Three Chinese Characters or Pictographs Explain the Meaning of Zen

By Ming-Kai Franklin Chen, excerpted from the December 2017 ZRS newsletter

At the CMind Conference, one of my instructors, Dr. Steve Murphy-Shigimatsu introduced three Pictographs of Chinese origins explaining the meaning of Zen (or lack of Zen). Dr. Murphy- Shigimatsu was born of a Japanese mother and Irish-American father. He speaks fluent Japanese and English. His mother came from a samurai family with strict Bushido (samurai ethical code). Looking over his appearance, he looks like more Japanese than American. His thinking and philosophy is deep-rooted in Japanese culture.

Chinese and Japanese share the same pictographs, so when he showed these pictographs in the class, it resonated in my heart.

The first pictograph is 念. The upper part, 今, means ‘present time.’ The lower part, 心, means ‘heart.’ It includes feeling, emotion, mind, spirit, and the whole body. It implies ‘Living at Present Moment.’ This is exactly the basic teaching of the Buddhism about mindfulness. This is Zen.

The second pictograph is 忘. T he upper part, 亡, means ‘death.’ The lower part, 心, means ‘heart,’ which includes feeling, emotion, and spirit. The Chinese meaning of this pictograph can be either ‘forgetfulness,’ or ‘ignorance.’ But what was forgotten or ignored? We forget that we are inter-beings. We forget that we are inter-connected to each other, inter-connected to Mother Earth. Such ignorance creates so much suffering for our human race and environmental degradation to the Earth. Much of today’s racism, terrorism, are basically coming from this ignorance, or 忘.

The third pictograph is 忙. The left-hand part of the character, 忄, means ‘the heart;’ the right-hand part of the character, 亡, means ‘death.’ The Chinese translation for this pictograph is ‘being busy.’ When we are busy, or when we are preoccupied by ‘something’ in our mind, we will not be fully present at the moment either in a conversation, or a task.

Here are a couple anecdotes to illustrate this: Violinist Joshua Bell once played for three hours at a Washington D.C. subway but only collected $32. Most of the visitors were small kids, and their parents rushed them through. The next evening, when he played at a concert hall of 2,000 seats, each seat sold at $100.

And, Princeton seminary students who were given an assignment to deliver a sermon on ‘The Good Samaritan” did not help their classmate who was in need of help on the day of delivering the sermon.

Somehow, if we are pre-occupied with some thought, we will not enjoy the music, nor will we pay attention to help other people.

In summary, I find these three pictographs intriguing. They could serve our daily reflections on the Zen practice.