We’ve previously discussed the important role that attention plays in the practice of Zen, but what follows is one of my favorite Zen stories about the exact level of attention to which Zen practitioners aspire. It’s from the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones: a Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. Here is the story:
Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others.
Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella.
After greeting him, Nan-in remarked: ‘I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.’
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
I remind myself of this story every time I space out and, for example, forget where I’ve left my keys. In those instances, if my wife is there, I simply look at her and say, “Six more years of Zen training” and if she’s not, I whisper it to myself.
Like everything else worth pursuing in life, every-minute Zen won’t happen overnight, but with practice – and self-compassion when we fall short – we can certainly improve.
The benefit of every-minute Zen is that we are living our lives in the present moment rather than going through life in the trance of the past or the trance of the future and simply going through the motions in the present.
As I get older I realize more and more just how very short life is, and I’ve also realized that the way to get the most out of this one precious life is to live in the present moment by practicing every-minute Zen.
The past and future are nothing but the electrical impulses of the brain forming thoughts and images in our heads.
Real life is found in each and every moment of this incredibly short life.
And on that very note, I leave you with this original haiku about the ephemeral nature of life:
a passing breeze –
the cherry blossom,