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Note: The following are excerpts from Zen: The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyō Masuno.
Consumption is a hallmark of the Western world. The age of information is upon us, a time when everything is available in abundance. Companies hire large teams to create ads that force us to accumulate. Our attention is their oxygen. Practising Zen is going against the grain. It's saying no to advertisers and yes to ourselves. Zen advises living a simple existence in every domain, stripping each aspect of life to the essentials. Simple, intentional, purposeful, choose the definition that works best for you. The idea is to have what you consider enough and no more.
"When things aren’t going well, we tend to think we are lacking in something. But if we want to change our current situation, we should first part with something before we look to acquire something else. This is a fundamental tenet of simple living."
"Living simply means, for instance, that the mug you use every day for coffee is a mug that you really like – one that you take good care of and that you will use for a long time. Acquire only good things that will truly be needed. A lifestyle of simplicity is the fundamental practice that will hone the mind."
The book emphasizes finding time to be alone with your thoughts and to sit quietly in nature. Zazen is a meditation practice that originates from Zen and is a chance to sweep the detritus from your mind. Meditation has many schools of thought. Zazen is the art of becoming aware of your thought patterns and bringing yourself into a state of inner peace.
"For zazen, first we assume the correct posture, next we focus on our breathing, and finally we steady our mind. Once we arrange all three of these things, then we begin to practise zazen. Try sitting zazen: empty your mind and allow your thoughts to float up and then drift away."
Munen muso is the act of retaining a clear mind throughout each activity. A clear mind is the best way to approach all tasks in life. By cultivating munen muso, we become less distracted by outside elements and more attentive to our inner dialogue.
"There is a saying in Zen practice, munen muso, that describes a state of being free from worldly desires and distracting thoughts. Another way to say it is just mushin, or ‘clear mind’. You empty your mind and do not let it settle anywhere or wander. This allows you to focus on what needs to be done now, without worrying about all the other things in your life. It is a teaching that demonstrates the amazing power available to us if we can achieve a clear mind."
"A Zen master named Takuan, from the Edo period (1603– 1868), explained the secret of the Japanese form of fencing known as kendo in this way: ‘When you face another swordsman, if you think there is an opportunity to strike your opponent’s shoulder, then your mind will be preoccupied by your opponent’s shoulder. If you think there is an opportunity to strike his arm, then your mind will be preoccupied by his arm. If you think you can win against him, then your mind will be preoccupied by winning. Do not allow your mind to wander to or settle upon any of these places. Even as you focus your energy on a single point, keep your mind free and open. This is the secret of the sword.'"
The story illustrates the act of being at one with the sword. A modern example could be Formula 1 drivers, who don't have the time to think. When you are cornering at 180mph, any hesitation or delay in thinking causes a crash. The car must be an extension of your being for the partnership to work.
The three poisons in Buddhism are greed, anger, and ignorance. Buddhism views them as the root of suffering that prevents us from reaching enlightenment. Irrespective of whether you are a Buddhist or not, we all would benefit from minimizing these negative emotions.
"When we are afflicted with greed, once we acquire whatever it is we desire, we are still left wanting more. Anger makes us enraged by the slightest things, and once it is provoked, we take it out on others. Ignorance is a state of foolishness: we are heedless of common sense or knowledge and lacking in education – but actually lacking an understanding of our true Buddha nature. As long as we allow ourselves to be governed by these three poisons, we will be unable to find peace. In contrast, the teachings say, if we can cast away these three poisons, or worldly afflictions, we can live happily and freely. Whenever you notice any of the three poisons begin to show themselves, try to calm your mind by regulating your breathing. This can stop the afflictions from taking hold."
Life is a compromise. Rarely is the best solution found at either end of the spectrum. Buddhism is a tolerant religion that promotes a broad-minded spirit by accepting life has varying shades of grey.
“Life is about compromise. If you fuss over black and white, you miss out on the beauty of grey. Buddhists don’t think in terms of black and white. Some things are white, some are black, and in between are various shades of grey. This broad-minded spirit is at the heart of Buddhism, and it has a lot to do with how it took root in Japan. Things don’t need to be defined as right or wrong, black or white. Instead of coming down on one side or the other, a compromise may be the best way.”
