Three Questions

by Mark Chmiel

Gregg Krech, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace,  and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2001)

I learned of Naikan through consulting the bibliography of Patricia Ryan Madson’s book, Improv Wisdom.  Therein, she cited books on Constructive Living by  David K. Reynolds, and Gregg Krech’s manual on this “Japanese art of self-reflection,” which was the brainchild of Ishin Yoshimoto.

On retreats in Japan, one is encouraged to answer three questions about the most important people in our lives, typically beginning with one’s mother:
What have I received from my mother?
What have I given my mother?
What troubles and difficulties have I caused my mother?
The aim is to be factual, detailed and specific as possible in addressing the questions.

I’ve adapted Naikan in a Comparative Religion and Culture course, inviting students to keep a notebook, and explore the thee questions for the significant and insignificant people in their lives.  Often, we focus on all the troubles and difficulties others have caused us (the nerve of them!).  Naikan interrupts this self-pity, and instead fosters a sometimes  painful self-examination regarding our  harming of and indebtedness to countless others.  What can arise out of this self-confrontation is a growing sense of gratitude (“Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto”) and desire to pay back to others because of all we have received.

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Naikan is a way to “be grateful to everyone.” (Lojong)

Naikan is proof that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  (Socrates)

Naikan can also be used for our collective identity: What troubles have we US citizens caused the Nicaraguans?

Naikan is a reminder that “Blaming never helps.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Naikan is a practice of developing “a stronger life urge. ” (Carl Jung, as is David Dunn’s “try giving yourself away”)

Naikan is the embodiment of  “putting others first.” (Sri Eknath Easwaran)

Naikan is a confirmation that “Happiness is not an individual thing.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Naikan is close in spirit to “The Emperor’s Three Questions.” (Leo Tolstoy)

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You are fooled by your mind into believing there is tomorrow, so you may waste today.
— Ishin Yoshimoto

Every day is a good day.
— Ummon

Shrouded in a cloud of depression
Thoughts of what’s going wrong
One after another.
— Ho Sen

Usually thinking is rather self-centered. In our everyday life our thinking is ninety-nine percent self-centered: Why do I have suffering? Why do I have trouble?
— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

It will always help if each partner asks what way to live is the best way to bring alive the life of the other partner.
— Seikan Hasegawa Roshi

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