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. ďI 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?


Kati Patelaki
kathy P4 years ago

timeless wisdom. thank you for sharing.

Corinna S.
Corinna S.5 years ago

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

Anastasia J.
Anastasia J5 years ago

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

Susan S.
Paul Stephan5 years ago

This is wonder--full--Thank you.

Alicia N.
Alicia N6 years ago

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

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Gerald M.
Past Member 7 years ago

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

Patrice D.
Patrice D7 years ago

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

Elaine H.
Past Member 7 years ago

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

Shell S.
Past Member 7 years ago

good points. Thank you: )