Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Taking The Path Of Zen (Book Summary)

One Sentence: An essential primer on the practice and philosophy of Zen.

In Summary: In this short book, Robert Aitken packs practical advice and philosophical insights on the journey of a Zen student. Illustrating everything from breathing exercises to the different schools of thought within Zen, there’s enough depth for both beginners and seasoned students alike.

The Takeaway: Meditation practice is an essential responsibility that lasts a lifetime.

A Quick Introduction

While Alan Watts was in New York learning about Zen, Robert Aitken was in an internment camp in Japan during World War II. Despite this experience, Aitken began a lifelong interest in the culture and practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism. By the early 1960s, he’d begun holding meditation sessions and would eventually go on to found the Koko-an zendo, later the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, in Hawaii.

This was an important time for American Zen and as one of the early practitioners, Aitken was uniquely placed to translate the culture for a Western audience. Holding an MA in Japanese and spending much of his life back and forth between the US and Japan, he had first-hand experience of dojos (training centres) and rōshis (Zen masters).

Aitken made use of these experiences by founding and teaching through the Diamond Sangha as well as writing several books. His works are both accessible and comprehensive. I find that, in true Zen spirit, Aitken maintains a sharp efficiency with his words. He gets complex points across easily. Which is no mean feat in the worlds of Buddhism and Zen.

Themes & Quotations

There’s a lot in this book. Reducing it to several snappy paragraphs means I’m choosing to omit some of the areas Aitken addresses in favour of giving an overview. With that said, I’ve made a selection of passages I found illuminating on 3 different themes.

The first theme is Technique. Zazen places a particular emphasis on posture and breathing, so these guidelines are a great start for beginners and a useful refresher for those who are practising regularly.

The second theme is Mindfulness. Aitken uses this word just once the book – but there are many thoughts that those familiar with modern mindfulness practices may find useful.

The final theme is Mindset. One of the things that Zen cultivates quite strongly, is a particular outlook on life. It’s one of the things that has drawn me to Zen practice and as a result, I’ve chosen a few passages that illustrate this way of being.

“We may take our model from the posture of a one-year-old baby. The child sits bolt upright, with spine curving forward slightly at the waist, rather than completely straight up-and-down. The belly sticks out in front, while the rear end sticks out behind. Sitting with the spine completely straight at this age would be impossible, as the muscles are still undeveloped—too weak to hold the body erect. Curved forward, the vertebrae are locked into their strongest position, and the child can forget about staying erect.”

“Sit with your back straight, and count “one” for the inhalation, “two” for the exhalation, “three” for the next inhalation, “four” for the next exhalation, and so on up to “ten,” and repeat. Don’t go above “ten” because it is too difficult to keep track of higher numbers. You are not exercising your thinking faculty in this practice; you are developing your power to invest in something.”

“You will find breath counting to be a useful means throughout your life of Zen training. Whatever your practice becomes, later on, you should count your breaths from “one” to “ten,” one or two sequences, at the start of each new period of zazen. It will help you to settle down, and will serve to remind you that you are not just sitting there, but sitting with a particular practice.”

“If your monkey-mind will not let you examine each step in a simple sequence of breaths, then how can you sustain the attention necessary to see into your own nature?”

“If you listen as a member of an audience, you may tend to listen passively, as though I were simply expressing an opinion, not necessarily for you. This is not the act of pure listening. It is important to listen as though I were speaking to you alone. It is the same with reading. These words are your words. They form in your mind as they appear on the page. Go with the words and you will find yourself in a natural process of acceptance and rejection that does not involve conceptual judgement.”

“When you are driving a car, just drive, keeping yourself alert to everything. When you answer the telephone, devote yourself to the caller. Likewise, move from circumstance to circumstance with this same quality of attention. Practice awareness.”

“All of us fear failure, to one degree or another, and prefer not to try something that seems too difficult. This device of adjusting your goal to your present capacity is one by which you can avoid unnecessary frustration at the outset of your practice. However, it is important to understand that Zen training is also a matter of coping with failure. Everybody fails at first, just as Shakyamuni Buddha did. Zazen, for anyone who is not completely mature, is a matter of checking delusion and returning to the practice, checking and returning, over and over”

Zen Mindset
“Zen practice is a matter of change from ignorance of Buddha-nature to its realization. This involves letting go of the self and uniting with the object of attention”

“You will not be successful if you just try to block your thoughts. You are trying to block yourself, you will end by tiring yourself out, and the fantasy will be as feisty as ever. It is important to sit with a mind that is open, as open as the air.”

“Yasutani Roshi used to say, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose I am here and you are out there.” He would point to himself with “here” and to his listeners with “out there,” miming the division conceived by self-centered people.”

