Books

'Zen: The Art of Simple Living': Habits, ideas and hints for living a happy life

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

For Shunmyo Masuno, chief priest at Kenkoji, a Soto Zen temple in Yokohama, Zen is an action, not a philosophy. As Masuno explains to The Japan Times, “Zen is concerned with gyōjūzaga, four cardinal behaviors: walking, standing, sitting, lying. It’s difficult to discover the essence of Zen by simply reading philosophical books, as is popular in the West. Unless people can apply the basic, active principles of Zen to their daily lives, it’s meaningless.”

Zen: The Art of Simple Living, by Shunmyo Masuno, Translated by Allison Markin Powell.
224 pages
MICHAEL JOSEPH, Nonfiction.

Masuno first found a way to share these ideas on an NHK children’s program, where he introduced the ideas of Zen to elementary school children. The series was so popular that NHK published a text of his lessons. The book became a bestseller in Japan and will soon be published in English as “Zen: The Art of Simple Living.”

Illustrated by Zanna and Harry Goldhawk and translated by Allison Markin Powell, the result is a profoundly beautiful work, easy to read, encouraging deep thought and reflection, but most importantly, acting as a practical guide to Zen action.

Divided into four sections, Masuno uses simple language to explain Zen concepts like gasshō (palms pressed together, an action that “fosters a sense of gratitude”) or mitate (striving to see things in a different way), and offers advice for actively transforming these ideas into lifetime habits. His advice is supported by Zen stories and sayings. As Masuno states in the introduction, “Zen is about habits, ideas and hints for living a happy life. A treasure trove, if you will, of deep yet simple life wisdom.” It could just as easily be a description of the book itself.

“Make time for emptiness. First, observe yourself,” writes Masuno in the opening chapter. In a pattern repeated throughout the book, the one-page chapter extols an action and suggests ways and practices for realizing the action in daily life. To make time for emptiness, for example, Masuno advises using 10 minutes a day to empty the mind. As the chapter concludes: “When you are not distracted by other things, your pure and honest self can be revealed.”

“True Zen is about trying to make this short life as meaningful as possible and to search for universal truths or the immutable in this world,” Masuno explains, citing an example of spring’s first warm breeze. “People a thousand years ago felt happy to welcome the spring, and people a thousand years from now will probably feel a similar way. This is an example of a universal truth, things that are unchanging that we must actively notice and value.”

Using nature to reveal Zen truths comes easily to Masuno. Well-known in the West as a designer of Zen gardens, many of Masuno’s gardening books have also been translated into English.

Growing up at his father’s Zen temple in Yokohama, he was shocked at the difference in the serenely beautiful gardens of the Kyoto temples he visited for the first time in the fifth grade. “The garden at our temple was just a place where I could run around. I found out later that our temple once had a garden in the Edo Period (1603-1868), but it was destroyed in the war. So, when I went to Kyoto and saw the stunning temple gardens, I wondered why there was such a difference between ours and the garden in (temples such as) Ryoanji’s,” he says. “It was like a culture shock.”

Within the culture of Zen priesthood, there is an established tradition of priests who express themselves through the art of landscape gardening and the placement of stones as part of their ascetic practice, called ishidatesō. Masuno’s life path thus unfolded. Before ordaining as a priest, Masuno studied and apprenticed under the acclaimed garden designer Katsuo Saito.

Even after assuming his role as head priest in 2000, Masuno continued to design and to teach others as a professor at the department of environmental design at Tama Art University. “I work mainly with outdoor spaces, but this also includes interiors since the interior and the garden can’t really be separated in Japan,” he says. “When I design gardens overseas, I feel it’s a chance to explain Japanese beauty to people from other countries. If they notice things — like how the garden is an extension of the interior — and it sparks their interest in Japan, then it becomes a great kind of cultural exchange.”

For Masuno, Zen practice, cultural connections, and gardening are all interconnected, and his book reflects this with numerous points that connect to gardening. Plant a single flower, suggests one chapter. Create a small garden on your balcony or window ledge, advises another: “Within that space, try representing the landscape of your mind.”

Like gardening, another reason Masuno’s work resonates is because it clearly focuses on the process, not on any promised outcome. “In the Western world, the focus is on the result — advocates of mindfulness meditation, for example, emphasize how you’ll have clearer thoughts and less stress,” explains Masuno. “But Zen is always about the practice itself; the results are secondary. Of course Zen is important spiritually in today’s world. Two hundred years ago there was no internet, no fast trains, no jets and no cell phones … but many more people today suffer from mental illnesses and depression. The suicide rate today is at an all time high. So, despite all the modern advances, you can’t really say that our generation is more content.”

Masuno believes there’s an increasing need for Zen practice in today’s world, and he expresses thanks at the book’s success in Japanese, never expecting an English translation to follow. Unsurprisingly, Masuno has a simple goal for his book for English-reading audiences: “I hope the book will have a calming effect to bring people peace of mind, (helping them to find) a way to actively live each day thankfully and meaningfully. Zen must fundamentally carry the philosophy into practice.”

This small but powerful book shows that way.

“Zen: The Art of Simple Living” will be published on April 18 through Penguin Books’ Michael Joseph imprint.