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3 Radically Simple Zen Lessons

3 Radically Simple Zen Lessons

There is a story from 13th century Japan about Dogen, the founder of Zen in Japan. As a young man he had a variety of burning questions about life and death and how to live a profoundly meaningful and beneficial life. He couldn’t find anyone in all of Japan who could adequately answer his questions, so he ventured across the ocean and traveled to China, where Zen was flourishing at the time. Upon his return from China he was asked:

“What did you bring back from China to Japan?”

He said, “I came back empty-handed.”

“What did you learn?”

“Not much, except gentle-heartedness,” he responded.

“And,” he added, “I learned that eyes are horizontal, nose is vertical.”

We expect that this great Zen teacher, the founder of Zen in Japan would have some profound teaching, insights, something intellectually challenging, or at least stimulating.  Instead, what we get is: 1) He came back empty handed; 2) gentle-heartedness; and 3) eyes are horizontal, nose is vertical.

Perhaps, there are some lessons here, for us, in this place and this time that we can apply to our lives, eight centuries later:

Empty handed. We are born empty-handed, and we will die empty-handed. How simple and freeing, the practice of emptying, the practice of letting go: of what we expect and of the things we think we need. Our minds want some kind of map, some assurance. We want something solid, some protection.

Letting go, to me, is the opposite of avoiding. So often we avoid what is difficult in our lives. Letting go means to face and experience the difficulties, and the joys of our lives fully and directly, without getting all worked up about outcomes. How do we make commitments, act decisively, plan, strive — all with a sense of letting go?

Gentle-heartedness. “I can’t help but think of the Dalai Lama quote “My true religion is kindness.”  He could have also said, “My true religion is gentle-heartedness.” How can we practice gentle-heartedness in the midst of a world filled with difficulty, and violence, poverty, and great disparity? Or perhaps asked differently, how can we not practice gentle-heartedness?

Eyes are horizontal, nose is vertical. Such a simple, obvious observation. So obvious, we often miss it, don’t notice our own eyes and nose, our own breath and body. The smile of a child. We are too busy; have much more important things to do. What if we pause, and notice, with everyone we see, everyone we meet — each person is just like us — eyes horizontal, nose vertical. What if we just appreciate these eyes, this nose, this amazing life?

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Marc Lesser

Marc Lesser is CEO of ZBA Associates LLC, a company providing executive coaching, leadership development consulting, and keynote speaking services to businesses and non-profits. He is a developer and instructor of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program. Marc is a Zen teacher with an MBA degree and a former resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years. He is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration.

55 comments

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6:18PM PST on Mar 8, 2013

timeless wisdom. thank you for sharing.

7:12AM PDT on Sep 6, 2012

Love and Light and Joy be With You All Each and Everday of Your Lives

5:43PM PDT on May 30, 2012

They are calming thoughts and good to carry with you every day.

6:57AM PDT on May 15, 2012

This is wonder--full--Thank you.

8:52PM PDT on Aug 5, 2011

....." we are born empty-handed
we will die empty-handed "........ SO true!
lovely article, many, many thanks GOD bless.

5:33AM PDT on Mar 16, 2011

Thanks for the article.

12:18PM PST on Jan 16, 2011

This makes life much more exciting - in the profound sense, of course - and creative.

5:32PM PST on Dec 5, 2010

I've got so far to travel in the short time left... Thank you.

4:04PM PST on Nov 25, 2010

Another great thing is that the simplest circumstances can be made, with a thoughtful spirit, into enduring life lessons.

8:47PM PST on Nov 23, 2010

good points. Thank you: )

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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I disagree here again with Carol P. I think our youth are the one's to gauge to see what our next …

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