For Shunmyo Masuno, chief priest at Kenkoji, a Soto Zen temple in Yokohama, Zen is an action, not a philosophy. As Masuno explains to The Japan Times, “Zen is concerned with gyōjūzaga, four cardinal behaviors: walking, standing, sitting, lying. It’s difficult to discover the essence of Zen by simply reading philosophical books, as is popular in the West. Unless people can apply the basic, active principles of Zen to their daily lives, it’s meaningless.”
MICHAEL JOSEPH, Nonfiction.
Masuno first found a way to share these ideas on an NHK children’s program, where he introduced the ideas of Zen to elementary school children. The series was so popular that NHK published a text of his lessons. The book became a bestseller in Japan and will soon be published in English as “Zen: The Art of Simple Living.”
Illustrated by Zanna and Harry Goldhawk and translated by Allison Markin Powell, the result is a profoundly beautiful work, easy to read, encouraging deep thought and reflection, but most importantly, acting as a practical guide to Zen action.
Divided into four sections, Masuno uses simple language to explain Zen concepts like gasshō (palms pressed together, an action that “fosters a sense of gratitude”) or mitate (striving to see things in a different way), and offers advice for actively transforming these ideas into lifetime habits. His advice is supported by Zen stories and sayings. As Masuno states in the introduction, “Zen is about habits, ideas and hints for living a happy life. A treasure trove, if you will, of deep yet simple life wisdom.” It could just as easily be a description of the book itself.
“Make time for emptiness. First, observe yourself,” writes Masuno in the opening chapter. In a pattern repeated throughout the book, the one-page chapter extols an action and suggests ways and practices for realizing the action in daily life. To make time for emptiness, for example, Masuno advises using 10 minutes a day to empty the mind. As the chapter concludes: “When you are not distracted by other things, your pure and honest self can be revealed.”
“True Zen is about trying to make this short life as meaningful as possible and to search for universal truths or the immutable in this world,” Masuno explains, citing an example of spring’s first warm breeze. “People a thousand years ago felt happy to welcome the spring, and people a thousand years from now will probably feel a similar way. This is an example of a universal truth, things that are unchanging that we must actively notice and value.”d to design and to teach others as a professor at the department of environmental design at Tama Art University. “I work mainly with outdoor spaces, but this also includes interiors since the interior and the garden can’t really be separated in Japan,” he says. “When I design gardens overseas, I feel it’s a chance to explain Japanese beauty to people from other countries. If they notice things — like how the garden is an extension of the interior — and it sparks their interest in Japan, then it becomes a great kind of cultural exchange.”
For Masuno, Zen practice, cultural connections, and gardening are all interconnected, and his book reflects this with numerous points that connect to gardening. Plant a single flower, suggests one chapter. Create a small garden on your balcony or window ledge, advises another: “Within that space, try representing the landscape of your mind.”
Like gardening, another reason Masuno’s work resonates is because it clearly focuses on the process, not on any promised outcome. “In the Western world, the focus is on the result — advocates of mindfulness meditation, for example, emphasize how you’ll have clearer thoughts and less stress,” explains Masuno. “But Zen is always about the practice itself; the results are secondary. Of course Zen is important spiritually in today’s world. Two hundred years ago there was no internet, no fast trains, no jets and no cell phones … but many more people today suffer from mental illnesses and depression. The suicide rate today is at an all time high. So, despite all the modern advances, you can’t really say that our generation is more content.”
Masuno believes there’s an increasing need for Zen practice in today’s world, and he expresses thanks at the book’s success in Japanese, never expecting an English translation to follow. Unsurprisingly, Masuno has a simple goal for his book for English-reading audiences: “I hope the book will have a calming effect to bring people peace of mind, (helping them to find) a way to actively live each day thankfully and meaningfully. Zen must fundamentally carry the philosophy into practice.”
This small but powerful book shows that way.
“Zen: The Art of Simple Living” will be published on April 18 through Penguin Books’ Michael Joseph imprint.
~Thich Nhat Hanh~
Anguttara Nikaya I. 10
When we talk about the true nature of mind, when we say “nature,” it means the actual state, the actual situation that the mind is in. It’s simply a matter of recognizing what is there, what is actually there. So sometimes what is tricky for us to understand is that the reason we have not recognized the true nature of our mind is not because it is too profound, or too difficult. It is because it is too simple or too easy. The masters of meditation of the past say that we fail to recognize the true nature of mind because it is so simple that we fail to trust it.
So the true nature of mind is simply what we are right now, it is our uncontrived natural state. Since we are in such a habit of living our lives in contrived states, and states where we are always adding concepts onto things, it’s difficult for us to return to the way we naturally are.
– 17th Karmapa
We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door.If you think “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.
So when we practice zazen, all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature. This kind of awareness is very important because we are usually so one-sided.
Our usual understanding of life is dualistic: you and I, this and that, good and bad. But actually, these discriminations are themselves the awareness of the universal existence.
“You” means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and “I” means to be aware of it in the form of I. You and I are just swinging doors. This kind of understanding is necessary. This should not even be called understanding; it is actually the true experience of life through Zen practice.
When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent on everything. Without air, we cannot breathe.
Each of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent. If you have this kind of experience, this kind of existence, you have absolute independence; you will not be bothered by anything.
So when you practice zazen, your mind should be concentrated on your breathing. This kind of activity is the fundamental activity of the universal being. Without this experience, this practice, it is impossible to attain absolute freedom.”
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
In short, we can say that we trust ourselves completely, without thinking, without feeling, without discriminating between good and bad, right and wrong. Because we respect ourselves, because we put faith in our life, we sit.
With thanks to Gems of Wisdom – Zen Tradition
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Painting: © Anna Silivonchik