9 Rules to Live By From a Zen Master

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I listen to a lot of audiobooks in my car. I listen to each book I read repeatedly, 5-10 times each in a year, as my focus is to absorb as much of the information as possible instead of to just race through it and absorb only, say, 10% of it.

It’s for this reason that my reading list is honestly about a mile long. Some of my favorite audiobooks of all time are Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, D. T. Suzuki’s What is Zen?, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings, and one of my favorite books of all time, can seem impossible to read if you don’t understand how Zen communicates.

The language of Zen, concerned with going straight to the heart of the matter, of realizing the ultimate nature of reality, can seem like nonsense. This is because the ultimate teaching of Zen, sometimes referred to as the “marrow” of Zen, is something which can’t be accurately expressed in words.

Because enlightenment, the ultimate realization of Zen, is impossible to put into words, any attempt to describe it just ends up diluting or obscuring the essence of it. It’s altogether ungraspable. As soon as you try to put your finger on it, it disappears.

It can only be personally experienced through non-rational, meditative contemplation and developing of one’s intuition, and can take years to fully realize. Zen speak, therefore, becomes a seemingly nonsensical language that’s meant to awaken something inside of you in order for you to receive this insight directly.

But does that mean it’s useless to talk about Zen? Not at all. Zen focuses on practice, and the focus of Zen practice is to realize your own enlightenment, but there’s much more to Zen practice than this. Much of the beauty and benefit of Zen practice can be communicated in writing.

Zen holds within it a wealth of universal “everyday” wisdom which anyone can use to significantly improve the quality of their lives. And these insights are more valuable than ever before. It’s this wisdom that I believe is most valuable. And it’s this wisdom that can change the world for the better. Whether you realize the highest awakening or not, what matters is how you live in this moment.

Below is a list of straightforward advice provided by someone of immense wisdom, with commentary from me on certain points that I’d like to elaborate on.

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10 Rules to Live By From the First Zen Master in America

Soyen Shaku (1860-1919), a senior teacher of the Rinzai school of Zen, is noted as the first Zen Buddhist priest to come to the United States.

In 1893 Shaku was invited to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Organized by John Henry Barrows and Paul Carus, the 1893 World Parliament of Religions was the first official gathering of representatives from both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. This gathering started interreligious dialogue worldwide and shines as a beacon of the possibilities when the world’s religious and spiritual traditions work together in their common humanity.

Shaku’s associates and followers believed at the time that it was beneath a Zen priest to go to a country such as the U.S., which Japan saw at the time as barbaric. Despite opposition from associates and followers, Shaku accepted the invitation. Without this invitation having been accepted, we probably wouldn’t have received the wisdom of Zen in the United States until much later.

After arriving back in Japan, D. T. Suzuki, Shaku’s senior student and the person who helped write his speech in English for the World Parliament of Religion, was sent to the United States. D.T. Suzuki would eventually become the most significant figure in bringing Zen to the West.

Below is a list of rules to live by that Zen master Shaku set for himself and lived by each day, until his passing on October 29th, 1919:

1. In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate

Daily meditation, particularly first thing in the morning, is something I talk about often. I believe this is #1 on the list for a reason, as it’s arguably the most important of the points.

I do want to say a word about incense, though. This might just seem like a traditional ritual, but incense has two valuable uses.

First, incense can be very symbolic. Zen Buddhists use incense as a symbol of the unity of all beings, of the potential of unawakened beings (when unlit), and when lit as a visual reminder of the impermanence of life. Incense is considered an offering, it’s an act done with absolute selflessness and respect for life and therefore can be a very nourishing practice. Such a ritual, especially if done first thing in the morning, can help keep what’s really important at the forefront of your mind.

Secondly, incense can actually help you reduce stress. Scientific studies on the use of incense have shown both good and bad results, the bad being long-term daily use can increase your risk of getting cancer. But if used sparingly, in the morning of an important day or at the end of a rough one, research has shown that it can help calm you and reduce stress. This makes for a nice pairing with meditation. You may not want to use them regularly, but you can put it into your bag of tricks to use sparingly.

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