Value Simplicity and Effortlessness

Value Simplicity and Effortlessness

Zen teaches us to make do with what we have.  I remember working as the Tenzo (Head Cook) at Mount Equity Zendo, where I trained in central Pennsylvania.  My teacher gave me one central guideline:  Look at what you have in the refrigerator and cupboard before deciding on a recipe.   It was simple enough instruction.  She said, “Rather than looking up a recipe and going out to buy the ingredients for it, in Zen we make the most of what we have already before going out to buy a missing ingredient.”

We often have more than enough, but don’t bother to look.  Keeping rooms clean is part of Zen practice because it helps us to notice what we have.  When we don’t clean, we lose sight of what’s right in front of us, and then we make great efforts to figure out how we are going to obtain what we already have.  When I clean the kitchen cupboards and fridge, for example, I start to see all the food items I have neglected.

The same is true for our zazen practice.  Enlightenment is right in front of us, yet we complicate our lives thinking we need some kind of program to help us find it, something extra, something we need to go out and purchase.  Some people take this to mean that even a teacher is unnecessary.  This may be the case for those who can wake up themselves without help.  But I am not such a person.  For me, a teacher is necessary to help me see this.  We wake up in relationship to others, not in isolation from relationships.

Just quietly sit down and notice what’s right in front of your eyes.  It’s simple.  No need to go somewhere.  Dogen Zenji says, “The Way is basically perfect and all pervading.  What good does it do to travel around to practice?”  Wake up with the circumstances present in your life right now.  Don’t wait for some future time when things will be “better.”  That future time may never arrive.

Furthermore, any endeavor we embark upon requires some effort, whether it’s zazen or some other activity we are engaged in.  However, when we think about all the effort that has taken place by various factors of the universe from the Big Bang up until this moment, any effort that we make is comparatively negligible.  Keeping our own effort in context with the truly great and unfathomable effort that has come before us, effortlessness isn’t something I or you (ego) practice now, but the fruit of eons of activity.  Our activity is simply the “cream on top.”  This is not to say that what humans do is the crowning achievement of the universe, but simply the tiny action of the present moment, something that we often gloss over or think of as insignificant.

It’s not that we shouldn’t put effort into zazen or our daily activities.  Surely it takes effort to get ourselves out of bed and sitting on the meditation seat.  It takes effort to commit to sitting regularly.  However, pondering the effort we generate and making it into a big deal is all ego-based thinking.  In reality the great universe gets us from where we are and takes us to wherever we are going, and when we put our reliance on the myriad causes and conditions that preceded us, then our activity takes on an effortless quality (and new meaning).  We are not burdened by what needs to happen.  We can take our time, knowing that everything does not depend on us, and yet at the same time, if we fail to take seriously our part, then everything falls apart.

In Dogen Zenji’s days, he spoke of the unity of practice and Enlightenment, and that although we are already endowed with original Enlightenment, we still need to practice.  Effortlessness is like that.  It is the fruit of the labor that’s come before us.  If we put any effort into this moment, including reading this sentence, consider connecting with the myriad factors that allow you to read this, including your eyes, your fingertips, your ability to comprehend English, etc. 

The first Chinese character in this saying above (尚) has several possibilities:

  1. Value
  2. Esteem
  3. Worship
  4. To assist


As a verb, it can possibly mean one of the above.  According to Wiktionary, the fourth possibility, “to assist” is obsolete.  However, assisting simplicity (簡) and effortlessness (易) to arise makes sense to me.  It takes ego out of the equation.  We’re not the one’s acting with “simplicity” or “effortlessness,” we are assisting their manifestation in the present moment.  We are recognizing or being mindful of both the potential to act with simplicity and effortlessness AND to relax into these attitudes while in the process of whatever activity we are doing.

However, to “value,” “esteem” or even “worship” simplicity and effortlessness, are all possibilities, and depending on which one is chosen, a different emphasis and feeling is placed on 簡 and 易.

In Japanese 尚簡易 reads, Kan I wo tatsutobu.  “Value simplicity and effortlessness.”

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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