Zen emphasizes becoming mindful of the present moment. Using your breath as an anchor can help clarify this concept, which can seem ambiguous at first. As humans, we can only physically live in the present moment; allowing our minds to dwell elsewhere is useless.
"Zen Buddhists like to say, ‘Dwell in the three worlds.’ These three worlds are the past, the present and the future. In Zen Buddhism, you often hear the names Amida, Shaka (Shakyamuni) and Miroku; these represent the Buddha in each of the three worlds. If you are wondering how this way of thinking actually works, let’s start with our breathing. We inhale, and then we exhale. The moment when we inhale is the present, but once we exhale, it has already become the past. To put it another way, when you were reading the preceding pages in this book, that was the you of the past. And when you read the following pages, that will be the you of the future. When something bad happens and you are feeling down, try clapping your hands in front of you – in an instant, you can feel better, having been put in a new frame of mind. Like when a film cuts to a new scene, there is now a totally different you. What is important is this day, this hour, this moment."
You will live a happy life if you can find gratitude in your ordinary days. If you must chase desires to feel joy, you will live a life of turmoil.
This quote comes from 365 Tao, an Eastern philosophy that I find deeply influenced by Buddhism.
"Whether our lives are magnificent or wretched depends upon our ordering of daily details. We must organize the details into a composition that pleases us. Only then will we have meaning in our lives." - Deng Ming-Dao
Wanting more leads to suffering. Consider whether you really need an item before purchasing it. Treating ourselves is an essential part of living a healthy life. But there must be a balance between the endless tunnel of human desire.
"In Buddhism we say chisoku, which means ‘be satisfied’. Knowing how much is enough is about finding satisfaction in what you already have.Human desire is endless. Once we acquire one thing, we desire ten of them. And when we acquire ten things, we want a hundred. Even though we know we don’t need it, we are unable to rein in our desire. Once engulfed by these feelings, there is no way to satisfy ourselves.There will be times when we want something we do need. There is nothing wrong with this. But once we acquire the minimum necessary amount, we must learn to tell ourselves, ‘Ah, this is enough for me.’And then we must keep in check our desire for other things.Through the practice of chisoku, we can achieve a calm and tranquil mind. By simply recognizing that we are fulfilled, our suffering is greatly diminished.If you find yourself swept up in feelings of dissatisfaction, take a step back and examine what you hope for and desire. And then ask yourself, ‘Is that something I truly need?’"
The Japanese term wabi-sabi means finding beauty in imperfection. Being satisfied with the way things are. Perfection is unattainable; if you desire this to be happy, happiness will elude you.
You must think for yourself. Do not construct life from shallow perspectives or opinions but rather from deep consideration. We are often picking these up unconsciously from those around us. Instead, we should always question the thoughts of others before adding them to our mental arsenal. Be aware of the differences between your experiences and learnings. Direct experience should not be confused with theoretical knowledge. Within here lies the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. You can transfer learnings to experiences through action. The same as knowledge becomes wisdom when it is applied.
"Knowledge and wisdom – they may appear to be the same, but they are not. Things you learn either at school or on your own – this is knowledge. Wisdom, on the other hand, is what you know from actually putting these things to use. Both knowledge and wisdom are important for living a happy life. You mustn’t privilege one over the other. Keep them in balance. In my opinion, people who possess enough knowledge to know how to apply it in particular situations are able to move nimbly through life. In today’s world, when we’re constantly inundated with information, there is a tendency to neglect using our own brains to think. It can often seem we’re about to burst with knowledge. But how you live your life is your own decision. And this is all the more reason to have wisdom – to help you decide how to go about your life once you’ve acquainted yourself with the various ways there are to live. See as much as you can. Feel as much as you can. And make sure to think with your own head."
Making time for not thinking about anything – that is the first step towards creating a simple life.
In your head, picture a scene with a water element, and allow your mind to linger there. These gardens are truly representations of our mindset free.
In the course of your everyday shopping, before you acquire something new, give some thought to whether you really need it, and take another look at what you already have. Acquiring lots of things isn’t freedom.
Living simply means, for instance, that the mug you use every day for coffee is a mug that you really like – one that you take good care of and that you will use for a long time. Acquire only good things that will truly be needed. A lifestyle of simplicity is the fundamental practice that will hone the mind.
