Zen and Now

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

In my quest for truth, I encountered zen, and nothing has been the same ever since.

It was a time when everything that had the word “zen” sounded cool. There was a bestselling book called Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. There was zenhabits.net — a website known for espousing simplicity. People talked about zen styles in architecture and interior design. Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson was known as the Zen Master.

So I became intrigued and wanted to learn what zen was really all about. I started a blog called zenbananas.com to chronicle my ideas (which later morphed into this blog you’re reading now —  freethinking.me).

I picked up a small book for P80 at a used-books store with the title: The Little Zen Companion by David Schiller. The back cover promised to give me “a taste of zen for the seeker and curious alike. Here is a compilation of sayings, parables, haiku, koan, poetry and other words. From both Eastern and Western sources, their maverick spirit points to a different way of looking at the world: directly, openly, joyously.”

It also contained a quotation from Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, which fast became one of my all time favorites: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

I was aware that zen had roots in Buddhism. I was aware that there were monks or other groups who could tell me all about zen, but the thought of following a set of rituals and tradition was not so appealing, especially after I had just left one behind. I was looking for something a little less rooted in structure and dogma. So I mainly read a lot of books and did a lot of thinking and journaling my insights.

Anthony de Mello related a short parable about a zen master talking about the dangers of too much rigor, and it goes like this:

“Life’s little secret is this,” said the master to his visitor as they conversed over tea. “Never take it too seriously. Learn to laugh — at everything — and you learn to live,”

The visitor pondered on this, and the master continued, “I have had a total of four disciples under me. When they began their training, I gave them a set of rigorous physical and spiritual exercises. The first disciple was too weak and couldn’t handle the pressure so he ran away. The second was too meticulous in trying to follow every minute detail of the exercises that he drove himself crazy. The third tried to challenge himself to do more than what the exercises required and one day he injured himself fatally and died. Only the fourth disciple remained healthy and sane.”

“And how did he manage to do that?” asked the visitor.

“Well, he took one look at the exercises and simply refused to do them,” replied the master, chuckling.

Zen is not a religion or a set of rituals (though some people make it to be). In essence, it is simply about seeing things as they are, without judgements, presuppositions or biases. It is the truth that lies beyond words, whose meaning cannot be expressed nor explained. The words and stories are not to be taken literally or even reverently (as the story above illustrates). Words serve only to point to a deeper truth.

Some of my most enjoyable times are when I am engaged in deep discussions with friends (or my wife), debating, arguing, and sharing ideas. And we can talk all the way past midnight.

The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu said it best this way: “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find the man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. If you have forgotten words, send me a blank email at andy@freethinking.me.

Talking About Thinking

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

A 14-year-old’s answer to the question: “How Would You Redesign the Human Body?” – used with permission from De Bono Thinking School

I’m sure a lot of you have heard about the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People popularized by Stephen Covey, or the 21 Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. But have you heard about the 64 different ways of thinking?

Just the other day, I “met” a new friend online and through the wonders of the internet, had an interesting conversation with him about thinking. His name is Atty. Camilo Miguel “Bong” Montesa and he runs the De Bono Thinking School in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Bong is the first Filipino trained and certified to teach Edward de Bono’s Thinking Systems to students in the Philippines.

I encountered a link to his website from a friend who posted it on Facebook and I was intrigued. What in the world was a “thinking school?” I wondered. So I had a short chat with him and we agreed to talk face to face via Skype.

“We often complain today about people being too narrow-minded and lacking creativity and innovation,” said Bong. “But can we really blame them? It starts with our kids. Our schools have not taught them how to think.”

He further explains that enrolling your child in a Math or Reading or Science Tutorial program may be beneficial but it is not enough. Thinking is a skill that needs to be taught independently and can form the foundation for all these other subjects.

This idea was conceived and popularized by Edward De Bono, a highly accomplished author, recognized worldwide as an expert in the field of conceptual thinking and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill. Some of his more popular books include Six Thinking Hats and Lateral Thinking. Over 20 countries have adopted his ideas and incorporated them into their school curriculum.

“There are 64 different ways of thinking,” said Bong, which surprised me as I could only think of a handful. “We divide these into 8 different modules with 8 sessions per module. Each session deals with a specific thinking skill complete with activities for kids to apply the concept.”

