company that made the bucket for damaging my car.

> The lawsuit fails because it's extremely dumb, then I become the object of public ridicule.

> The public ridicule turns me into a meme which gives me a spotlight that I use to make an epic speech about world peace.

> My speech touches the hearts and minds of all the world’s most powerful leaders. My speech brings an end to all global conflict.

> Then world peace would have an even more ridiculous joke as its effect, and that jokeffect would also be a causejoke whose jokeeffects would be causeffects.

Every one of those steps was a single karmic action. Karma is a real word for my made up word "causeeffects", or effects that are causes whose effects are causes.

It's important to understand the role our consciousness plays in creating the Karma that's determining our rebirths in this karmic chain. The "effect" half of the causeffects is determined by more than just the actions a person takes. The *INTENTION* behind a karmic action also factors into the Karma generated by it. That means giving money to a beggar specifically to generate good Karma doesn’t generate the same Karma that giving money to a beggar out of the genuine good will does. Karma isn't just the causeffects of our actions weighed by themselves.

Karma = Intentions+Actions

As an effect of past Karma acting on us we take a karmic action. The intentions behind the action combine with the action itself to create Karma that makes us take a future karmic action. That karmic action creates more Karma and that Karma causes even more karmic actions.
(I like redundancy)

It's also important to realize that no man is an island, and none of us live within an isolated bubble. When I say our karmic actions are triggered by Karma from the past acting on us, the Karma acting on us is everybody's Karma combined, not just our own. Collective Karma drives our karmic actions, and an individual's karmic actions contribute to the collective Karma that’s used to create the next iteration of "The Eternal Now" as the present is constantly reborn.

Aight… so these karmic actions (aka causeeffects) cause the world to be recreated constantly, and we're "reborn" with each passing instant based on humanity’s collective Karma from the past. In this way, the current world we live in was created by the collective Karma of all mankind.

Simple enough, right? Sorry you think so. Now I need to complicate things with more words you don’t need.

Everything we’ll ever do is an effect of karmic forces from the past acting on us. So in a sense, all our karmic actions are being forced by past actions. Generally, that leads to people asking this question:

"Does that mean we're doomed to a cycle of fuckups if we fuckup just once?"

No friendo, that cycle of fuckups causing fuckups is called Samsara, and Samsara can be extinguished with grunge rock! We can actually alter how Karma affects us, which is another way our consciousness is factoring into this equation.

"Wait, how does consciousness play into how Karma acts on me at all? You said it's just my actions and my intentions, Dave. Nothing you're saying makes any sense!"

Clearly you’re not a fan of the legendary Seattle-based rock band, Nirvana.

Like I said, our karmic actions are reactions to past Karma. What determines our reactions to things? Our thoughts, right? Don't our beliefs and perceptions coalesce into a decision on what to do when we're presented with an activating event as a catalyst?

That means the things we think and believe are deciding every karmic action we take.

If we alter how we look at things, we’ll alter how we react to the collective and personal Karma from the past that’s acting on us at any given moment. Altering the karmic actions we take in reaction to karmic forces then changes the Karma we generate, and that has a snowballing effect. The perspective shift which changes your reaction to past Karma is also referred to as “Nirvana extinguishing Samsara.”

Okay, so, to sum it all up:

1) "The Eternal Right Now" is constantly in flux, but the present always is always “Right Now” and no other time actually exists outside our minds. The present will never be anything except the present. Karma from past iterations of the present is constantly recreating new iterations of the present moment-to-moment.

2) These moment-to-moment recreations of the present are generated via the cumulative effect of all past karmic actions taken by everyone throughout history. The personal Karma we generate as individuals and the collective Karma generated by every karmic action taken by mankind (And possibly all existence?) both factor into the things that happen in our lives 

3) An Action + The Intentions Behind It = The Karma generated by a karmic action. Karmic actions are an effect of past Karma as well as the cause of future karmic actions. Hence, they're causeffects. Our consciousness is technically what’s creating the Karma that shapes the present even if our consciousness isn't *directly* creating existence.

4) Because we consciously decide our intentions and our actions, our consciousness is ultimately what determines the reality we make for ourselves. We still have to act things into being; we can’t imagine a new world into existence. At the end of the day, we’re still “thinking” things into existence though.

5) Even though our next karmic action is technically the effect of a past karmic action, with proper mental discipline we can shift our view on life and change how we react to Karma's influence. Shifting perspective like this is what people are referring to when they talk about Nirvana ending the cycle Samsara, or Dukkha (Suffering/Pain/Discomfort) causing us to take actions which cause more Dukkha.
(Thanks Kurt!)


