Zen Buddhist practice is designed to focus us on the here and now and to help us understand that there is nothing separate from anything else. All is connected. You pass your hand through warm air. Where does the hand end and the air begin?
When we understand this interconnectedness, compassion must arise as we understand all are part of a fabric. There is a tradition of joking pranks in Zen, pranks designed to make fun of our attachment to things and ourselves. When you read of those stern Zen masters, remember a lot of them were famous jokers.
“God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.” Paul Valéry
Though it references God, a deity (Buddhism is a nontheistic religion- no gods), Valéry’s quote hits at the essence of Buddhism, that everything is illusory. I find that when I have those rare moments while meditating when the world stops for a millisecond, I can imagine seeing the nothingness behind everything.
“The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.” Chinese Proverb
Miracles are considered powers, a kind of showing off, that are nothing more than acts learned to impress. They do not change anything or advance understanding. It is daily life, with all its ups and downs, that is the miracle.
“In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” Yun-Men
I don’t think this needs explanation. It’s the equivalent to Yoda’s “there is no trying”. Commit to what you do and do it, or not, but don’t wobble.
“I do not cut my life up into days but my days into lives, each day, each hour, an entire life.” Juan Ramón Jiménez
When you live in the present each moment can be a lifetime, a form of immortality. If we dash through life, missing the subtleties and twists, life goes by and you find yourself asking, how did I get so old?
“The only zen you find on the tops of mountains is the zen you bring up there.” Robert M. Pirsig
Where you are is where you should be. A monastic does not need a monastery to practice. You can do it on a bus, in a crowd, or while facing a wall. It doesn’t matter. It is the act of sitting that counts.
There is a thread in the quotes I chose, a focus on being present and not clinging to preconceived ideas. That is not only how I understand the essence of Zen, but also the core essence of Buddhism: be here and stay awake. There is a lot to experience, don’t waste this opportunity.