One of the tools that Bong shared to me is called PMI, which stands for Plus-Minus-Interest. When someone presents us with an idea, the usual response would be either to accept the idea or to reject it, sometimes without really considering the idea. PMI provides a framework for us to evaluate the idea thoroughly before accepting or discarding it.

Plus – Ask yourself, what’s good about the idea? Every idea has something positive about it, no matter how bad it sounds..

Minus – Ask yourself, what’s bad about the idea? Every idea also has something negative about it, no matter how good it sounds.

Interest – After everything has been analyzed and evaluated, what is interesting about the idea such that even if we discard the idea, we can probably form a better idea with whatever we find interesting?

I immediately saw the relevance of this when looking at what’s happening in our country. We’ve had lots of controversies regarding the Cybercrime Law, the RH Law, Charter Change, Freedom of Information, and so on. Many people hold rallies and give speeches either for or against these issues, and usually those who are pro want the whole thing implemented and those who are anti want the whole thing incinerated.

A better (and perhaps more rational) way of going around the matter would be to apply PMI on it. Surely, there are some good things about it and some bad things as well. Let’s proceed with what is good, improve on or replace whatever is bad, and see what other interesting issues can be addressed from it.

Bong’s vision is to introduce and incorporate these principles into our schools. Imagine if our kids are equipped with all these tools of of thinking, decision-making, and creativity. We will probably have a better generation of leaders and decision makers. And wouldn’t that be a grand legacy for our generation to impart to them?


Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. To learn more about the De Bono Thinking School, visit their website at www.debonoschool.com. Email me at andy@freethinking.me

Belief, Unbelief and That Little Comma In Between

Photo by Vayes!
Photo by Vayes!

Originally published in SunStar Davao.

The Parable of the Missing Question

The disciple asked the master, “Do you believe in God?”

The master did not reply.

The disciple thought the master had not heard and repeated the question.

The master remained silent.

The disciple then asked, “Master, why do you not reply?”

The master said, “Because there is no question.”

It Depends

Today, when people ask me whether I believe in God or not, my usual reply is, “It depends.”

“Depends on what?” You may ask.

Well, it depends on what you think the word ‘God’ means.

Ask a Christian if he believes in God and he will say yes. Ask a Muslim if he believes in God and he will say yes as well. Ask a Hindu if he believes in God and you still get a yes. In fact, you can go ahead and ask a Jew, a shaman, a Zoroastrianist, a Rastafari, a Sikh, or mostly anyone affiliated with a religion and they will all say yes.

It is quite obvious though, that they do not all mean the same thing. The question, “Do you believe in God?” is therefore rendered meaningless unless the questioner first clarifies what he or she means by the word “God.” Only then can the question be properly answered.

That is why in the parable above, the master declares, “There is no question.”

Religious People are Atheists Too

Some people who have been following my columns have labeled me an atheist (in approval or otherwise). But let me turn the tables around and say that religious people are also atheists with respect to the gods they don’t believe in. To Hindu, a Christian is an atheist with respect to Brahma or Krishna. To a Christian, a muslim is an atheist because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is God. Most people are atheists with respect to Zeus because practically no one believes in him anymore.

Richard Dawkins, a biologist and self-proclaimed atheist, says “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Something (or Someone) Out There

Strictly speaking, atheism is a statement of belief. A theist believes in some sort of god. An atheist doesn’t. In this regard, I am undecided and I sometime oscillate between the two poles.

On the one hand, I am open to the possibility of a “higher power” who may be the creator or designer of life. It may be the “force” that generates love and compassion. It may be the “essence” from which all goodness comes from.

On the other hand, I have no direct sensory experience of this being and whatever mystical experience I may have had can be reasonably attributed to an overactive imagination.

Personally, I see myself more as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Agnosticism is a statement of knowledge rather than belief. An agnostic claims no knowledge (or lack of it) of god and I can certainly make that claim. Belief is a trickier matter though, and for the time being, I am content to reside in the comma that sits between belief and unbelief — until further knowledge or evidence.

If you are the type who enjoys debates and discussion, watch this:

That should keep you entertained for a while.


Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. So do you believe in God? Email me your answers at andy@freethinking.me.

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