12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk
“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m not a Zen monk, nor will I ever become one. However, I find
great inspiration in the way they try to live their lives: the
simplicity of their lives, the concentration and mindfulness of every
activity, the calm and peace they find in their days.
You probably don’t want to become a Zen monk either, but you can
live your life in a more Zen-like manner by following a few simple
Why live more like a Zen monk? Because who among us can’t use a
little more concentration, tranquility, and mindfulness in our lives?
Because Zen monks for hundreds of years have devoted their lives to
being present in everything they do, to being dedicated and to serving
others. Because it serves as an example for our lives, and whether we
ever really reach that ideal is not the point.
One of my favorite Zen monks, Thich Nhat Hanh, simplified the rules in just a few words: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” It doesn’t get any better than that.
However, for those who would like a little more detail, I thought
I’d share some of the things I’ve discovered to work very well in my
experiments with Zen-like living. I am no Zen master … I am not even a
Zen Buddhist. However, I’ve found that there are certain principles
that can be applied to any life, no matter what your religious beliefs
or what your standard of living.
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” – Shunryu Suzuki
- Do one thing at a time. This rule (and some of the
others that follow) will be familiar to long-time Zen Habits readers.
It’s part of my philosophy, and it’s also a part of the life of a Zen
monk: single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re pouring water, just
pour water. When you’re eating, just eat. When you’re bathing, just
bathe. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating or bathing. Zen
proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”
- Do it slowly and deliberately. You can do one task
at a time, but also rush that task. Instead, take your time, and move
slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes
practice, but it helps you focus on the task.
- Do it completely. Put your mind completely on the
task. Don’t move on to the next task until you’re finished. If, for
some reason, you have no choice but to move on to something else, try
to at least put away the unfinished task and clean up after yourself.
If you prepare a sandwich, don’t start eating it until you’ve put away
the stuff you used to prepare it, wiped down the counter, and washed
the dishes used for preparation. Then you’re done with that task, and
can focus more completely on the next task.
- Do less. A Zen monk doesn’t lead a lazy life: he
wakes early and has a day filled with work. However, he doesn’t have an
unending task list either — there are certain things he’s going to do
today, an no more. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly,
more completely and with more concentration. If you fill your day with
tasks, you will be rushing from one thing to the next without stopping
to think about what you do.
- Put space between things. Related to the “Do less”
rule, but it’s a way of managing your schedule so that you always have
time to complete each task. Don’t schedule things close together —
instead, leave room between things on your schedule. That gives you a
more relaxed schedule, and leaves space in case one task takes longer
than you planned.
- Develop rituals. Zen monks have rituals for many
things they do, from eating to cleaning to meditation. Ritual gives
something a sense of importance — if it’s important enough to have a
ritual, it’s important enough to be given your entire attention, and to
be done slowly and correctly. You don’t have to learn the Zen monk
rituals — you can create your own, for the preparation of food, for
eating, for cleaning, for what you do before you start your work, for
what you do when you wake up and before you go to bed, for what you do
just before exercise. Anything you want, really.
- Designate time for certain things. There are
certain times in the day of a Zen monk designated for certain
activities. A time for for bathing, a time for work, a time for
cleaning, a time for eating. This ensures that those things get done
regularly. You can designate time for your own activities, whether that
be work or cleaning or exercise or quiet contemplation. If it’s
important enough to do regularly, consider designating a time for it.
- Devote time to sitting. In the life of a Zen monk,
sitting meditation (zazen) is one of the most important parts of his
day. Each day, there is time designated just for sitting. This
meditation is really practice for learning to be present. You can
devote time for sitting meditation, or do what I do: I use running as a
way to practice being in the moment. You could use any activity in the
same way, as long as you do it regularly and practice being present.
- Smile and serve others. Zen monks spend part of
their day in service to others, whether that be other monks in the
monastery or people on the outside world. It teaches them humility, and
ensures that their lives are not just selfish, but devoted to others.
If you’re a parent, it’s likely you already spend at least some time in
service to others in your household, and non-parents may already do
this too. Similarly, smiling and being kind to others can be a great
way to improve the lives of those around you. Also consider
volunteering for charity work.
- Make cleaning and cooking become meditation. Aside
from the zazen mentioned above, cooking and cleaning are to of the most
exalted parts of a Zen monk’s day. They are both great ways to practice
mindfulness, and can be great rituals performed each day. If cooking
and cleaning seem like boring chores to you, try doing them as a form
of meditation. Put your entire mind into those tasks, concentrate, and
do them slowly and completely. It could change your entire day (as well
as leave you with a cleaner house).
- Think about what is necessary. There is little in
a Zen monk’s life that isn’t necessary. He doesn’t have a closet full
of shoes, or the latest in trendy clothes. He doesn’t have a
refrigerator and cabinets full of junk food. He doesn’t have the latest
gadgets, cars, televisions, or iPod. He has basic clothing, basic
shelter, basic utensils, basic tools, and the most basic food (they eat
simple, vegetarian meals consisting usually of rice, miso soup,
vegetables, and pickled vegetables). Now, I’m not saying you should
live exactly like a Zen monk — I certainly don’t. But it does serve as
a reminder that there is much in our lives that aren’t necessary, and
it can be useful to give some thought about what we really need, and
whether it is important to have all the stuff we have that’s not
- Live simply. The corollary of Rule 11 is that if
something isn’t necessary, you can probably live without it. And so to
live simply is to rid your life of as many of the unnecessary and
unessential things as you can, to make room for the essential. Now,
what is essential will be different to each person. For me, my family,
my writing, my running and my reading are essential. To others, yoga
and spending time with close friends might be essential. For others it
will be nursing and volunteering and going to church and collecting
comic books. There is no law saying what should be essential for you —
but you should consider what is most important to your life, and make
room for that by eliminating the other less essential things in your
“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” – Wu Li