Zen Principles

Zen Principles Zen Principles Mentioned in the Introductory Zen Buddhism Books summarized by Adam Acar, PhD. See references.

Zen is a philosophy that was born out of Mahayana Buddhism in the 11th century. Zen puts less emphasis on ancient religious practices and focuses on meditation, selflessness, and unity in the universe. Some main principles of Zen philosophy are the denial of the ego, the focus on interconnectedness in the universe, the recognition of attachment as a source of suffering, and the realization that human perception is faulty. While these principles are based on the rules of Buddhism most of them are related to East Asian values such as Taoism and Confucianism. The following is a summary of the principles of Japanese Zen Buddhism prepared by Adam Acar, PhD.

1. There is no such thing as “self”

There is no such thing as yourself or myself. There is no such thing as "ego": it is just something we presume to exist.  There is no self, a.k.a. "anatta." As the universe is always in transformation, we don’t have fixed selves or ego, it always changes and it is not something solid that should be cherished or glorified. You are not your thoughts, you are not your pains, you are not your emotions. As Dogen said "To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by all things." The separation between self and others is just an illusion that disappears when we are awakened. 
  • "The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something." - Koun Yamada
  • "Rather than being your emotions and thoughts, be the awareness behind them." - Eckhart Tolle
  • "Emotionally we have many problems, but these problems are not actual problems; they are something created; they are problems pointed out by our self-centered ideas or views." - Shunryu Suzuki 

2. Everything constantly changes, nothing is finished

This principle is known as "mujo." Everything is impermanent, your thoughts, your pains, your sufferings, your body, and so on. Whatever we see in our environment was once different and will be different. In the same vein, nothing is perfect in the universe because everything is in constant transformation and everything decays after birth. Even if things look perfect, under the microscope they have many defects, flaws, and inconsistencies. In Japanese culture, there is a term called wabi-sabi that any artwork that emphasizes imperfectness, incompleteness, and impermanence is what constitutes true beauty. In other words, an asymmetric old bowl is more precious than a brand new perfectly shaped bowl because of its history and resemblance to nature-made objects. Another similar term is mono no aware referring to the bittersweet awareness that all the beautiful things around us are short-lived; perfectly exemplified by the two-week cherry blossom season.
  • "Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality." - Shunryu Suzuki
  • "All conditioned things are impermanent" - when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering."  - Gautama Buddha
  • "It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not." - Tich Nhat Hnah
  • “Everything by its very nature is subject to the process of infinite transformation.” - Dogen 

3. Things we value are "empty"

This principle is called "wu" in Chinese "ku" in Japanese shunyata in Hindi. The heart sutra, the most cited sutra of all times, starts with "that ultimately all phenomena are sunyata, empty of an unchanging essence."  Emptiness does not mean nothing exists, it means nothing exists on its own, as everything exists relative to other things that constantly change. Emptiness is actually the middle state between absence and existence. Zen monks consider emptiness as the awakening stage when people feel boundless unity with the universe, also symbolized with the zen circle showing that inside and outside of the circle are one. Emptiness is also accepted in modern physics, as there is vast emptiness among the smallest beings such as atoms and the largest beings, stars, and planets. Similar to the emptiness there is also the concept of nothingness in Zen.

Nothingness (mu, void) is also a principle related to emptiness. All beings emerge from nothingness and return to nothingness. In the zen philosophy, this concept is quite similar to emptiness and emphasizes the importance of eliminating the duality of perception as nothingness and everything-ness are nothing but one. In martial arts, mu-shin means no mind or mind without a mind that only relies on one’s heart. If somebody is fighting with mu-shin that means the individual does not have ego, anger, anxiety, or fear.
  • "Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves." - Nagarjuna
  • "When you go into nothingness, you become everything." - Buddha
  • "Tell me then, what is the most important principle or teaching of Zen?"
  • "Vast emptiness," Bodhidharma replied, meaning, of course, the void of nonattachment.

4. Attachment is the source of suffering

Attachment to worldly things has many problems: attachment to self makes it difficult to empathize with others, clinging to things we love creates stress because everything transforms and eventually disappears. As Buddha said, "If you become attached to something, its impermanence will eventually be realized, and at the end, you will suffer more." The main source of human suffering (dukkha) is being attached to worldly things.
  • “Attachment is the source of all suffering.”  - Buddha
  • "You only lose what you cling to” - Buddha
  • "Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day." - Zen proverb.
  • “Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” - Master Yoda from S. W. 

