Freedom as Fluency

I wrote in the previous post about the confusion we find around ideas like “freedom.” I want to try to say a little more about that.

Sometimes I translate Buddhist materials from Japanese to English.  It’s work I enjoy—in part because it’s so stimulating, but also in part because it’s always an act of letting go.  There is much that cannot be authentically translated between the two languages, and in desperately trying to build that bridge, I am asked to consider words and ideas that otherwise, I might just let go.  It is a precious opportunity; it’s also an honor to be the one who gives voice to that original text.

Two phrases have come up for me over and over again as being particularly tricky, and that makes me all the more determined to try to explain them.  These are exciting terms, terms I think we could use.

The first is kyōgai (境界):  the kyō refers to boundaries, borders; the gai is close to “realm” or “world.”  In common speech, this is a common word (pronounced kyōkai), and it simply means “boundary,” the line between this or that.  But in the Zen world, as kyōgai, it has a much richer meaning.  It is sometimes translated as “level,” though that suggests a kind of ranking, which is not the point.  A great artist, through her art, might reveal a very deep kyōgai, or a wide kyōgai, or a high kyōgai.  Zen monks will, in every little bow, in the way they sit or stand or respond, reveal their kyōgai.  Some people have a shallow kyōgai, though of course it could deepen.  It is very difficult to put this into a single word.

The second is jiyū jizai (自由自在).  Jiyū is a common word meaning “freedom.”  Jizai means something like “freely,” or “at will.”  As a translator, I have struggled with this term over the years, and I have decided, for now, that the best English equivalent is “fluency.”  To say that someone is completely fluent at a foreign language is to say that the person can wield that language without hindrance.  I can say that I am fluent in English, as a native speaker, because I can (perhaps excepting these translation conundrums) say what I want to say and understand what others say to me.  I can adjust my speech according to circumstance.  I can read a novel and understand not just the technical meaning of the words on the page, but also the emotional content behind them, and the cultural context which gives them meaning beyond what can be found in a dictionary.  Especially as someone who has lived overseas and often functions in a language other than English, I am very aware, when I enter the world of English, that there, I am free.  This is fluency.

And there are degrees of fluency.  Some people speak perfect Spanish, but as non-native speakers, they do not speak with the same idiom as someone born into the language.  So even if they are capable of expressing everything they want to say, perhaps they cannot say it in the way that most directly touches the mind of the listener.  And perhaps the native speaker needs to make adjustments (eliminating certain idiom and so on) to be sure to be understood.  This is still fluency, but a different degree.

Jiyū jizai takes this notion of fluency and extends it to any activity.  So it is possible to be fluent with, for example, a sword.  I have seen karate masters who were fluent with their bodies—they could express and respond freely, unhindered (at least to the eye of the observer).  In demonstrating the traditional kata, the forms, it seems that they are creating those forms, even though they are actually following something prescribed from a hundred years back or more.  The observer sees not that person, but that person’s action.  It is total.  Some people are fluent in the kitchen—they can be offered any ingredients, any tools, and make something delicious, apparently without effort.  If we are lucky, we have had at least one teacher—math, history, any subject—who is so knowledgeable and so competent in that discipline that we feel we are meeting not just an individual, but the face of the field itself.  Meeting even one such person, someone who demonstrates a fluency in any one thing, can change our lives forever.

Dancers know about this fluency. Musicians know about it. There are examples in every direction.

But what does it mean to be fluent in the context of Zen practice?  Traditionally, it has meant that one is so comfortable in each moment of doing things just so—of walking just like this and sitting just like this—that one so embodies his or her own actions that they seem to own those actions, that the “just so” of each movement seems to spring forth not from some rulebook or ancient text, but from the person sitting there, naturally.  This is fluency of each moment.  This is being fluent at your own life.

So, to return to the idea of kyōgai—one’s own realm, one’s own range of movement—kyōgai is, from one perspective, a measurement of this fluency.  It is a measurement of the degree to which one is hindered or free in the world, in one’s movements, in one’s thoughts.  It is the space in which possibilities exist.  It is perhaps a measurement of space, but it is also the freedom one finds within boundaries.

And it is this idea of space that is at the heart of practice as I understand it.  The space of kyōgai is not just the individual’s.  We have all heard of savant mathematicians who can solve problems effortlessly, but who then struggle to explain their process to less able minds.  That kind of skill is remarkable, but it is not reflective of a deep kyōgai.  A truly great mathematician can invite you in and make you see—if only for a moment—the depth of the world of numbers.  A great karate practitioner reveals kyōgai not just when head-to-head with another master, but also in teaching a beginner a basic stance.  The great practitioner is working inside of a vast space, vast enough to include others and to meet them there.  Living overseas, my definition of English fluency has come to include the ability to adjust one’s speech for those who are not fluent—to do so requires not just ability in English, but also an awareness of, and objectivity towards, how the language works for someone else.  Kyōgai is revealed regardless of circumstance, regardless of who else is in the room.  And truly deep kyōgai raises the kyōgai of those all around—it offers fluency as something to be shared.

What is the goal of Zen?  What is it to practice for the sake of practice?  What is it to practice for the sake of others?  To enter the world of practice is to enter into these questions, directly.  We cannot avoid them.  Nor can we easily answer them.  And we certainly cannot answer them for someone else.

