The ZEN of simplicity in Engineering Design

There are 5 precepts in understanding Zen philosophy;

  • Simplicity over the complex
  • Stillness in chaos
  • Deliberate clarity without thinking
  • Understanding when the path meets its end, you were the master at its beginning
  • Understanding the sound of one hand clapping

This is the premise in which I have developed and learned to be be in sync with myself and my engineering projects. You might think they are opposites but indeed are quite the same thing, the 5 tenets above are put into practice with strict discipline, and from an engineering perspective Zen is as much an integral part of that.

Zen centers your mind and body, it brings clarity because one is meditating on nothing, gently pushing away stray thought and vision, and concentrating on breath and the darkness. (the source)

Sound confusing? Mystical? Not very scientific huh? That’s just perception, the fields of science are not unlike a walk, path so to speak., So too is Zen, one is required to fall under the tutelage of a Zen master, until the day arrives when it is determined that you become the master, in so doing you again become the student.

This happens by passage of time and questions, insight, the master was passing their time waiting for you to realize the answers for yourself, are within.

What the hell does any of this have to do with engineering or design? A lot! I was not always so well disciplined, even in the military, only the last several years since practicing this philosophy have I realized that everything I do in my life is ZEN, in one form or another.

The smallest of things become important, breathing, eating, working, Etc., I have now the stillness of inner spirit to listen without my ears, to see without my eyes. My projects at have a saying; “The Zen of Simplicity in Design” this isn’t just some cute or cool axiom, but a true path in my life.

This is the essence both of ZEN and engineering; “Harmonizing opposites by going back to their sources is the distinctive quality of the ZEN attitude, the middle way, embracing contradictions, making a synthesis of them, achieving balance.”

Taisen Deshimary

Zen also relates, not to some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. So it is with the creative process when conceptualizing a circuit, a project, its beginning, middle and end.

What is its primary purpose?

What is it going to do?

Will it continue to operate according to specs?

Do I want elegance or functionality?

Can I achieve both?

Understand each step relates to the source, which is the center, yourself.

“In a mind clear as still water, even the waves breaking , are reflecting its light.”

–Dogen Zenji

In this way we can begin to understand the meaning of a paradox, a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true?

This also is the essence of ZEN, of science and nature, and their sub categorical cousins the fields of engineering.

When I conceptualize a project, I first strip away its potential complexities and break them down into their respective primordial components, its there that the true nature of the complex can be understood and fully realized.

  • methodical (Fire)
  • fortitude (Wind)
  • steadfast (Earth)
  • Patience (Water)

These are four main aspects of character, no real particular order, only that the last one, patience, is the lynch pin of all the others and the foundation of Zen and life.

Water is unassuming, its strength is patience, it conforms to the shape of the vessel  it always conquers in the end

Earth Knowing the small by way of the great, one goes from the shallow to the deep and levels the straight path to the contours of the earth, the foundation always remains

Wind moral fiber, strength of mind, strength of character

Fire Changes in scale, from large to small, from that which can be seen easily to those that happen in a flash

This is the best piece of advise I have ever gotten;

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”


The key is “work” hard work and plenty of it, one learns by doing, not theorizing. You grow in this path keeping yourself always centered and busy experimenting, pushing limits, listening to your inner voice and not the noise outside.

Understanding electricity and electronics isn’t so far apart from understanding the sound of one hand clapping is it?

Strength of character and patience is more important than one’s IQ, that is often subjective.

One who has conquered himself is far greater hero than he who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men.

As it is too in science and engineering, Zen is a path, both are intertwined and the same, you cannot travel the path’s end until you become the path.









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