“Why Not Begin There?”

“Why Not Begin There?”

"A Joy's Sunrise" by Alena Hennessy /

A Zen priest and leading garden designer from Japan shares two reflections.

Reconsider the Obvious

You’ll realize the happiness to be found in the present moment

“We are perhaps most likely to overlook our gratitude for the obvious things in life.”

I often talk about this in my lectures, but the best example of something we take for granted may be the existence of our parents.

It’s a given that parents will be there, that they will devote themselves to their children, that they will protect them and come to their aid both openly and secretly.

Often we appreciate just how fortunate we are to have those “givens” only when our parents pass away.

“I feel particularly sad about my mother's passing when I remember how she always used to send my favorite foods from my hometown.”

“I had no idea how difficult it was to deal with all our relatives. My father was the one who always handled everything with them, and I never knew how much of a burden it must have been.”

In tangible and intangible ways, we don’t realize how much we rely on our parents. Everything they do for us—which we take for granted—attests to the magnitude of our parents’ greatness, and we often don’t even acknowledge them.

Ekiho Miyazaki, the abbot of a Soto Zen temple, said, “There is an appropriate way to do things, at the appropriate time, and in the appropriate place.”

Even after he turned 100, Miyazaki Zenji maintained the same ascetic practices as young monks.

I know that his words seem obvious.

But I believe what he meant was for us to be all the more grateful to realize that this state of obviousness is, in itself, Zen enlightenment.

What if each of us took the time to reconsider the things around us that we take for granted? In the morning, we get up and breakfast has been prepared. We go to work and our desk is undisturbed. When something happens, good or bad, we say the word and our friends join us for a drink. We can tell just by looking at our children’s sleeping faces that they are growing up just fine.

These “obvious” things that are here right now, how much do they support and nurture us, or offer us comfort, encouragement, and inspiration?

I ask you to take notice. By doing so, you will experience a major spiritual change. The irritation you felt toward your family, the job done carelessly, the friend who wasn’t there for you ... all that will disappear. You will be fulfilled by this moment, here and now.

Once you begin to cherish the things you’ve always taken for granted, you’ll soon feel grateful for everything ... even boring, annoying, and depressing things. With that attitude at the front of your mind, you can always maintain a sense of gratitude, and this will have a profound effect on your life.

. . .

Don’t Seek Out the Unnecessary

Stop bingeing on information

I’d like to talk about the relationship between our information-driven society and our hearts and minds.

We are living in a highly networked age when information is abundant. And needless to say, the rapid evolution and spread of the Internet has only spurred that further.

To be sure, there is something desirable about the convenience of being able to access a wide range of information, but at the same time, I feel that it may also be fraught with problems.

What I mean is, too much information inhibits our ability to make decisions.

For example, say you’re thinking of doing something to improve your health. “Maybe I’ll look into this a bit,” you say to yourself and then do an Internet search, only to be overwhelmed by a flood of information.

Looking at the search results, you find there are too many choices—and you lose confidence in making a decision. “This seems good, but this seems effective, too. Then there's this thing as well? And I can’t rule out this one, either.”

This happens in every kind of situation—at the workplace, too. “This seems promising.” “Let’s add that condition here.” “If that’s of interest, perhaps we should try this?” “In terms of salary, this might also be good ...” And so on.

When it comes to your career, the most important question to ask yourself is “What do I want to do?” Your choice of job profoundly affects how you’ll live your life.

Figuring out what you want to do or how to live is not a matter of how much information you accumulate. The answer can be found only within yourself. And to find it, you must set about giving these questions thorough consideration.

To put it another way, it’s a matter of questioning your heart, and deciding where to focus your efforts.

In this context, information can be a source of doubt. Counterintuitively, when you have an excess of information, your mind doesn’t know what to do with it. And when your mind is untethered, doubt creeps in, along with anxiety.

At one time, almost everyone in Japan worked in the family business, from generation to generation. Farmers are the typical example of this, but also craftsmen and artisans handed down their skills from parent to child to grandchild and so on.

Without any choice involved, people’s efforts were focused, and they were able to dedicate themselves to their work. And the fact that they were fully engaged contributed to their sense of fulfillment in life.

You might even say that not having a choice left no room for doubt or anxiety about their work. But neither were people tormented by idle illusions and anxieties the way people today are—and not just about work but also about life in general.

Of course, it’s important to note that more choice means broader possibilities. But the key is to narrow the options. Think of it this way: Put the emphasis on deciding where to focus your efforts, then gather only the information deemed necessary to that end—you will still find various options.

When you’ve questioned your heart and then chosen work or decided upon a course of action based upon what it told you, you will no longer waver—even if the results you hope for aren’t immediately forthcoming.

Try your best to put this into practice. And here is the important point, as Rinzai Gigen, the founder of the Rinzai school of Buddhism, said:

“Be master wherever you go—then wherever you are, things are as they truly are.”

This means that no matter the circumstances, if you try your best to do what you’re capable of in the here and now, you will realize your potential protagonist, or who you’re meant to be.

A protagonist is not misled by information run rampant, does not allow their focus to be drawn this way and that. Their gaze is fixed steadily in one direction.

A protagonist stands firmly on the ground, carving a path of their resoluteness. You could even say they are leading their life with certainty.

We are all capable of becoming our own protagonists, anytime and anywhere.

But first, we must focus our efforts. Concentrate on the here and now.

Why not begin there?

From DON’T WORRY by Shunmyo Masuno, translated by Alison Markin Powell, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright © 2022 by Shunmyo Masuno.

Read more about Zen wisdom for personal crisis and struggle.

A Joys Sunrise Alena Hennessy

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