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What is Zen?

To get an intellectual outlook on a subject that is vast and unbounded would need more than this post. Let’s start by taking a deep breath and being aware of the present. Of appreciating that you’re alive. Now breathe out. Release all the negativity and tensions from your mind. Accepting and giving—is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness regularly is the transformative practice we call Zen. Simply said, Zen is a state of calm attentiveness wherein your behaviour is steered by intuition. One is aware of their surroundings, of their own self and of their purpose in life.

To be in a Zen state is to hold on to nothing. It embraces the feeling of “letting go” and accepting things as they are. One is in a state of meditative calmness and has an attitude of acceptance popularly linked with the advocators of Zen Buddhism.

Zen Travel

The true meaning of travel is synonymous with the meaning of Zen. As a wanderer, the more you travel and explore, you gain insights into the world, its people and look at things with a broader perspective. Just as Zen is a transformative practice, a traveller too gradually transforms with travel experiences until he reaches the Zen state of consciousness. The ‘Zen’sational wanderer in me has learnt the following important lessons of life while travelling:

1. Stay in the present

When we visited Nepal in 2016 I wanted to see the Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2015 had inflicted enough damage on Durbar Square, demolished houses and temples, and killed many people. I wanted to see the extent of destruction with my own eyes. To reach Basant Chowk, I walked through the lane with Newari houses on both sides. Many houses were in a state of rubble. On reaching the Durbar Square, I moved from one temple to the other, clicking pictures. The sun shone brightly above. My throat was parched and I felt sapped of all my energy. Wiping the sweat off my forehead I looked around. It is then that I saw her. I don’t know whether it was her timeworn and wrinkled face that drew my attention or the blissful look she had on her face. Oblivious to the strong sun rays and the bustling crowd, the old Newari woman, sat licking her softie. The melted ice cream was dripping from the cone on to her hands but she didn’t care. She was in bliss. A Zen state. Nothing mattered to her. Just that moment and the melting ice cream in her hand.

2. Discard preconceived notions

Written in the 13th century, Zen Flesh and Zen Bones is a book that recounts real experiences of Chinese and Japanese Zen teachers over a period of more than five centuries. Transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and published in 1919, it holds stories of self-discovery and self-searching. ” A cup of Tea” is perhaps one of the most popular stories from that book. Short and profound, the story goes like this, I quote:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

All my travels around the world have taught me the same lesson. Each time I travel to a new city and country, I have to hold no preconceived notions and open myself to new learnings. To explore the world and to learn about its culture, food, practices, there is no scope of carrying preconceptions about people and the way they live. An open mind is imperative to embrace the world and to welcome people with open arms.

3. Universal brotherhood

Travel has taught me about universal brotherhood. I remember when I visited Kabul in 2006, the first place I wanted to see was Lake Qargha. I had read about it in Khaled Hosseini’s “Kite Runner” and wanted Sam to show me how beautiful it was. After an hour of walking, talking and soaking in the bewitching views at the lake I was hungry. Seeing fresh Naan-e-Afghani being cooked in a tandoor nearby, we walked towards the shop to buy the Afghan bread. Little did we realise, that neither of us was carrying any money. As we giggled at our silliness and retraced our steps, the shopkeeper beckoned us to speak with him. He asked questions about India, music and Shah Rukh Khan. As we were leaving he hugged Sam, invited us to come over again and handed me four hot, humongous naans wrapped up in a newspaper. I can’t forget his gesture of kind hospitality. Once you start travelling, you connect more with people from different places. You understand them better and forge new friendships and bonds. You tend to bond with people beyond your comfort zone. You tend to find familiarity in the unfamiliar.

4. The Journey Enlightens

“Travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.” 

Thomas Fuller

Whenever we travel, we have more time for self-reflection and introspection. You realise what truly matters and you begin to focus on the core essentials of life. Travel is not just an outward journey, it is an inward journey as well. Travelling not only connects you to the world but with yourself. The traveller keeps an open mind with an open heart. You open yourself to outward influences while maintaining the balance between the inward and the outward.

5. Travel enriches your life

The journey is a conscious effort because you want to go beyond your comfort zone. You try to explore uncharted territory. To travel the world is to guarantee the evolution of a storyteller along with the characters that develop along with it. Interaction with new people, places and ideologies helps us appreciate what life looks like from a different angle. The peace that travels bring turns ordinary experiences into extraordinary travel moments.

6. Travel sharpens your instincts

As a traveller, you have to be at your highest level of awareness and sharpen your instincts. Travel is not just a five-sensory experience. It requires you to activate your sixth sense – your instinct – since you’re treading into the unknown with a heightened awareness. Haven’t you found yourself in a situation where you had to entirely depend on your gut instinct? How many of us trust a stranger to watch over luggage because we want to head to the bathroom, trust the taxi driver to take us safely to a remote address in a foreign country?

7. Travel embraces Minimalism

A man holding a bag pack

Since a traveller is on the move and there are restrictions on the weight, travels teach you to live with minimalism. How much does a person really need? – is the question a traveller ultimately questions. Travelling light is about leaving your old self at home so that you can create space for a different, better you. Travelling light — literally and metaphorically — becomes essential and is a step towards achieving a Zen state.

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