A noted samurai general in old Japan visits a venerable Zen master at his temple in imperial Kyoto. Says the samurai: “Master, I have spent my entire adult life waging war after war with my enemies. I am ready now to turn my attention to my salvation.
The Zen master — bald, 70 years old, with wisdom lines twinkling around his eyes — famed throughout the country for his sage teachings, responds: “Visit me again in one month. During that time, meditate 90 minutes a day.”
Satisfied, the samurai agrees and departs. Thirty days later, he returns to the temple in Kyoto and explains to the master, with some frustration: “I have done as you requested, meditating over an hour and a half per day. But I feel no closer to satori (enlightenment).”
The master replies: “Visit me again in two months. During that time, meditate three hours a day.”
Determined to make progress towards his salvation, the samurai once again agrees. Two months later, he returns to the master’s temple, even more frustrated than before. “Master, I don’t understand. For 60 days I have done exactly what you requested; for three hours a day I’ve meditated, and yet I feel I am no closer to satori!
Nodding gently in acknowledgment, the venerable Zen master responds. “Let us have some tea and play a game of chess while we ponder this. But if you want my help, you must agree to my terms. The result of our chess game will be a matter of life and death. The winner will survive. The loser will submit himself to the axeman and sacrifice his head on the chopping block.”
A man of war, confident in his strategic abilities, the samurai agrees and the chess game begins.
Both players are equally matched, skillfully countering each other, move for move. After some time, however, the samurai suddenly realizes that the game has swung in his favor. In two moves, he can achieve a checkmate–and save his head. With his hand on the chess piece that will assure his victory, the samurai pauses and weighs his options:
“I’ve have achieved much in life, but I am only a soldier. This master has written scholarly tracts; he has traveled far and wide, lecturing on the Buddha and the dharma and improving peoples’ lives. As old as the master is, he still has many more years of service left to him. And what have I to offer? His life is more valuable than my own.”
And with that, the samurai takes his hand off the chess piece he was touching and makes a different move, one that will help the zen master win. Wide eyed, the master reaches under the chess board and flips it over — pieces flying this way and that across the room. Jumping to his feet, he takes one stride towards the startled samurai, thrusts a figure up at the general’s chest and exclaims:
“NOW you are ready to learn!”
As we all step into the new year, I think it’s important for us all to think about our goals and resolutions. What are we hoping to achieve this year, and how is our entire life in alignment with our actions? Are we saying one thing and yet doing another?
The samurai in the story aspires to peace and enlightenment while continuing to lead a life of war and violence. His actions contradict his ambitions. Perhaps you want to lose weight and get healthy this year but find yourself still sneaking Snickers bars in the breakroom. Or maybe you’re dedicated to creating a more engaged team culture but you continue to ignore the feedback from your staff’s surveys.
Like the samurai, we would all do well to consider not only what we’re doing in our personal lives and at work, but also who we are. If we model a competitive, dog-eat-dog mindset, can we then expect our team mates to practice enthusiastic cooperation and collaboration?
Fortunately for us, most of our resolutions do not have life or death consequences, as they do for the samurai in the story. But certainly our actions have costs…psychic costs. What is the current status quo in your life costing you in terms of gray hairs and lost sleep?
In this season of change, let’s all commit to integrating our speech with our actions, our goals with our lifestyle. It could just be the move that saves you.