It’s Far Too Simple: An Adapted Zen Parable

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

One day a student worked up the courage to ask the Zen master, “What is it like to be enlightened?”

Without acknowledging or rejecting the seeker’s question, the master remained silent. After a time, the teacher spoke: “I eat when I’m hungry. I sleep when I’m tired.”


The questioner replied, “Well, isn’t that what everyone does?”

The master looked up in some surprise and a hint of a smile graced his lips. “Oh, you think so? Oh, no! When others eat, they think of ten thousand things and their minds endlessly run from one thing to another. When others sleep, they dream of ten thousand things and their minds create endless fantasies and dramas.”

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The master closed the eyes, paused for a time, and then continued. “When I eat, I just eat. When I sleep, I just sleep. . . It’s far too simple, I know.”


Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
—Alan Watts

This ancient story is usually told in about four short sentences. You may read it many times without it ever really landing inside you. There are too many notes and too few spaces between the notes. Identifying with thought hides the “everyday mind” of unconditioned consciousness. Conception distorts and blocks our direct perception. The “ten thousand things” is symbolic of all the mind’s endless imaginings which, when forgotten, can reveal what remains-solely what is real and true. Self-obsession and conformity to the “letter” can overwhelm expression of the “spirit” of just “what is.”

A variation of this story is an apt reminder to not make anything into a position, agenda or ideology. This version depicts a Zen master telling a group of students, “Zen is being present, being aware and not doing anything mechanically. When you eat, you just eat. When you read the newspaper, you just read the newspaper.” The next day a student sees the master eating while reading the newspaper, and asks him, “Master, I thought you said we should not eat while we read newspaper.” The master replied, “No! I said, when you eat and read the newspaper, you just eat and read the newspaper.”

Simplify, simplify, simplify.
—Henry David Thoreau’s

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
—Albert Einstein

Precisely in what sense is the word “simple” being used in this example and this writing? The word “simple”, coupled with complex, is not used in the context of a polarity in this dualistic relative world. Neither is simple used to allowing the ego-mind to hijack you into taking a position or being prescriptive, as in it is only good and right to be simple, and further you should, must or have to be simple. Nor is simple used to direct that anything need be carried to the extreme of being overly simplified or simplistic, as is evident in prejudices, stereotypes, false projections and foolishness, or avoid being overcomplicated, as is seen in what is called analysis paralysis and unworkable perfectionism. While chaos theory states that simplicity and complexity are not inherent qualities, but rather paradoxically present in everything as a function of how we interact with them and the way things interact with each other, our use of simple is not about any of this either. Rather, simple is simply a descriptor, pointer and signpost for purely what is real-this very moment of awareness and presence. That’s it, and that is enough.

Reflect upon the idea of parsimony and the theory of Occam’s razor-a philosophical and scientific principle stating that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one. Similarly, in the Taoist term Wu Wei, that is, “non-action”, means to complete every task with the least expended energy. Einstein, having the highest respect for simplicity, perceives five progressive and ascending levels of intellect: “Smart, Intelligent, Brilliant, Genius, Simple.” Since it is the fictive ego that complicates matters, simplicity is remarkably apropos. As all obstacles to growth can be revealed to be illusions, so problems naturally fall away in surrendering to simplicity. As with all things, we have come full circle, precisely to where we began the odyssey.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein stated, “Don’t think, but look!” When one looks, one can see. Paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton, there is a direct pathway from the eyes to the heart that does not go through the mind. How free you are is precisely how conscious, aware and present you are. Ultimately, Life, Reality and Truth are profoundly simple.

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