“We need to find the Middle Way. The Buddha learned, and we learn also, that lengthy fasting and other kinds of excessive self-deprivation only weaken the body and spirit and make the practice more difficult. And, as the Ts’ai Kên T’an tells us, ‘Water which is too pure has no fish.’”

“At first this inner creature seems more like a monkey than a lion, greedily snatching at bright-coloured objects and jumping around from one thing to another. Many people blame themselves, even dislike themselves, for their restless behaviour. But if you reject yourself, you are rejecting the agent of realization. So you must make friends with yourself. Enjoy yourself. Take comfort in yourself. Smile at yourself.”

“Zen Buddhism is one path among many. I have heard it said that all paths lead to the top of the same mountain. I doubt it. I think that one mountain may seem just a small hill from the top of another. Let one hundred mountains rise! Meanwhile, you must find your own path and your own mountain.”

A Monk’s Guide To A Clean House And Mind (Book Summary)

A Clean Desk

Elevator Pitch

One Sentence: Cleaning is a way of teaching ourselves the true value of things.

In Summary: We tend to accumulate objects and people as easily as we discard them. This becomes a metaphor for the carelessness with which we live our lives. Cleaning is a small spiritual exercise to remind ourselves of what’s important.

The Takeaway: Clean your home in the same way you intend to live, with consistency, attention and commitment.

A Quick Introduction

There are few zen monks who are also MBA graduates. Shoukei Matsumoto, however, is both.

Although he might not fit your traditional idea of a monk, Matsumoto is an interesting character. He is married and has a family. He lives and works in Tokyo. And he writes books on how Buddhist principles can help us live more peaceful lives.

I found this book – which was a huge hit in Japan – to be compelling but also a bit dry in places. Maybe some of the nuances get lost in translation. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a book offering peace of mind and clarity that comes with such a simple prescription: pick up your broom and clean.

We tend to over complicate our lives. Reading Matsumoto I’m reminded that sometimes it’s the simple things, done mindfully, that can make a big difference. Pick it up if you’re in need of some honest and practical direction on how to bring a little zen wisdom into your home.

7 Quotes On Mindfulness, Simplicity & Value

1. “Life is a daily training ground, and we are each composed of the very actions we take in life. If you live carelessly, your mind will be soiled, but if you try to live conscientiously, it will slowly become pure again.”

The goal of Buddhist practice is to free ourselves from the endless cycle of suffering. We do this by training ourselves to live mindfully. Mindful living means being in the present moment and being careful with our actions. Learning to see each action as part of who we are might make us a little more precise in our daily life.

2. “The people and things in your life are what makes you who you are. This is why it’s not for you to judge whether something is useful, or to designate things you can’t use as rubbish.”

A thing is only rubbish because we decide it is. Nothing starts out that way. So to have less waste we should learn to see things differently. When we try to find and maintain the value of things in our life, there will naturally be less rubbish lying around.

3. “People who don’t respect objects don’t respect people.”

This should be self-evident but it’s something that’s easy to miss. I’m as quick to throw objects away as I am to give a sly remark to someone that cuts me off during my commute. If we can handle both with more care and consideration, we’ll avoid a lot of anxiety and stress.

4. “The toilet is one of the areas that Zen monks always put a great deal of effort into keeping clean. Adherents of Zen Buddhism also believe that Ucchusma attained enlightenment in the toilet, thus making it a holy space.”

This one made me chuckle. But it serves as a good reminder that no space, or object, or person is unworthy of our attention and respect. You never know where you might find enlightenment!

5. “People who endlessly chase after new things have lost their freedom to earthly desire. Only those who can enjoy using their imaginations when working with limited resources know true freedom.”

Can we find a happiness that does not rely on the latest thing or a new purchase? Is there something that can bring us joy outside of the endless impulse to buy more? How do we cultivate that?

6. “By not being anchored down by worldly possessions, his mind was able to achieve true freedom.”

The more we place the value of ourselves in external objects the less we will find internal fulfilment. Matsumoto suggests that caring for the things we already have is important. But learning to stop coveting them is essential.

7. “Cleaning is carried out not because there is dirt, but because it’s an ascetic practice to cultivate the mind.”

The mind is best trained through discipline. What I take from this – and this could be the biggest learning from the book – is that any activity can be your practice. If meditation isn’t your jam find something else. Do it regularly, mindfully and with the right intention. You’ll be on your way to finding that cultivated mind.

Further Reading & Links

A slim paperback, this book is a quick and easy read. It’s accompanied by some sweet illustrations and is the kind of book you’ll come back to for a little moment of zen inspiration every now and then.
A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind – Shoukei Matsumoto

Pair this book with Charlottle Joko Beck’s manual for a simpler life, Everyday Zen. Read my summary of that book by clicking the link below.
Everyday Zen – Book Summary