The act of thinking derives from the concept of sitting quietly. Humans are not capable of thinking while we are moving. We have only one mind, and when our mind is focused on movement, it is difficult for us to engage in profound thought. Even if you try thinking while you’re walking, it will always end up being about something practical, such as work arrangements or what to cook for dinner. Deep contemplation about absolute truth in the world or the meaning of life is not something that can be accomplished while in motion.
The quiet practice of zazen releases in the brain the neurotransmitter serotonin, which functions as a mood stabilizer and has been shown to be effective in countering depression. Zazen can provide the therapeutic effect of boosting serotonin to the brain without the need to take medicine.
Once the brain is in a relaxed state, your blood vessels also gradually relax, improving your blood flow. This spreads warmth throughout your body.
The ability to live with a free mind, accepting things for what they are. This is the way of life that has come to be idealized.
The monk and famous tea master Sen no Rikyū coined the phrase ‘seclusion in the city’. It is this model that explains why teahouses in Japan are always set a slight distance away from the main building.
A place where you can disconnect from other people and spend time by yourself. A place in nature where you can regain mental freedom. A few moments of seclusion can illuminate the path forward.
Anxiety is intangible.
Anxiety: where does it actually exist?
Zen Buddhism is said to have originated with a monk named Bodhidharma. He transmitted his teachings to a disciple named Huike.
One time, Huike shared his troubles with Bodhidharma. ‘My mind is always filled with anxiety. Please help me to quieten it.’
Bodhidharma replied, ‘I will calm these anxieties for you. But first, will you bring them to me? If you can set them before me and say, “These are the anxieties that burden me,” I will be sure to calm them for you.’
Hearing this, Huike realized something for the first time. ‘Anxiety’ was a thing within his mind. In reality, it was intangible.
His fears were intangible, and yet he clung to them. He recognized the futility in this.
There is no need to be troubled by things that have not yet happened. Think only about what is happening right now.
Almost all anxieties are intangible. They are the invention of your own mind.
People who do their best to enjoy what is before them have the greatest chance to discover inner peace. Often, whatever it is they are enjoying – the thing before them – has the potential to turn into an opportunity.
In anything, the hard part is just to keep going.
‘The work I’m doing now is my true calling.’ Whoever can say this is very fortunate.
You can start something as long as you have the energy. Finishing, too, is easy. The hard part is just to keep going. If you tell yourself, day in and day out, that something is wrong for you, then how will it ever be right for you?
The empty state of not thinking about anything is not easy to achieve. Even practicing monks find it difficult.
But when you look back over your days, you find moments when you’ve achieved it unconsciously.
You look up at the sky and think, ‘Ah, what a beautiful cloud,’ and stare at it vacantly. Then you snap out of your reverie and say, ‘Hmm, now what was I just thinking?’
I urge you to appreciate these moments.
Ideas or sparks actually emerge from the empty spaces within your mind – from the gaps between your thoughts.
To increase the chances of teasing out those ideas from between the gaps, cherish the time when you’re not thinking about anything.
When we wake up in the morning, right away we turn on the computer and check our email or we read the news on our phone and look up the weather.
We live in a time of constant information, available any time and anywhere. But in such a world, we have all the more reason to maintain proper on and off switches.
This is why distinctions are so important. Try erecting gates in your mind.
For example, the threshold of your home constitutes the first gate. When you leave home and cross this first gate, thoughts of work start to form in your head. The door of your car or the train is the second gate; once you cross it, you begin planning out your work day. And finally, when you arrive at your office and cross the third gate, you are ready to focus on your work.
When the work day is over and you arrive back at the first gate, it’s important to leave work behind.
What’s left is time to relax. To enjoy your home life. This is surely the best way to relieve stress.
Good fortune brings with it more good fortune. Misfortune attracts further misfortune. All the more reason to make a proper start.
The opposite is true with misfortune. Once you take a step into misfortune, you can get caught in a downward spiral. When you feel as though things aren’t going well, try scolding yourself in a loud voice. In Zen, we use the word katsu as an exclamation to scold practitioners when they are struggling on the path to enlightenment. A well-timed katsu can turn the tide.
Cut off misfortune when it begins. And make sure to take advantage of good fortune. That is the secret to a good life.
Namely, when you’re uncertain, simplicity is the best way to go.
