Zen: Doing your best

Water and stone, broken by light

Water, trees and stone, all broken by light


This is going to be about zen (禅 Meditation), so I’ll put it in the Religion category (folder). Aristotle’s Organon helps us organise stuff.

Do you know the kanji (漢字Chinese-Character) for zen? Do you know its meaning, a couple of combinations?

If you know zazen (座禅 Sitting-Meditation), you might realise that other combinations are possible.

The kanji for zen (禅) would give you one clue; the sound for zen will give you another clue (Sanskrit dhyāna Quiet-Thinking), but if you’re not a Japanese speaker then it doesn’t have the same impact.

Allow me to elaborate on the concept of zen (禅) for average Japanese people, most of them educated in this spirit.

The spirit of zen (禅) means that whatever you do, you’re supposed to do your best (zen-ryoku o tsukushi 全力を尽くし Use-up-All-Power), to concentrate on what you’re doing, while also being aware of what is around you.

However, it doesn’t (necessarily) have the meaning it does in the Western, Hollywood culture, which assigns it only a spiritual dimension.

Of course, it is a spiritual thing; that’s why we have monasteries.

Do you know what the monks do in these zen–Buddhist monasteries in Japan?

They write Sanskrit using kanji (漢字 Chinese-Characters).

Why do they do that? Because, of course, Buddhism came to Japan from India via China, so it comes only in kanji (漢字 Chinese-Characters).

This means that in Japan we have imported not only the meanings, but also some of the sounds, even though nowadays we start with the meanings that can be inferred from the letters (=characters).

For the average Japanese person the spiritual connection is obscured because it is so obvious (to-zen 当然 Right-So) that you have to do your best in whatever you do.

It is a norm, what we would call in the Kantian tradition, a categorical imperative “to do your best”.

Of course, not everybody lives up to this ideal, like in every other society, but it’s there, as a norm.

Now, what is the “best” and how do we define “GOOD”?

How did these zen-Buddhists define the GOOD?

I would say it’s “awareness” (Meaning-Discerning 意識).

We have a couple of common elements across this whole area, from India to China and Japan, in the same manner that we have a Greek-Latin-Aramaic(-Arab-Hebrew) connection for European languages and European philosophy.

That being said, people living on this island seem to have taken Buddhist teachings a step further in emphasising the link with Nature (the famous Zen gardens) much more than

  • in India (where the focus seems to be on the individual human aspect) or
  • in China (where the focus seems to be on the universal human aspect).

My impression is that people living in Japan are often made aware of their surroundings (the environment) as they are jolted back to reality nearly every year.

The March 11 (2011) quake was absolutely terrifying in Tokyo (as we were waiting for the BIG one), but no buildings came down. In one old building, the ceiling came down; that was the only place in Tokyo where people died, these poor guys on whom the ceiling came down.

It was actually in East-North Japan (Tohoku 東北) where the real disaster struck.

In Tokyo it only measured a 5 plus (on the Japanese scale), which means that in Europe half of the buildings would probably collapse; I guess it depends on which part of Europe we’re talking about; in Bucharest, it would be catastrophic because we don’t build with earthquakes in mind.

I was in Tokyo when the Great East-North (Tohoku 東北) earthquake struck and it seemed to bring out the GOOD as people remembered (for a short time) their place in Nature.

It is a safe bet to predict that another earthquake will strike Japan soon and the GOOD will appear again because people try their best in this country.

On this day some people were trying do their jobs so perfectly that they forgot the situation they were in as individuals.

Here’s story for you:

On March 11th 2011, around 2:46 pm, there were some people working on the 12th or 13th floor of a building in Tokyo. Slowly (but gradually growing more severe) everything starts shaking. As a result, the elevators stop automatically and you would probably experience sea sickness from all that motion (plus the adrenaline high). Anyway, things would have been flying around; there would have been broken glass everywhere; there would definitely be dust from the ceiling, snowing down on everybody.

This goes on for almost 2 minutes, and everybody is just looking at each other, terrified:

It’s the biggest earthquake to strike Japan in 1000 years or so.

In all this chaos, when everybody looks at each other without knowing what to do, they hear this person running up the stairs. A man enters the company office, holding a bouquet of roses and he asks, completely out of breath:

“Where is Mr. Yamamoto? I have to deliver these flowers”…

What do we see here? The delivery man’s job is to deliver.

The best the delivery man could do was to take the stairs (no working elevators) and to run up during the 2 minutes of shaking.

He ran up the stairs to do his job, while everybody was too petrified to move.

I don’t know what everybody’s reaction was; I’ve heard about people running down the stairs, especially foreigners and people who were not prepared for this kind of situation.

We (in the factory where I work) didn’t run; we prepare for this kind of situation, so everybody did what they were trained to do. It was like a drill:

  1. Stop the machine
  2. Get away from the machine
  3. Take cover under the desk
  4. (If available) Put on helmets
  5. Wait for the shaking to stop
  6. Evacuate to the ground floor
  7. Do the head-count and see if anybody’s missing
  8. Report if there’s any fire
  9. Send in the fire-fighting team
  10. etc.

Do you want to know how I participated in this? How I brought my kaizen (改善Change-into-Good) into this situation?

Normally, during past drills, we evacuated to the soccer ground, but because the soccer ground could get really muddy, we sometimes skipped this step (you don’t want 600 people to carry mud back into the factory); so we got used to evacuating in front of the building.

During the actual earthquake, after we got out and we were doing the headcount, I realised that we’re standing in front of a 20-storey building and there were some windows which looked like they could fall on top of us because of all the aftershocks (kaizen step 1: Describe what is BAD?)

I thought that we could have a better situation if I communicated this to the team leader, who communicated it to the factory manager who got everybody to move to the soccer ground (even if it was muddy). It took us about 2-3 minutes to achieve this:

In an extreme emergency, a kaizen (Change-into-Good) proposal from a foreigner in Japan  was taken up, analysed, quickly recognised as reasonable, and implemented in 3 minutes by the leader on the spot.

That’s what it means to be open to kaizen, to do the best you can do at that time.

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