Recently, I watched a documentary about zen philosophy and what it is like to be zen monk on a daily basis and I noticed that in the documentary the zen monks always looked like they were in a hurry. For example, in the documentary we see the monks "rushing" to sleep. Another instance in the documentary is when one monk is waking up the other monks, we see that he is running.

The question is: is there a reason behind the speed?


6 Answers 6


Another approach to Zen by Thich Nhat Hanh is that everything is done with a connection to the breath and things slow down. You may not complete as much but increase the awareness of each moment.

Not sure why other Zen practitioners hurry. The tea ceremony is done precisely. If you practice it over and over again perhaps there is no hesitaion and it appears faster. When the personal self is erased there is only pure action..

Here is a Zen story that advocates less hurry. http://www.enlightened-spirituality.org/Zen_Humor.html

Other sayings from Linji or attributed to him: “What is the frantic hurry to deck yourselves in a lion's skin when all the while you are yapping like wild foxes? A real man has no need to give himself the airs of a real man!”

Now I just discovered something about the documentary

This Documentary is all about rinzai zen and Zen in common. It will give you a bit of insight how Zen is lived in a strict monastery order and how it influenced so many things.

Soto is the form of Shunryu Suzuki and even Dogen and one I am more familiar with. This tends to be different in application than Rinzai Zen in a very strict monastery. I only watched first 7 minutes where walking is quite ordinary. Perhaps someone who can watch the 2 hour documentary will share further insights.

  • So essentially, the movement of the action and the experience of the moment is so fluid that it appears that the monk is in a hurry?
    – Jeel Shah
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 0:32
  • I am hypothesizing, Soto is the form of Shunryu Suzuki and even Dogen and one I am more familiar with. This tends to be different in application than Rinzai Zen in a very strict monastery. I only watched first 7 minutes where walking is quite ordinary. Perhaps someone who can watch the 2 hour documentary will share further insights. Maybe there is an element of fear of punishment in the speed with which things are done.
    – soulsings
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 0:58
  • <A real man has no need to give himself the airs of a real man!”> So true.
    – Buddho
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 17:39

"Don't spare yourself" seems to be the key motivating factor in this Zen monastery. By working hard and not wasting a moment even in lying down they are training their subconscious to become infected with the enthusiasm. If they keep at this until it becomes a habit, soon the rest of their being obeys. Until then they need the keisaku (stick) wielding Jikijitsu.


Theravada retreats can set a gruelling pace too - the make you wake up at dawn and meditate all day on one meal a day. The teacher can get quite worked up if a student misses a sitting. Of course, some Zendos like here can take it to the extreme.

This harsh self denial isn't exclusively Zen or Buddhist, here's Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the Hindu mystic warning against mollycoddling the self in times of illness (Youtube video).

Armies do this too; in boot camps new recruits wake up at the crack of dawn, and make the bed neatly in precise moves, and completed in 20 seconds. Next, a morning shower in exactly 2 minutes and so on. Initially they of course only act like they are self disciplined to avoid punishment, but soon acting sharp and smart becomes a life long habit even without the drill sergeant.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master disagrees with the use of the keisaku and likes to joke that no one here beats people with a stick unlike in other Zen monasteries. Motivation and encouragement is given through love to oneself and one's inner subconscious. As the other answerer noted, Plum Village has an air of deliberate compassion. There's no hurry, but there's no laziness either. In my opinion, we could all use more places like Plum Village, but it is my experience that PV's gentle way is the exception not the rule. I haven't practiced with Ajahn Brahm, but from his talks he hints that he is very gentle with his students, unlike other Theravada retreats.


Edit - running helps purge the lactic acid out of legs that are almost always aching after long bouts of meditation. Not sure how I forgot to mention that fairly obvious point in my original answer!

Everything that goes on at a Zen monastery is carefully considered. From the time you wake up to the moment your eyes close for the night, everything is done to maximize the potential for awakening. With that said, it is extremely difficult to pick out how one aspect of Zen training contributes to awakening. The entire training has to be considered in gestalt.

There are a couple of things at play here. The main one to consider is that one of the most salient difficulties that practitioners face at sesshin is exhaustion. In our sangha, we wake up at 3:30AM. To quote Chris Griffin - "3:30AM?? I didn't even know there was a 3:30AM! What else haven't you told me?!" That's about four to five hours of sleep - tops. Unless you've actually tried getting up that early to recite sutras for an hour and then sat for two hours before getting a break, you really can't wrap your head around how tiring that is. By 6:00AM, you're done - despite the fact that you have a whole day of sitting ahead of you. Those periods of intense, fast activity really help jar you out of sleepiness. They are like a smack of the keisaku and help you from falling back into your own head.

Zen (and I'm speaking of Rinzai Zen here...which is what I practice) doesn't really put a whole lot of weight behind mindfulness training. All that running and scrubbing and what not are done for a very different purpose than what you might find at a Plum Village or Theravada retreat. I think it's important to view this sort of training for what it is and not try to view it through the lens of other Buddhist practices.

  • Out of curiosity, how do you avoid being tired after sleeping for only four to five hours? Don't you get tired during the middle of the day?
    – Jeel Shah
    Commented Aug 4, 2015 at 17:38
  • 1
    @Jeel - you are tired. And that's kind of the point. Sesshin is designed to wear down the ego. The stronger it is, the more you have to fight with it during your sits. It's sort of like fasting. For the first couple of days, you are hungry and miserable. After that, as if by magic, that hunger and misery is replaced by energy and clarity. On about the third day of sesshin, the pain in your legs, the tiredness, etc. doesn't really effect you in the same way. It's still definitely there, but it's not as "oh-shit-this-sucks". When you reach that point, sitting becomes much deeper and clearer.
    – user698
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 12:56

I shoot in the blue, vote me down, if you like.

Could be, that this is not so much a zen but more a Japanese thing? Something in there cultural tradition. For sure, there are strong cross-influences between Japanese culture and zen and its hard to separate them. But the overall "hurry" and "no time" is something, I associate with Japan in general.

Any native here to clarify?


When beginning walking meditation, one should go very very very slow, noticing each gradation of each step: lifting, pushing, dropping, placing. Repeat for each leg.

This going slow is common practice instruction in all Buddhist walking meditation manuals if one will do some research.

Eventually, once one has dhyana, one's mind is fully absorbed into the meditation and one can walk much faster without having one's attention falter. Eventually, one can even run while in dhyana!


They are moving fast because they don't think. Acting on your non-conceptual (pre-conceptual) knowledge/wisdom/intuition is one of the most important Zen practices. So important that sometimes the word "Zen" itself is taken to mean such action. When action is mediated by thought it has an element of calculation in it, an element of doubt, an element of worrying about personal profit. Wu-wei -- literally "no action" -- actually stands for action that is not based on dualistic mind, not targeted at attaining (an egoistic) goal, it is action without an actor and therefore fast.

  • 1
    Don't you think a better word to describe that kind of action is "spontaneous" rather than "fast"? And does spontaneous action have to be speedy? I'm not so sure.
    – user698
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 17:44

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