There is a Zen saying about samadhi, the state of intense concentration achieved through meditation: Ichigyo zanmai. It means ‘Strive for just one thing.’ Rather than branching out into this, that and what-have-you, focus your attention on just one thing. This is the way to gain satisfaction and fulfilment. And, of course, if what you really crave is omuhayashi, then that is the thing to get.
The essence of Zen is in the beauty of simple things. There is beauty to be found in things that are stripped of everything that is unnecessary and that are without ornamentation.
In Japanese, we talk about the concept of mitate – seeing a certain item not in its originally intended form but as another thing; seeing something as resembling something else and putting it to use in another way. The notion of mitate originates in the aesthetics of the tea ceremony, in which practitioners put everyday objects to use in elevated forms – for example, a gourd that was originally a water flask being used as a flower vase.
Utensils age after years of use. An item’s utility becomes obsolete. But that does not necessarily mean the end of its life. You can discover a different use for it and breathe new life into the object itself. This spirit is at the heart of Zen.
There is abundance not in the accumulation of things, but in knowing how to use things well.
Try seeing things in different ways, so as not to be bound by just ‘the proper way’.
When you give up, your potential drops to zero.
Possibility springs from confidence.
Recognize the luxury of not having things.
An appreciation of things is an appreciation of yourself.
Even though you already have a computer, when the latest model is released, suddenly you want it. Although you’ve had your car for only three years, you’re eager to replace it with a newer one. Desire feeds upon itself, and the mind becomes dominated by boundless greed. This is not happiness.
Consider the things that surround you now. Develop an appreciation for them. There is something specific that connects you with them, a reason why you acquired them. Take good care of them; treat them like they are the best things.
You may decide you want a car, and then work hard to save money for it. There’s nothing wrong with that. The important thing is to treat it with love once you have it.
Think of the things that are connected to you as parts of yourself. It’s rare to find someone who does not care about themselves; once you acquire something and begin to take care of it, a love for it will spring up. What is most important is your attitude towards the things that belong to you.
Use the same things for years, even for decades. You will feel good about the time spent with them. Think about the connection between people and things. Treat both well, as you would treat yourself.
By emptying our mind, we enable a state of nothingness. In the world of Zen, we call this mushiryo, or ‘beyond thinking’. It refers to a state in which we retain nothing within ourselves.
Clear your head and look up at the sky – you will see the shifting clouds. Empty your mind and listen actively – all around you are the various interwoven sounds of nature: the singing of small birds, the wind rustling fallen leaves.
Even if you’re in a city, there are still many sounds and scenes that evoke nature. Take in as much of this natural world as you can. By doing so, you will notice that you, too, are a part of nature.
For example, the rain that falls from the clouds you saw up in the sky empties into a river or becomes groundwater that eventually will be your drinking water. This is the moment when you experience the full interconnectedness of nature.
Especially when you’re busy, make time to clear your head.
Even for just a few short minutes, try the Zen practice of mushiryo, of going beyond thinking and non-thinking. You may be surprised by how much it can calm your mind and suffuse your entire body with tremendous power.
Where does worry come from?
A state of utter clarity, uncomplicated by desire or any attachments – that is the state of ‘nothingness’, which Zen emphasizes above all else.
This emptiness of thought is the basis for the teachings of the Buddha, and for his fundamental notions of impermanence and insubstantiality. The Buddha teaches that human suffering occurs when we lack awareness of this impermanence and insubstantiality.
In other words, our confusion and worry stem from an inability to accept that the world is constantly changing, from a belief – or an unconscious hope – that our selves and our possessions, as well as the people who surround us, will never change.
It is precisely when we are betrayed by such a hope that we experience distress.
Everything exerts an influence on everything else.
For example, if you decide that you want to be happy, you need the people around you to be happy as well. This is how serving others can help to bring about your own happiness.
Do not cling to your belief in what is and always should be. Practise non-attachment. By doing so, you will be serving the happiness of others.
Bear this in mind, and you will have a much more contented life.
In both gardens and interpersonal relationships, what is paramount is harmony.
Japanese gardens are not designed by cutting and pasting various components on to the landscape. The whole garden is composed in a way that makes the most of each element’s particular features, such as the shape of a rock or how a certain tree bends.
What does it mean to make the most of an element in a garden?
