Mastery with ichigyo-zanmai

Mastery is simple. It is just the process of doing things properly over and over again. Yet most of us struggle to do anything properly. Instead, we do things half-heartedly.


When things are done improperly or are left incomplete, it can leave you with a sense of unease or guilt, reduce harmony, inconvenience others, and stop both your flow and the flow of others. This is captured by an amusing Zen term, chuto-hanpa, an adverb meaning ‘to do things by half’: If something is done with chuto-hanpa, it is unfinished or half-baked. Its opposite is chanto suru, to do things properly

Whichever approach you take, it impacts both you and those around you. Doing something with chanto shows others that you value and appreciate them enough to interact with them in a deliberate, purposeful way; doing something with chuto-hanpa can cause others trouble and waste their time, conveying a sense of disrespect or carelessness.

At one time or another, we have all probably experienced the frustration of dealing with people who do things by half – and few of us are likely to want to inflict that on someone else. Thus, while we can’t control others’ attitudes and actions, we can control our own; we can act with purpose and choose chanto suru over chuto-hanpa. 


Whichever approach we practise, doing it repeatedly leads to it becoming a habit. This is associated with the idea of ichigyo-zanmai, or ‘one practice concentration’, which involves doing things with focus and care, being laser focused on one particular task or assignment, putting your whole self into one thing. 

As explained by the Youtuber Zen priest Osho Taigu (Great Fool), while you may initially engage in chanto only in one area of your life, constant application of ‘one practice concentration’ will become an ability that you can apply to other areas of your life. Over the course of years or decades, you may be perceived as a master in many realms simply because you've always taken the time and care to do things properly.

Practicing Ichigyo-zanmai

I have a long way to go with practising ichigyo-zanmai; I am easily distracted and can be lost in thought when doing daily chores. My wife, on the other hand, has ichigyo-zanmai down pat so well she can quickly apply it to new tasks or chores and create routines or systems to manage tasks. After my son returned home from minor surgery on his nose, my wife essentially became a live-in nurse, setting up a small station and had a system to manage his recovery. She had gauze, bandages and alcohol swabs all neatly organised on a small table, and a small pot placed on the stove, ready to boil water for his sinus wash bottle. My wife managed my son’s daily recovery routine like clockwork: A gentle drill sergeant, she would get him up five times a day, having him clean out his sinuses and redress his nose. The entire process was carried out with ichigyo-zanmai – an approach which has benefitted both my son and I on many occasions.

This is also an attitude my wife brings to her hobbies. One example of these is Japanese embroidery, which requires incredible attention to detail and the repeated action of pulling cloured thread through silk to create beautiful patterns that seem to come to life. I envy her ability to be present for such extended periods of time, to be so exact with her movements, repeating them over and over again. This precision and diligence is something I marvel at – as do our friends, who are often amazed at her ability to wrap awkward objects with paper or cloth. 

Just as chanto and ichigyo-zanmai can become good habits when practised repeatedly, so too can chuto-hanpa lead to bad habits if you constantly do things by half. The compound effect of years of chuto-hanpa is missed opportunities to grow or develop yourself, and an overall failure to progress. Your chuto-hanpa will seep into other areas of your life to the point where you’ll do all things by half – your daily chores, hobbies, work, and even your relationships: you’ll love by half, you’ll communicate by half. Everything will become half. 

Things are done properly in Japan

The importance of doing things properly is understood in Japan. I learned from Japanese culture that if we're going to do things, no matter how small they are, we should do them properly. When we have done something properly our mind is free to move on. When we don’t do something properly we have to deal with uncertainty and the possibility that we may have to return to the task again. Depending on the context or situation, dismissing small tasks as unimportant could potentially result in devastating consequences.

Taking the train in Tokyo

The management of Tokyo’s various rail systems is an example of things being done properly on a large collective scale. Taking a train in Tokyo for the first time is quite the spectacle. You are likely to to see the platform conductor with white gloves on, red flag in hand at the ready, sweeping his whole arm as he points along and scans the edge of the platform, calling out various visual checks to ensure that nothing and nobody has fallen onto the tracks seconds before the arrival of the train.

Before the train departs, he will go through a similar procedure, again extending his whole arm and pointing with his hand to confirm visual checks while calling them out to ensure the train can safely depart. He will go through a similar procedure yet again to confirm the platform is clear immediately after the train has departed. These three safety checks are done in the space of a few minutes to ensure no passengers get hurt and that the train arrives and departs on time.

And if you happen to get on the front carriage of a train, you are likely to see the driver point to and call out train signals multiple times between station stops. This is done to ensure that the status of signals is being read properly, to facilitate the smooth running of the train, and prevent any potential accidents.

Now imagine thousands of rail workers doing this over and over again all day as they shuffle over 8 million people daily between train stations, with not one conductor or train driver missing a single safety check. Pointing and calling helps rail workers fully concentrate on each task of their jobs to ensure passenger safety and the efficient running of train lines.