Stephen Hodge, a former Shingon monk, studied the Japanese and Tibetan languages and Buddhism at London University, where he now teaches. His latest book, "Zen Master Class" (read an excerpt) offers a hands-on approach to Zen practice while providing an historical context for each lesson in the book. He spoke with Beliefnet about the basics of Zen practice.

We see the word "Zen" everywhere these days. There seems to be a book on "The Zen of --" just about everything. Are people in the West generally misusing the word?
Oh yes, of course. I suppose what they're referring to is the state of mind that one achieves with Zen -- a kind of spontaneity, openness, the ability to act freely and precisely. The original meaning of the word Zen has nothing to do with the way it's used in popular Western culture.

If you go to bookshops you might see a section on Buddhism and next to it there'll be a section on Zen as though they're two separate things. Not the case at all. Zen Buddhists have had their own mystique or their own legends or mythology. But basically Zen is just another form of Buddhism and different forms of Buddhism will emphasize different kinds of practice.

The original Sanskrit word is dhyana which refers to states of meditative concentration. When the first patriarch of Chinese Zen, an Indian monk called Bodhidharma, came to China, there was a great deal of Buddhism flourishing. But the way they were doing it was through scholastic learning and good works -- like building temples, having the scriptures copied out, and charitable things. The view of the people who developed Zen was that you need actually to do the meditation practice, to break through the surface of conventional thinking, emotions, defilements, and obscurations -- break through in order to get to the underlying, the original mind.

The example often given is the sun behind clouds. The sun is always there, you can dimly see the light from the sun but you can't actually see the sun. Then when the wind blows, the clouds clear away, there it is -- but there's no direct connection between the clouds and the sun. The clouds do obscure it but they're not intrinsic to the sun. This was the idea of the Zen people and this is why they emphasized meditation because it was the best way to break through in order to achieve this state.

Can anyone be a student of Zen? For example, can you be a Zen Jew, or a Zen Muslim, etc.?
Yes and no. Strictly speaking, probably no, you can't. You could probably use the technique, but a lot of the specific teachings are incompatible with most other religions. You must remember of course basically Buddhism is non-theistic. It also doesn't believe in any kind of permanent soul or self. A lot of the main Western forms of Christianity on the contrary do teach those things so there's incompatibility there.

Having said that, there is a lot of interest among some Christians. More liberal Christians have tried to adopt and adapt Zen techniques. Basically what they're doing is adopting meditation as a form of practice. As we know, many churches are not comfortable with this because they consider it an Eastern form of mysticism which is not compatible with Christian doctrine.

The Zen approach can be very rigorous and perhaps a lot of people would not find it to their taste. You're dealing with certain kinds of meditation which are very powerful and the danger is that you're going to stir up things from deep within your psyche that you won't be able to cope with. A lot of very strange things can happen when you meditate and you need somebody who's been there who knows what's going on.

I gave a story once about the mountain the Eiger, in Switzerland. You've got the famous north face of the Eiger, which is sheer; and then you've got the rear side of it, the south side of it I think it is, which is a nice, easy slope. If you think of spiritual paths as like climbing a mountain, you can take the easy walk up the back -- it's going to take you a very long time but you'll get there; or you can climb the mountain, climb the north face of the Eiger. And to me, Zen often seems like climbing the north face of the Eiger. You're literally relying on your own efforts. You have somebody who's telling you "Put your hand there" but it's your efforts, you've got to do it, and it's hard work getting to the top. But it's a very quick way of getting to the top if you can take the heat as they say.

For someone just getting started what would you recommend? Should they read books, should they go out and find a teacher?
In the earliest Buddhist scriptures the Buddha advises people about how they should go about following the spiritual path. And he says when somebody offers you a spiritual path, don't adopt this path because I say so, or because you respect me; don't do it because everybody else is doing it, don't do it because the scriptures say you should do it. What he says is that you must try it yourself and see if it works for you. If it brings you improvement, happiness, if it uplifts you, then it's valid for you, which is a very open-minded approach.So Western people probably need to read a number of basic books on Buddhism and think about it. Having read and thought about it then they can perhaps move on to other kinds of things.

The next thing one probably needs to do is develop something that the Dalai Lama particularly emphasizes. There's the four practices, they're called the Four Immeasurables -- they're said to be immeasurable because they bring immeasurable benefit. You can do them as kind of personal cultivation, spiritual exercises.

The first one is lovingkindness. You're developing kindness and love toward other people and all beings and the planets and everything -- you extend it to there. Then the next one is compassion, which is slightly different than lovingkindness, although they sound the same. Lovingkindness is being nice to the people you encounter in everyday terms, being nice to them, being friendly and kind, whereas compassion is for people who are suffering who are in need, showing them compassion. This means not just saying "Poor thing" and so on, but also doing something about it. Generosity, charity, and so on are greatly emphasized in most schools of Buddhism.

Then the next thing you would develop is something called sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy counters jealousy and envy -- which people seem to have a lot of these days -- so sympathetic joy means taking delight in other people's good fortune, wishing them well and being happy for them.