5. Everything in the universe is connected. You are the universe.

When a person realizes that “self” is an illusion he/she is likely to feel like one with the universe and feel more connected. The interconnectedness in the universe arises from three thoughts: one of them is the fact that we grow by absorbing things in nature and at any time things in nature are temporarily in our body (air, water, etc.). The second one, while not so popular in all Zen schools, is reincarnation; the belief that after we die we may come back to life as another creature. The third teaching is the concept of sunyata or emptiness where all things are undifferentiated when the “self” is taken out of the context. It is expected that the appropriate way of meditation helps us realize self and others or objects in any subject's mind are separated in abstract terms but not in realistic terms. Zen practitioners believe that our environment is deeply interconnected, sometimes known as the butterfly effect, as the flap of butterflies’ wings in Japan can create an earthquake in thousands of South America. Zen practices such as kyudo, calligraphy, or tea ceremony also propose that we should become one with what we are doing, becoming one with the task.

  • “You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” - Alan Watts
  • “You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.” - Amit Ray
  • “Awakening is intimacy with all things.” - Dogen
  • "Remember that the universe is already taking care of you." - Buddha
  • "We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness." - Thich Nhat Hanh
  • "Enlightenment is when the wave realizes that it is the ocean." - Thich Nhat Hanh

6. Our Logic is misleading. Appearances are faulty.

Opposite of Western philosophy, Asian philosophy proposes that we can reach truth by relying on our emotions and intuitions because our logic and sensual perception is always faulty. Zen is a form of mysticism or non-rational experience of the universe. The dualistic perception that separates the perceiver from the perceived or mind from body or subject from object or background from the foreground is wrong. There is no me and the outside world. Things are not how they seem and human perception is faulty. Most Buddhist schools propose that perceived reality is an illusion and the only way to liberate ourselves is to meditate and perceive the true nature of objects.“Koans, the riddles that violate physical rules or common presumptions, are necessary for getting rid of the trap of our established logical thinking.
There is a concept in Japanese called nyoze which refers to the suchness of things or the true nature of things. Everything in the universe has an inherent disposition that may not be clearly visible to the human eye. Water is meant to be wet, fire is meant to heat, and the wind is meant to blow. But it is not as simple as that, understanding the true essence of everything around us can only happen by awakening also known as satori or kensho.
  • “We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.” - Buddha
  • "The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.” - Buddha
  • "Japanese philosophy is about hearing the voices of voiceless things and sensing the shape of shapeless things because what we normally see and hear is just the background.” - Nishida Kotaru


7. Accept that painful things may happen

This idea stems from the main Buddhist idea that suffering is natural and everything in life is temporary. As Lao Tse once said “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Zen philosophy is accepting things including disasters, failures, and even negative personal traits rather than denying them or fighting against them. Zen is about having the mental strength to deal with discomforting things in life. For instance, Zen training often involves sitting on one’s knees for hours or working in the cold which helps us develop a mindset that it is OK to have an unpleasant stimulus in our environment and once we accept them they don’t feel unpleasant and they may even give us strength. While a huge sudden stream in a river may frighten us, the power of the stream will be ours if we allow it to carry us.

Painful things may happen. Life is full of unfortunate events and we should accept that we will have pain and disappointments. After we are born we have to accept that we will get sick, get old, and die. However, we suffer most of the time because we are selfish, we are greedy and we are attached too much to the materialistic world. We can control our suffering, which is usually driven by attachment to the materialistic world, our desires, and our ignorance. Another way to control our suffering is to realize that suffering is nothing but our thoughts only and our comparison of self to others which doesn’t make sense because in Zen self doesn’t exist.

  • "Accept--then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it... This will miraculously transform your whole life." - Eckhart Tolle
  • “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality." - Lao Tse
  • "Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship." - Buddha
  • "Pain in life is inevitable but suffering is not. Pain is what the world does to you, suffering is what you do to yourself." - Buddha
  • "Obstacles don’t block the path, they are the path." - Zen proverb

8. Be present, be mindful, fully experience each moment

Mindfulness is paying 100% attention to what is happening at this very exact moment and nothing else. Buddha stated that “do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future and concentrate on the present moment.”The reason mindfulness is an important zen concept has to do with the perception of time and interconnectedness. Dogen Zenji believed that time and space was actually “time” only and time is something that is continuous. The only time that matters is the present time: “now” which has no length and which cannot be divided into two pieces. Future and past cannot be separated from now which we have control of and “right here and right now” is the only location and time that is real. As Dogen says “if one can’t find the truth wherever he is, where else could he think of finding it?