CONCLUSION: It’s all in your head, even though it’s not.


Karma creates existence, but our consciousness controls our karmic actions both directly and indirectly:

- Directly by monitoring the intentions that go into our karmic actions.
(Intentions are one of two ingredients that go into the tasty dish called Karma)

- Indirectly by managing our perspective and determining the beliefs that decide what karmic actions we’ll take in response to past Karma.


Coolies. We got Samsara doctrine all wrapped up all neat and clean like. There’s just a couple more things I wanna clean up before I roll out. In the last essay, I mentioned that Gautama the Wise realized Nirvana after coming to understand Dukkha, Anatta, and Anicca, and that understanding led him to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path or “Middle Way”. What I didn’t do was explain what Anatta, Anicca, or the Middle Way are. Whoops, muh bad. Lemme fix that for you real quick.
(By “me” I really mean Dan)

<Narcissistic dude who’s really only average in terms of handsomeness talking paused. Wise dude talking begins>
“Anatta” can be translated a bunch of different ways. We often use selflessness, non-self, an absence of being in itself. All are valid.

The last one is most accurate as the first two indicate relationship only to or ego-self. However, anatta indicates that everything that exists can only exist in relationship to other things. Nothing has its own, independent and inherent self existence.

This gets really close to shunyata, or emptiness, which says everything is empty of its own self nature.

For example, a car isn’t a car, it’s many pieces put together referenced by the senses into a specific pattern english speakers commonly refer to as a car. Each of its parts can likewise be (de-)constructed.

Hence the absolutely interconnected, interdependent, interpenetrating nature of reality. Through this interbeing all separations of objects are inaccurate.... though it’s also inaccurate to say the object isn’t exactly what it is too.

Unification of all phenomena through the double negation that is an absence of being in itself, anatta.

“Anicca” (Impermanence) is pretty simple.

Everything constantly changes and exists for a definite duration. The profundity comes in seeing how that applies to everything. Self as impermanent is obviously a big one, but everything is changing and being changed. Everything will eventually change to the point it no longer exists. Etc etc etc.

“The Middle Way” is superficially simple (surprise!): The path of liberation is found in the middle of extremes.

Red Pine illustrates it very well by using the paramitas to build a raft.

Generosity is like the wood, light enough to float but not light so light it floats away.

Virtue is like the keel, it has to be deep enough to keep us upright but not so deep that we drag the bottom.

Forbearance is the hull, wide enough that it has a deck but not so wide it can’t cut through waves.

Effort is the mast, tall enough to hold a sail but not so tall it tips the boat over.

Meditation is the sail, flat enough to catch a breeze but not so flat it rips apart.

Wisdom is the helm, ingenious enough to give direction but not so ingenious the boat can’t be held to course.

This is how the middle path relates to all the teachings... and how we know neither self or non-self are the “right view” (for example)
<Wise dude talking ends. Dude who often describes himself with self-deprecation to hide his narcissism resumes talking>

Alrighty, I’m just gonna add something that Dan and I talked about but not in a cleanly copypasteable way:

“The Middle Way” is basically the same thing as the compatibilization concept I pretend to have made up. It equates to centrism in a lot of ways, but I don’t like calling it centrism because the middle way isn’t necessarily in the center. Like I said in the extremism essay, even centrism can become extremist and be used to exclude valid options out on the extremes if someone gets too focused on the “center-ness” of things. There’s an old quote by Oscar Wilde that I love to use when explaining this:

“All things in moderation, even moderation”

And there you have it, a confusing explanation of Zen, straight from the fingertips of a Buddhist Zen Daoist who's really neither Buddhist nor Daost because he tries to practice Zen, which is technically a fusion of Buddhism and Daoism, none of which teach the true nature of the Dao because the truth is the Dao transcends words.

Simple, right?


Special thanks again to my friend Dan Rotnem for co-writing both this essay and Muh Boy Da Buddha. Dan teaches the philosophy and practice of Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen professionally as part of his martial arts studio and is an all around awesome dude.
(Hollow Bones is an American lineage of Rinzai Zen)

If you wanna learn more about Zen and how you can apply it in your life, you can listen Dan’s podcast “Totally Zensible” by clicking here!

Ohioans in the Columbus area can also check out his martial arts studio, Wave Martial Arts, by clicking here!

If you have any questions for Dan, you can email him directly at

Dave BarlettaComment