Let’s say that a garden will have several trees in it. We cannot simply plant the trees and be done with it. It’s important to identify the ideal shape of each tree.
What kind of mood does this particular tree have? How should we plant this tree – in which position, and facing in which direction – in order to bring out its most attractive qualities?
In other words, we must appreciate the individuality of every tree and then coax it into expression. By understanding a tree’s essence, we can bring it into harmony with the other elements of the garden.
The same goes for relationships among people.
We must recognize the individuality of ourselves and of others in order to get along. This is not to say that you must adapt to someone else, but by focusing on others’ merits, you can create a beautiful relationship.
The true meaning of ‘once in a lifetime’.
Concentrate on a single encounter.
There is a saying that originates in Zen: ichi-go ichi-e, or ‘once in a lifetime’. It means that we should treasure each and every encounter, because we may meet a person only once in our lifetime.
This is not to suggest that we should increase the number of encounters we have or that we should have more friends. Concentrate on a single encounter, and build a meaningful relationship. What’s important is not the number of your connections, but their depth.
Don’t be too rushed or too relaxed.
There is a saying in Japanese, sottaku doji, which means, literally, ‘pecking simultaneously from the inside and out’.
It is used to describe what happens when a chick is hatching from its egg: the first part refers to the chick and its pecking from inside the shell; the second part, to the response of the parent bird when it hears the chick and it pecks to help the chick emerge.
Interpersonal relationships can be complicated. No matter how hard you try, it’s difficult to be open-minded towards everybody. Even monks at a Zen temple do not always get along. There’s no need to tell yourself, ‘I’m going to try to get on well with this person,’ or ‘I’m going to get to know this person better.’ Being attached to the notion of getting along or being friends with someone will hinder you. You will get caught up with not wanting to be disliked. This only creates tension.
Don’t get caught up; don’t be biased; don’t be too fussy. Why not let go of trivial attachments and be more laid-back? I’m not suggesting that you try to be unpopular, but by the same token, don’t try too hard to be well liked. When a flower blooms, the butterfly naturally finds it.
When trees have blossomed, birds flock to the branches on their own, and when the leaves wither and fall, the birds scatter. Relationships with people aren’t so different.
Our preferences, our likes and dislikes – everything is a product of our own mind. In Zen Buddhism we say, ‘When you reach enlightenment, there are no likes or dislikes.’ When we can see things for what they are, our predilections disappear.
Words are important.
But it is more important not to be swayed by words.
At work or in social situations, there may be times when we find ourselves hurt by words that are directed at us. Even though someone may intend to be encouraging, the person on the receiving end can hear their words as cruel or harsh. A single word from a colleague can pierce like a dagger.
But negative comments should quickly be forgotten. This can be done by skilfully ‘paying no attention’.
The Zen mind is said to be ‘unmoved even when the eight winds blow’. We strive to remain unperturbed, no matter the situation – and even to be calm and good-humoured.
Try freeing yourself from attachment to things. Do not be attached to words, either. Even when your interactions with someone are strained, do not be attached to the relationship. Try putting it at a distance.
This is the wisdom of the Buddha.
To live freely, we must acquire an unfettered mind.
But we mustn’t lose sight of what is most essential by getting caught up in mere words. We should not only listen to what others have to say, but also consider their feelings with empathy.
We cannot help but have weaknesses. Someone may not mean any harm or offence, but because of their words or actions, we end up annoyed or with hurt feelings. Most likely you know someone who has this effect on you.
How do these people seem to know how to get to us?
Let me explain briefly the concept of ishiki, or ‘mental consciousness’, within Zen thought.
You meet someone for the first time and think, ‘Oh, she seems nice,’ or ‘It seems like I might hit it off with him.’ This relates to the i, the first character of ishiki, which corresponds to the mind or the heart.
But what about the second character, the shiki? This is about making a judgement about someone’s value. ‘That person could be useful to my career,’ or ‘This guy will get me nowhere.’ The more we do this, the more our weaknesses are revealed.
One hundred people will have one hundred different ways of reasoning or making judgements. Instead of having a gain-or-loss mentality and thinking in terms of whether someone is useful, consider someone’s suitability or compatibility. Doing so will relieve a lot of the pressure on your relationships.