  • "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” - Buddha
  • "If you can’t find the truth where you are, where else do you think you can find it?" - Dogen
  • "Realize that the present moment is the only thing you have and the past has no power over the present moment." - Eckhart Tolle
  • "Wherever you are, be there totally." - Eckhart Tolle
  • "If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present." - Lao Tse

9. Meditation is the way to awakening

The main focus and help us directly experience the world as it is without the interference of judgments, culture, interferences. Mindfulness and meditation are learning to enjoy the lack of stimulation often associated with negative “boredom” feeling and is usually unexciting. Enlightenment is the termination of the separation between self and the outside world, separation between mind and body, and separation between time and space. This happens accidentally and meditation helps us experience this accident. In the zen philosophy, the purpose of meditation is more like self-awareness and mindful introspection rather than self-control though. When meditation is done correctly we eventually realize that the concept of self is a delusion and our logic and assumptions are faulty interpretations of the universe.

Zen philosophers in general do not believe that the purpose of meditation is happy because that would be a selfish desire and the first rule of meditation is getting rid of our self-centeredness and our endless desires. While some zen schools teach that meditating leads to awakening, the Soto Zen school proposes that meditation itself is the goal. In Japanese, awakening is called satori or kensho which translates as seeing one’s true self and true nature. Awakening most of the time happens when doing something routine (washing dishes, house chores, cleaning, etc). Buddha, on the other hand, meditated for 7 years. He asked his disciples to sit until they see the truth, so there is no fixed time length for meditation.
  • “Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself. Your body and mind will become clear and you will realize the unity of all things." - Dogen
  • “When we discover that the truth is already in us, we are all at once our original selves.” - Dogen
  • “Meditation is an attempt of the conscious mind to find its way in the unconscious world” - Zen proverb
  • "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." - Zen proverb 

10. Be free from greed and desire

Human beings in general are dissatisfied with their current state and always look for a better state. This is called the samsara stage where we seek pleasures and experience suffering and eventually die to be reborn again. Zen practitioners believe that nothing can bring us lasting happiness. Human happiness depends on reaching a conditional future state which may or may not happen. Tying our happiness to a desired future state not only prevents us from enjoying our current state but also face anguish because we either want that future state to continue or reach even a better state. What is worse, most sensory pleasures are addictive which naturally cause more problems if we are slaves to them.
Buddha said there are three poisons that cause each other and our final anguish: greed, hatred, and delusion. And, to take care of the three poisons, zen practitioners learn to show incremental generosity to tame our natural greed, have loving compassion for hatred, and conduct zazen meditation for mindful introspection. Becoming free of our greed and desires is one of the initial steps of zen healing. Getting rid of our desires also is one of the most important steps of eliminating the five hindrances in the Zen belief that prevent us from having peace of mind. These five hindrances are a) sensory pleasures experiences by our five senses b) resentment and grudge c) lack of focus and energy d) restlessness and sadness f) doubt and lack of trust.
  • “There are three fires for our anguish: greed, hatred, and delusion.” - Buddha
  • "It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more than is poor.” -Seneca
  • "It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them." - Epictetus
  • "The meaning of life is just to be alive. Yet, everybody's in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves."-Alan Watts

11. Do not be judgmental 

Buddha said “Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others.” We are programmed to judge our environment either negatively or positively to improve our survival. When there is a possibility that our egos may be threatened or challenged we pre-judge others or situations. However, human judgment often is negative and turns into blaming. Blaming others returns us as blame by others and blaming self creates anxiety. The zen teaching is a) we are not the center of the universe, so we should not think that the things happening around us happening for us b) things that are happening are just natural phenomena happening for natural reasons and they don’t have negative intentions to harm us. The zen meditation is having an empty mind focusing on the experience of the moment that forbids judging things in our minds negatively or positively.
  • "Do not be the judge; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments.” - Buddha
  • “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills." - Buddha
  • "Wise men don’t judge, they seek to understand." - Wei Wu Wei
  • "The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence." - Jiddu Krishnamurti

12. Compassion is necessary to have peace of mind

Compassion is often described as unconditional acceptance of self and others. The Bodhisattva rule is we should have these 4 sublime attitudes towards everyone: benevolence/loving-kindness, empathic joy, equanimity, and compassion. All societies emphasize the importance of being kind to others but the zen philosophy focuses on forgiving others and yourself because we all are empty, incomplete, imperfect, and interconnected. When we tame our ego, it is a lot easier to have compassion for others. While anger and anxiety make us feel like everyone is against us, the Zen way of thinking helps us embrace everyone since all humans suffer, have pure nature, and are inherently awakened (hongaku shiso). Direct contact with those who suffer more is likely to generate compassion towards all humanity.
  • "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” - Buddha 
  • “Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.” - Buddha 
  • “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.” - Buddha
  • "Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace." - Buddha
  • "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." - Dalai Lama

