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Not Superfluous, Not Deficient


I first ran across the concept of En Zū in my Zen studies. Its importance was underscored for me when I saw that Zen master Robert Aitken selected the calligraphy for this term as the cover art for his translation (with Yamada Kōun) of the Hekigan Roku (Blue Cliff Record).

The abstract meaning of the phrase is translated by Eidō Tai Shimano and Kōgetsu Tani as “not superfluous, not deficient.” I would argue that this is the essence of the martial way. We strive for movement that does only what it should: no more, no less. We do not engage muscles that are not necessary. We do not add an elbow flare or a pivot of the foot where it should not be. We use neither too much nor too little force. Perfect balance is our goal. In contrast to the flashy, performative technique seen in much of modern competition, true practitioners attempt to do no more than is necessary.

On the one hand, this saying is an admonition: make this saying your guide, it seems to advise, and you will be off to a good start. However, on the other hand, it is also a diagnosis, an evaluation of this moment: we must understand that right now, nothing is superfluous and nothing is deficient. Whether you are eating or training or even dying, there is enough already, but not too much. The world in balance, at least in a sense.

This is a kind of Zen koan, a statement that defies discursive thinking in order to help us realize that which cannot be grasped with the monkey mind. So we train to realize the meaning of our training, to ride the razor’s edge of “not superfluous, not deficient.” We train with all of our heart so that we may live the perfect life in a perfect way. The true practitioner continues to train in this way even when the impossibility of the task has been fully understood.

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi once told a group, “Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.” I think he was talking about the same basic idea. At any moment, our practice is perfect on the one hand, and on the other hand we must still we strive tirelessly for perfection. Both statements in the paradox are true at the same moment, and this understanding is at the heart of all we do in both the dojo and the zendo.

In this way we struggle to realize “not superfluous, not deficient.” Whole and complete, we practice to find the perfection that is there already. Flawed and lacking, we can all use a little improvement. Let’s train.

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