What is Zen? Many people have tried to answer that question. There have been very brief answers, and there have been thousands of books written on the subject, yet the definition of Zen remains a mystery. Years ago Kapleau Roshi was speaking at a university in New York when a student asked, “What is Zen?” In reply, the roshi simply picked a banana from a nearby bowl of fruit and began to peel it. He didn’t say anything. Someone asked again, “What is Zen?” Kapleau Roshi proceeded to eat the banana. When the question came a third time, he threw the banana peel away.
When I first heard this story, I laughed, even though I didn’t think it was funny. Somehow, Kapleau Roshi’s answer seemed pretentious to me. But over the years, I have come to appreciate more and more why he chose to answer in that way. Now I realize it is impossible to say with words what Zen is. Words are simply inadequate. When we try to use words, there is a danger that whatever we say will lead only to confusion. Peeling the banana, eating the banana, and throwing away the peel was Kapleau Roshi’s way of directly pointing to the answer.
Although the essence of Zen may be impossible to capture in words, that doesn’t mean we cannot say anything about Zen. But when we speak about Zen, we need to remember that no matter what we say, it will miss the mark; it will be limited and insufficient, only one view of the whole. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to discuss Zen – what it is and what it is not. For example, Zen is not a religion. But Zen is almost always taught within the tradition of Buddhism, which is often considered to be and practiced as a religion. The Buddha discovered Zen, but he did not invent it. In a way, Zen invented the Buddha. The word Zen refers to the direct experience of one’s true nature, and that is what Siddhartha Gautama awakened to when he became the Buddha. So Zen and the words realization, enlightenment, and awakening refer to the same experience. Yet words can never capture it; they can only point to the direct experience, which goes beyond any words or name.’