Five Minutes of Zen

I wanted to get the woo out of Zen. They gave me five minutes.

These are the notes for the talk I gave for Five Minutes of Fame at Noisebridge. The slides are available here.

So this is Five Minutes of Zen. Zen’s a topic that everyone knows something about (at least in San Francisco), but it may not always make sense. I’m going to say some things that are broadly true, but isn’t the be all and end all — if you want to really learn about Zen, having a good teacher is still the best way to go about it.

So where does Zen start?

In the present moment.

Zen starts with what we have right now. You’re sitting in a chair. You’re watching some guy talk. And you have thoughts flowing through your head.

What are those thoughts about? Well, anything really. you could be thinking about what you’re going to do next. Or you’re thinking about what you were doing earlier. You could be thinking about space aliens or world peace. But everything that we experience, our entire lives as we experience them, are made out of these thoughts as they happen. And one of the great contradictions in Zen is that in order to understand Zen, you may have to do a whole bunch of thinking to understand thought.


Zazen is described literally as the practice of Zen. It’s meditation, basically. You sit on a cushion and breathe. You are being asked, literally, to pay attention to the present moment, and to be aware of the thoughts inside your head as just that: thoughts. You do this for long enough, and some of the practice of Zazen carries through to the rest of your life. You get into the habit of paying attention to what happens, moment by moment, through your day.

Because everything in Zen starts from the present moment, it has a different idea of reality. Zen doesn’t think reality is composed solely of thoughts. But what you look at when you look at the present moment really closely is not objects, but events, all streaming by impossibly quickly.

Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form

The Heart Sutra is the most important statements in Zen. It’s subtle. On one level, it says “Everything is made out of everything else.” On another level, it says “Reality is Perception” — light and air hits your body and you create an idea of the world from that. On another level, it says “Every object is an event, and every event is an object.” You can look at a very fast event like a wave on the beach and see something static, unmoving. Or you can see something like a human life and see a very slow event taking place. Everything is change.

No future, no past

When you sit and look at the present moment, you don’t see “future” or “past”. You can’t get to them from where you are. If you try pointing at the future, you end up describing your idea of what the future will be — the thoughts and expectations that you have in your head. Same with the past: it’s what you remember right now.

No self

When you look inside your head right now, you see thoughts. Some of those thoughts are attached to other thoughts, and get wrapped up in a big ball of thought that we call “self.” There are expectations about what “you” will do in the future and how you will act. But that big ball of thought doesn’t stay static: your idea of yourself is made up of habits, beliefs, preconceptions and ideas that get swapped out all the time.

Life is Suffering

Suffering is a bad translation of “dukkha”, which Wikipedia puts as “the cart with one wheel that is slightly broken, so that the rider is jolted each time the wheel rolls over the broken spot.” And the interesting question is — what makes that uncomfortable? When you slow it down and look at what goes on, it turns out that what really pisses people off is that it just happened, or it’s about to happen very soon. Our minds cling to it. What really causes suffering is not so much external events, but the difference between reality as it’s happening versus how we’d like it to happen.

You Are The Universe

Zen’s very practical. It’s not saying a single human body is literally equal to the sum of all matter and energy in the universe. It is saying that the distinction between “this human body” and “the rest of the universe” is an arbitary one. You can’t have a human body without the universe supporting it. And interestingly enough, you can’t have the universe without that human body.

Because in Zen, what makes a human being isn’t just the meat and bone. What makes a human being is also the thoughts, ideas and events happening around him as well: we absorb and give back to our environment. When you are with someone, their idea of you is partly you, and you are partly their idea of you. When you die, parts of the ideas that make up you still float around attached to other people, or in books or Youtube articles. So when it comes to reincarnation — while it’s unlikely that all the ideas in your head will come together at once again, it’s not impossible for someone very like you to arise from society. Thoughts are fungible.

Zen’s view of individual identity is more than just fluid — human beings are like rolling waves. We think we exist in isolation, but we mix with our environment all the time. Again, there’s no “self”, just thoughts. If you want to point to “me” — don’t just point to the fleshy bone bits. Point to your family and friends. Point to your iPhone. Point at Noisebridge. Then point at the sky.


The usual stance in Zen is that Enlightenment is an event. You realize the present moment, you’re free of preconceptions, just for an instant… and then your time is up.