13. Life should be simple

A typical monk eats nothing but rice, pickles, and miso soup. With the belief that any habitual sense of pleasure may be a source of suffering and attachment to objects we own distorts our perception of reality, zen practitioners often maintain a minimal lifestyle. Having a minimalistic lifestyle is the most guaranteed way of reducing our fear of loss and increasing our peace of mind as we can start seeing beauty in mundane things when the clutter diminishes.
  • "When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” - Lao Tse
  • “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” - Lao Tse

14. Build a community and contribute to it

Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Zen practitioners believe that these 3 concepts are the most important things in life: the awakened one (Buddha), the teachings of Buddha (Dharma), and the community built by the practitioners of his beliefs (Sangha). Sangha can also be related to interconnectedness among all humans but some interpret it as the community of the practitioners of Buddhism only. As the members are those who renounce worldly desires and dedicate themselves to train at monasteries, they develop a strong sense of community and often build closely-knit societies.
  • "If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way." - Buddha
  • “The beloved community is the Sangha. In the Sangha, there are those who bring happiness to many people. There are those who cook very well, and there are those who take care of the garden beautifully and grow nutritious vegetables. There are those who organize festivities in a very beautiful, creative way. There are those who don’t have these talents, but when they do sitting meditation they are very happy, and when they walk they are also very happy and this brings happiness to others. Such people are of great benefit to the Sangha. Everybody contributes their part. You don’t need to be exactly like others. This is true whether you are thinking of your family as your Sangha or of the larger beloved community. Everyone has their own abilities.” - Thich Nhat Hanh 

15. Display gratitude and respect for everything 

We are always self-centered which creates the most stresses in our lives. Bowing, and subjugating self is the best way to tame our ego, though zen says we should eventually get rid of our ego and become one with the universe. Because of the concept of emptiness, we can only exist interdependently and our existence depends on others and everything in the universe. From the language we speak to the tools we use in everyday life everything was made by others and we should appreciate that. We should also respect everyone and everything because we often fail to perceive the true nature of things with the naked eye. As everything in the universe is one entity and everything relies on one another, everything deserves respect. There is a Japanese value called “mottai nai” which roughly means the food should be respected not only because of the efforts of the farmer who grows the food but also the food itself because of helping our survival. 
  • "When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you” - Lao Tse
  • “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” - Lao Tse 

16. Do not fear anything, even death

According to the zen philosophy, death is not necessarily a bad thing, it is actually the beginning of a new life. From the moment we are born the decay begins and instead of worrying about death we should focus on living a good life and awaken our spirits. Although Zen considers the human spirit as some sort of energy, it emphasizes the importance of continuous transformation and rebirth. Death loses its meaning when one awakens or reaches Nirvana. Zen also makes it clear that people should not rely on others and maintain lives without being afraid of any hardships they may face in life.
  • "To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent." - Buddha
  • "The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed." - Swami Vivekananda
  • "When something dies is the greatest teaching." - Shunryu Suzuki
  • “Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.” - Buddha

17. Act with equanimity

Roshi Kapleau mentions that zazen has three aims: the power of concentration, awakening, and realization of the Supreme Way in our lives. When people have a good practice of meditation they are no longer slaves to their fears or desires. Equanimity is also one of the four sublime attitudes referring to the realization of the transience of life and getting rid of distracting thoughts and desires that give us the ability to react to our environment instantly and effectively.

  • “Equanimity is the hallmark of spirituality. It is neither chasing nor avoiding but just being in the middle.” - Amit Ray
  • “Peaceful in the body, peaceful in speech, The bhikkhu who is peaceful and well-concentrated. And who has rejected the world’s bait is called ‘one at peace.” - Buddha


Zen philosophy was born in India, developed in China, and arrived in Japan around the 11th century. Although zen is one of the schools of Buddhism and emphasizes the concepts of emptiness (sunyata), self-lessness (anatta), and taming our desires (tanha) it still has many typical Asian values from Taoism and Neo Confucianism such as intuition over logic, modesty, middle path, good human nature, and social harmony. We should remember that the Zen philosophy does not have a unified book and is divided into three major disciplines which are rinzai, soto and obaku.



Bielefeldt, C. (1988). Dogen's Manuals of Zen meditation. University of California Press.
Landaw, J., Bodian, S., & Bühnemann, G. (2011). Buddhism for dummies. John Wiley & Sons.
Lomas, T., Etcoff, N., Van Gordon, W., & Shonin, E. (2017). Zen and the art of living mindfully: The health-enhancing potential of Zen aesthetics. Journal of religion and health56(5), 1720-1739.
Robins, C. J. (2002). Zen principles and mindfulness practice in dialectical behavior therapy. Cognitive and behavioral practice9(1), 50-57.
Suzuki, S. (2020). Zen mind, beginner's mind. Shambhala Publications.
Watts, A. (1999). The way of Zen. Vintage