Look around you – there are probably plenty of older people in your orbit. Each of them has their own life story. And each has their own experience and knowledge – which is exponentially greater than what you’ve learned in life so far. Such a wonderful resource, so close at hand.
The meaning of wabi-sabi.
A Zen monk will go into the mountains to devote himself to Buddhist training. While engaged in his practice, deep in the mountains and far from any village, he might receive a visitor. ‘I sincerely regret bringing you all the way here, to the middle of nowhere,’ he might apologize to the visitor. This apology – wabi, in Japanese – is the first component of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
The second part – the sabi – refers to a similar sentiment: ‘Thank you for coming all the way to such a lonely and remote place.’ Sabi is also a homonym that connotes patina or rust – the beauty that comes with age – and likely reflects the monk’s humble abode. It evokes the monk’s loneliness, or, in Japanese, sabishii.
All of which is to say that the spirit of wabi-sabi is grounded in a consideration for others. This sentiment is also to be found in Zen gardens.
When designing a Zen garden, the placement of the rocks or the arrangement of the sand is not the first consideration. Initially, it is not about a specific shape or appearance, but rather the sentiment that the garden should embody.
Try having a conversation with a Zen garden. Experience the melancholy beauty that the garden designer was trying to convey, and respond to it in your own way.
Your mind has the power to decide whether or not you are happy.
You’re here to live out each precious day.
In Japanese history, the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and the early part of the Muromachi period (1333–1392) were characterized by constant warfare. These medieval eras saw the spirit and practice of Zen gain wide support among the samurai class.
The samurai constantly faced down death. They did not know when war would break out – it was quite possible they might fall in battle the very next day.
The spirit of Zen seems perfectly suited to such circumstances. The uncertainty of tomorrow makes it all the more important to live in the moment. One must try one’s best to enjoy the present.
In Buddhism we say, ‘All days are good days’, meaning that whether good things happen, or bad, each day is precious because it will never come about again. The goodness of every day is determined not by what happens, or by whom you meet, but by your own mind.
Any event can be interpreted in multiple ways; what matters is how you respond to it. You may not have any control over what happens or any power to change things, but your reaction is entirely under your control.
The more you try to accumulate money, the more it gets away
The strange thing about money is this: the more attached we become to it, the more it eludes our grasp. Instead of thinking about money, we should concern ourselves with our higher purpose.
How can I contribute to society? What can I do to be useful in the world? By contemplating these questions, and taking action, you’ll find that the money you need will ultimately find you.
In Zen temples, there is a wooden board called a han that is struck with a mallet to signal that it is time for some part of the daily routine. It might have the words Shoji jidai written on it in ink. Have you ever seen this? The words mean, ‘Life is full of fortune and misfortune, but cherish being alive, every single day. Life will pass you by.’
There are those who seize opportunities, and those who let them pass
The winds of destiny blow for all of us. Whether you are able to make the most of an opportunity will depend upon long-standing dedication and preparedness.
The word shoji is Japanese for the Buddhist concept of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.
We are born into this world, and then we die. These are simply two sides of the same experience. In other words, just as we contemplate how to live, we should contemplate how to die.
If you were told that your life was going to end in six months, you would probably give a considerable amount of thought to how you wanted to spend that time. But what if it was only a month? A week? What if your life were to end tomorrow? Surely, right then, you would know what you should do in that moment. You would feel as though you mustn’t waste today.
Life happens in the blink of an eye. It really is just like that. Have you ever spent a day off watching television and, before you even noticed, discovered that it was evening? ‘Ah,’ you may have thought to yourself, ‘I didn’t mean to waste so much time.’ When you want to get something done, or you want to put your mind to something, time spent not focused on anything in particular feels like wasted time.
We must do our best not to squander this ‘blink of an eye’ that has been given to us.
Life is a precious thing, for our safekeeping.
Your life is your own, but it is not your possession.
In other words, being alive means we must make the most of the life we are entrusted with. Life is not ours to possess – it is a precious gift that we must treat as if it were placed in our care. And whatever lifespan we are given, we must take the utmost care to give it back.
Some among us will be graced with a long life, and others may have only a brief amount of time. There is nothing fair about this.
But Buddhism teaches that a life’s worth is not measured by its duration.
What is important is how we use the life we are given. How will you use your life today?
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