As part of the Berlin School global Executive MBA program, participants travel each year to Asia where they spend two weeks in Shanghai and Tokyo. The intensive residency introduces them to the region’s innovative business and management practices and dynamic markets. In Tokyo, they spend an illuminating day immersed in Japanese culture – first in a seminar with Hitotsubashi ICS faculty and then in the Engaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple in Kamakura with a senior monk.*

Following a meditation session with the EMBA participants hailing from twenty countries, the monk, Rev. Ichido Uchida, Director of Kojirin Zen Training Center, sat with the group for discussion. He opened with the following clarification about Zazen, the meditative practice that is a primary discipline of Zen Buddhism.

In Zen Buddhism we think that everyday life, from chores to work to everything, is considered a part of our training. Many people have an image that Zazen is about sitting in a specific posture, but that’s only one part of the lifestyle of Zen. There are certain, precise behaviors and mannerisms including how to take a bath and how to eat. The whole of life, every day, in everything, is Zen training. The lifestyle of Zen, in my understanding, is about keeping a calm state of mind and continuously observing your actions and emotions. Any time of the day, just take a moment to observe what’s going on in your mind. Observe what is happening with your body, what your body feels like. If you can stop and think, ‘Oh, I will observe my mind,’ that moment will lead you to the Zen practice. It would be best if you can keep this state of awareness all day long. - Ichido-san



Is Zen therefore about the daily quest to improve oneself?

Many people these days work too hard to achieve something and end up denying themselves. In such cases, I try to convey the following message:

In a state where you're still trying to improve, you’re not fully happy with yourself. Ultimately in Zen, it’s about accepting yourself as you are. It is not just about self-improvement, but more about accepting yourself and being happy with what you already have now. In Buddhism there is a saying, ‘The most peaceful state of mind is when you’re not searching for something outside of yourself.’ By sitting in the Zen meditation session, we're trying to downsize, or let go of various desires.

Of course, this message will not apply to everyone. In Zen Buddhism, there is no single right answer. It all depends on the person and the situation. One aspect of Zen training is about denying yourself completely, while another is about accepting yourself thoroughly in this very moment. In the process of inner growth, as we go through the Zen training, there are times when we encounter our weaknesses. As I continue the training myself, I realize how weak we are as human beings. That moment is when I feel my training has gained depth. It’s not high or low.


That self-awareness, of humility and vulnerability, can also be an extraordinarily powerful revelation for leaders. What is the relationship between Zazen and leadership?

Leadership is not just about telling someone to do something. It’s more about doing something yourself, letting the people look at your back and see what you're doing, and letting them follow. Leading by example. Even at the Buddhist temple, the highest monk leads that way. He does, and lets other people follow.


You spoke about desire and emptying yourself of desires. In that process, you would have moments of weakness, moments of temptation. How do you deal with that?

It’s important first of all that you notice the thoughts and emotions that pop up within your mind. Once you notice and acknowledge them, then they don’t go any further. If you don’t notice and let them go further, you get caught up in it and start taking action. You need to monitor yourself so as not to take action based on your desires and emotions.


For example, let's say I don’t want to lose my temper. I want to stay calm. Then suddenly one day, I just lose my temper. How does one stop oneself from doing that?

When you feel that anger coming up, just acknowledge the anger that comes up at that moment. Don’t let it accumulate and become so big that it can’t stop. If you begin to notice that anger in the early stage, then I think things will start to change. If you’re furious and your mind is filled with anger, it is the same thing as already living in hell in this present life. Observe the anger that is arising. Notice, “Oh, I’m feeling angry now. I’m angry. I’m angry….” If you can observe that, then you can start to contain the anger from growing.

That capacity to adopt a different perspective is critical for our development as creative leaders and people.  Could you explain the place of creativity or imagination or intuition either in Zazen practice or in Zen Buddhism more generally?

If you’re sitting Zazen with a desire to attain direct insight, the insight won't come to you. If you’re goal oriented – if your goal is to attain something, intuition, creativity – those will not come to you. I feel that when you have said goodbye to all your desires, wanting to become creative or wanting to have inspiration – only then, will creativity come to you. That is my feeling. It's like having water in your cup. By emptying water in your cup, then you will create room for creativity to come in.

Do you believe that it’s possible to be a true Zen Buddhist practitioner even when you’re in a fully materialist world and you're participating in that materialism and you’re satisfying your desires? Is it an either/or situation or is it possible to exist?

Japanese culture is a mix of Western analytical culture and Eastern holistic culture. Zen lifestyle is, in a way, like attuning your lifestyle to the rhythm of nature. Instead of controlling the nature with a very self-centered view of the human beings, we adopt the notion that we are just one part of nature and the universe. Caring for and living harmoniously with the animals, the insects, the plants, and all living things in this world are valued in the East.

This is one kind of sutra that I chant every day before going to sleep. In English, the sutra would translate as, ‘May all living things in this universe become happy.’ The sutra tries to imagine and think about all living things, animals, plants, and what you can see and cannot see. I pray that every life and every living thing in the universe becomes happy. I believe all of you in this room are going to become the leaders in this world. I truly hope that you take the steps to create a world where all living things can live harmoniously. That is my sincere prayer that I would like to share with all of you.

*Great thanks to Professor Yoshinori Fujikawa, Motoko Kimura, and Mina Nishisaka of Hitotsubashi ICS for their partnership in organizing the Japanese culture day and for the translation of this interview. 

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