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Class choices, goals, law review, and your moment of zen

There's been a lot of discussion in the introductory period here about why we should pursue law school, what we should study, and how we should behave. Most of these have been some very good advice: don't be too competitive, be kind to others, get lots of sleep (doing well at that so far, actually), and learn for the sake of learning--you'll have time later to do courses to pass a bar exam.

This last reminded me of a zen riddle of which I'm quite fond, from a tsukubai found at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. (A tsukubai is a small well or basin, shown below.)

(From http://www.htokai.ac.jp/DA/hvass/seminar99/ryoan-ji/ryoan-ji_main.html.

If you look at the well, there are five characters around the box in the center. Taken clockwise from the top, they are the characters for five, an old character for bird, what might be close to a character for 'to stop' but is probably meaningless, and the character for arrow. Taken this way, it means nothing.

However, Japanese (or, more properly, Chinese) characters are sometimes formed from the combinations of simpler characters, and the key to the riddle is the pay attention to the box. (A square character in Japanese, 口, means 'mouth.') If, for instance, you form a character by combining the word for 'five' (the top symbol) with a box, the resulting character is 吾, or ware, meaning "I." The real meaning of the tsukubai, therefore, is 吾唯足(を)知(る), or ware tada tare wo shiru. Loosely translated, it's "I learn only to be contented."

It's a particularly zen phrase, in that there's a constructive ambiguity leading to two, both applicable, conclusions. One is that one should only learn contentment--anything else, or at least anything learned without contentment, will not lead to happiness or enlightenment. The other meaning, however (it involves changing the wo to a ni, which is possible) could mean, "I learn only for the sake of contentment," sort of learning for learning's sake.

I doubt that's really helpful to anyone trying to learn about the law, but it's a lesson I sometimes keep in the back of my mind when things get too hectic. After two nights at the library until 10:30 PM, I can use a little zen.


This was extremely erudite and interesting & just what we had been looking for as we placed one such tsukubai in our rural garden in Australia & were keen to glean some meaning! Thankyou

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