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The Top 10 Zen Sayings, “Zengo”

When you hear Zen, what is the first thing that you think of?

Zazen, mindfulness and meditation are increasing in popularity. In particular, we received a large response to our previous article about the beginner’s guide to Zazen, underlying its popularity.

In this article, we will look at “Zengo” - phrases of wisdom that originate from the culture of Zen. Zengo derives from the anecdotes and scriptures of Zen Buddhist monks. On first glance, many of these Zen Sayings may seem difficult to grasp at first, but on closer contemplation, there is much to be learnt about core aspects of Japanese life and philosophy from these words.

This article has selected ten of the top 50 Zengo that were voted for in a survey of non Japanese people carried out by SMU.

No.10 全機現 (Zenkigen):“The manifestation of total dynamism”

This concept covers the entire world and all of space. Inside of you, there are many chances and things to offer, and these are open to you to realise.

No.9 一期一会 (Ichigoichie):“You meet only once”

This phrase is commonly used in regards to the spirit of Japan's tea ceremony. During the time of the samurai and when there were many warring states, it was a time where people could lose their lives at any moment. Because of this type of era, where death could come so unexpectedly, it was important to treat the people in front of you with your best hospitality,  since it might have been the last time that you ever saw them.

・ こんな素敵なものに 偶然出会った。 ・ その瞬間は一生に一度だけ。 毎日いろんなことがあって 忘れてしまいがちだけど、 一つ一つに最善を尽くして 自分も相手も 心を震わすことができれば 忘れがたい思い出となる。 生きた証になる。 そんな風によい意味で 心を揺さぶることが できるように 感謝や好意はきちんと伝えよう。 心を込めて最善を尽くそう。 ・ 最近はそういったことを あまりできていなかったので、 改めて意識。 ・ そのために 普段から心身ともに健康で 余裕を持って生きたい。 ・ #ただの独り言 #素敵な言葉 #実は詩とか言葉とか好き #一期一会 #千利休

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No.8 我逢人 (Gahojin):“The influence of those that come into your life”

This is the idea of everything starting from meeting new people that come into your life. Do you think of all the people that have been in your life to help or support you? You’ve become the person you are now in significant part due to the people you’ve met.

No.7 主人公 (Shujinko):“Protagonist”

Protagonist means who you really are. In TV dramas and plays, there is only one protagonist. In Zen, inside of each and every person, their true, inner self is the “Protagonist.” That means you become aware of who you really are and live your own life, instead of living the life set out for you by others.

No.6 少欲知足 (Shoyokuchisoku):“Little desire and contentment with a little gain”

This concept is very important in the Zen spirit. Humans are greedy and consequently suffer when desire too much. Having few personal desires and being satisfied with what you have will lead you to inner peace.

No.5 自他一如 (Jitaichinyo):“Together as one”

This word encompasses the concept of not separating the self and others. Beyond just doing something for someone else, it relates to a deeper level of the self and others becoming a single entity. The breakdown of the Kanji meaning means “The self and others are as if they are just one”.

No.4 随処作主 (Zuishonishutonare):“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind”

No matter where you are,or what is happening to you, this Zengo teaches self responsibility and not to blame others. Instead of thinking negatively, one should become the “protagonist” of your life. Positive thinking and efforts will help you find a way to overcome any challenge.

No.3 冷暖自知 (Reidanjichi):“Check yourself whether it is cold or warm”

In other words, don’t believe what others say, but believe in things that you experienced yourself.

No.2 初心不可忘 (Shoshinwasurerubekarazu):“We should not forget our beginner’s spirit”

This means that as time passes, people tend to forget their original intention. However, you should never forget the enthusiasm you had when you were trying new things as a beginner. Regardless the fact that your experience was good or not, you should cherish it and keep the zest that you had at the very beginning of the endeavour.

Nice to have a practice in early morning #初心不可忘

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No.1 明珠在掌 (Meijyutanagokoroniari):“Your treasure is already in your hand” 

This phrase means that you already have everything you need - the most important things in your life are already within you, and it is this which must be sought.

Using Zen philosophy in everyday life

We hope that these Zen Sayings were enlightening to you.

The Zen words “Be the master of your mind rather than mastered by your mind” and “Together as one” were particularly popular in Western countries, with number 3 “Check yourself whether it is cold or hot” was one of the most popular in Asia and Oceania. This reflects an interesting difference in what is considered as the most inspiring, depending on the country and culture.

There is also a “Zengo calendar” which one can purchase, showing a Zen Sayings for each day, to help you put into practice these nuggets of wisdom in everyday life.

Why not try making a little time each day to spend time getting to know oneself through learning new Zen Sayings each day?


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Koki Miyashita

Author & Editor