But I can offer this:  One piece of that puzzle has to do with facilitating practice itself, with becoming the space in which others practice.  We can develop certain fluencies intentionally—we can choose to repeat and repeat and repeat, to invest ourselves in this discipline or that activity, until the line is blurred between doer and what is being done.  It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is simple.  But why bother?  What if the fluency of doing things just so is not about that action, but about inviting someone else into a space where there is more possibility than previously imagined?  What if I hold my cup in this way, or dress this way, or walk this way, in order to get out of the way and let the practice play itself out freely?  What if “practicing for the sake of practice” means that our practice is establishing the causes and conditions of practice–not just for ourselves, but for those around us?

This, for me, is at the heart of the teaching of nyohō–the idea that we can cultivate and encourage practice not just with a deep turn of phrase, but with a gesture, or a texture. We can create that space. We can be that space.

11 comments on “Freedom as Fluency

  1. Chris Amirault says:

    Koun, these first few blog posts are remarkable pieces of writing for which I’m very grateful. Keep ’em coming!

    Can you say a bit more about kyōgai? I work with young children (3-5 years old) and I thought of how they inhabit their bodies and selves when I read this:

    “Zen monks will, in every little bow, in the way they sit or stand or respond, reveal their kyōgai. Some people have a shallow kyōgai, though of course it could deepen.”

    In child development we talk about proprioception, or your ability to negotiate your body within the constraints of spatial reality. Coordination, balance, self-awareness of your corporeality: they are all part of proprioception. I’m wondering in what ways, if any, kyōgai (and for that matter jiyū jizai) might be related.


    Chris Amirault

    • Koun says:


      Thank you! As the father of a 3-year-old, I’m very interested in what you’re asking. I’ve never heard the word kyōgai used in the context of childhood development, but it’s actually a useful term in that context. My son can do new things every day, but he’s very far from being free in the world. He’s clumsy; he doesn’t understand risk; he has the ability to forget about his environment in shocking ways. The other day, I was eating tortilla chips from a bag–I saw the one I wanted, and while I looked away, I reached in and got it. A simple action, but after I did it, I had to marvel at what a “high-level” move that is–my son can’t do something like that, not yet, not without looking right at what he’s doing. In some ways that’s a different conversation from the one I started, but at the same time, it’s probably a good tool to look at that process in children and see that (a) the deepening of this fluency is a process of increasing subtlety, and (b) the range of “levels” (for lack of a better word) is wider than we might at first imagine. We can also see, in children, the process by which that deepening occurs–repetition, commitment to the task, mistakes, the presence of someone modeling the action, and so on. It’s never a bad thing to think of ourselves as children in the practice.


  2. Raj says:

    Your idea of begetting fluency by getting someone into the space is a most striking one. In this sense, the other will guide us into the areas where we should *lose* more to get that fluency. If Zen is about finding perfection in this action in the ultimate sense,i get the impression from somewhere in the posts that you are approaching the inner from the outer. Do you really mean it that way? In Psalms that i read it is the other way about. Would you please reply to this query? Best to you.

    • Koun says:


      Again, thank you for your close reading of these posts. My answer, in a sense, is yes, but that requires some explanation. One of the foundations of this practice is that practice and realization are singular. Practice does not lead to realization; realization does not lead to practice. They’re the same thing. But that’s very difficult for us to grasp in our relative view. So what I have been taught is to approach realization, which looks like something “inner,” through the form of the practice, which looks like something “outer.” That’s just a more cautious approach than going from inner to outer–our conceptualizations of that realization, if we try to separate them out from the action and expression of this moment, are almost guaranteed to be limited and false. So this is just a way of approaching and exploring that singularity. I hope that’s useful.


  3. Raj says:

    Thank you for the enlightening reply. I feel as if Dragons were there with me for breakfast. Good day.

  4. Madathil Narayanan Rajkumar says:

    It is thrilling to notice the deep kyogai in these posts.Thank you. The Zen path as shown here is one of great possibities to a true seeker. The statement, the path itself is the destiny is astonishingly impressive. But, i feel it is a safe and grand road when the weather is relatively nice , especially in a realm within human realm. What about its practice in thoroughly distressing moments in life? For example, you are in the medical shop with no money and your daughter is seriously sick in the hospital and every second is crucial. What if you walk this way or stand this way. How will we define our kyogai in such a situation? Thank you.

    • Koun says:


      Thank you for trying to make all this more concrete. Those are the moments that expose us. I try to imagine that circumstance, and two things come to mind: (1) this practice is not holding back, so if you know what you need to do, you do it, completely; (2) how we act in that moment will be a reflection of all we have done and learned and thought and experienced up to that moment, even if our words seem harsh or our choices seem reckless. There are times in our lives when we can be more deliberate and considered about how we touch the world, and there are times when we just hope that we have prepared ourselves enough to act skillfully, and to bring integrity to that action. That is to say, as you stand in that medical shop, you will stand the way you stand; you will walk the way you walk. Every moment is like this. It’s always the critical moment–the difference is that as you stand there in that medical shop, her life seemingly in your hands, you know it.

      I hope that’s of some use.


  5. Casey Peak says:

    Hello Koun,

    I ran across your website looking up advanced concepts of Zen and its relationship to Freedom. I am working on a podcast show for open discussion on various different philosophical ideas and how they lead one to free thought. I believe that to be truly content and truly free one must first be free in their minds. I am applying this concept. I mention all this because I would like to use some of your information you have written here. Would you be okay with that?

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