The Way to Happiness by Three Questions – a Ted Talk

 Photo of Ohyama with permission
This Ted Talk on Naikan titled “The Way to Happiness by Three Questions” is now available on YouTube. You can watch here.
It is in Japanese, but English subtitles were recently added. The subtitles will appear if you click on the closed captioning button marked “cc” in the lower right side of the screen of the video.
The talk is by Ohyama Shinkoh, a Japanese Buddhist priest. Rev Ohyama published a Naikan book in 2012 that has sold around 10,000 copies. Its Japanese titled is Okasan ni shite moratta kotowa nandesuka, which literally translated is “What did you receive from your mother?” An English translation of the book is now being prepared.
As a young man Rev Ohyama did a week of intensive Naikan with Yoshimoto Ishin. It was a transformative experience that led him to leave the company he was working for and become a Buddhist priest. He offers intensive Naikan once or twice a month in Japanese and English at his temple, Rengein Tanjōji in Kumamoto, Japan. Over the past 25 years he has led 2000 people in intensive Naikan. He also offers email Naikan. You can learn more about how he understands Naikan at his temple’s website:

A Report on a Naikan Conference in Japan

This blog post will be of special interest to those who are Naikan Practitioners. With thanks to Clark Chilson.

 From July 7 to 9, 2017, I attended a joint conference of the Japan Naikan Association (JNA) and the Japan Naikan Medical Association (JNMA) held in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. It was the 40th general conference for the JNA and the 20th for the JNMA. The theme of the conference was “Finding New Ways to Develop and Spread Naikan.” There were about 150 people present, most of whom were medical professionals, psychotherapists, scholars of Naikan, or directors of Naikan Training Centers.


The conference started on a Friday night with a panel on establishing a certificate in Naikan for healthcare professionals. The panelists consisted of two psychiatrists, a psychologist, and a Naikan scholar. The panel presentations were followed by a general discussion on the importance of creating a certificate, the problem in Naikan of “transference” (in the psychoanalytical sense of the term), and what training should be required to certify healthcare professionals in Naikan.

The creation of a certificate program is an important development because the founder of Naikan, Yoshimoto Ishin, was skeptical about professionalizing the practice. Accordingly, many Japanese Naikan advocates were reluctant to create certificate programs. But I suspect that support for the creation of certificate programs has increased because certain professional medical boards have recently expressed concern over the use of Naikan by people who are not properly trained in it and because there are now numerous people using something they call Naikan that is different from the traditional Naikan of Yoshimoto.

During the next two days of the conference there were over 25 academic presentations on Naikan. These included studies on the use of Naikan in hospitals as part of programs to treat alcohol use disorders and eating disorders. There were also presentations on Naikan for corporate training, Naikan at hospitals in China, Naikan as it relates to human relations, and Naikan in the context of Buddhist thought and practice.

After I gave a presentation at the conference on how Naikan relates to Buddhist meditation, I met psychologists who were using Naikan in combination with mindfulness. Among these were Dr. Chieko Fujisaki (a psychologist with a medical degree) and Professor Miho Takahashi (University of Tokyo) who has published a study comparing Naikan and mindfulness.

I was also able to speak with a nurse named Daisuke Taniguchi who works at a mental hospital in Kyushu. When I met Mr. Taniguchi in the summer of 2016 we spoke about mindfulness as a possible way of preparing patients to do daily Naikan. In October 2016 he began a study in which he led patients in about 10 minutes of mindful breathing before having them do Naikan.   While some patients reported that inclusion of mindfulness led to an increase in distracting thoughts and to irritability, a much greater percentage gave a positive response. Some reported that it helped them get into Naikan quicker, that they had fewer distracting thoughts, that they felt more relaxed, and that their memories were more vivid when doing the mindfulness breathing before starting 30 minutes of Naikan.

An overall impression I got from the conference is that younger Naikan practitioners were finding new ways to offer Naikan. Notable among this new generation of practitioners are Toshiyuki Hashimoto and Shin’ya Nukui, who together recently revived “The Association for Self-Discovery” (Jiko Hakken no Kai), which promotes Naikan, primarily as a self-cultivation practice. They have a website that publishes information about Naikan activities in Japan and articles by Naikan practitioners on their understandings of and experiences with Naikan.

The first generation of Naikan advocates in attendance at the conference included Dr. Takahiro Takemoto and Professor Yoshihiko Miki, who together co-founded the Japan Naikan Association in 1978. Also present were longtime scholars of Naikan such as Nobuo Tatsumi and Kayoko Murase. Among them I noticed no dissatisfaction with finding new ways to offer Naikan.  I thus suspect that over the next ten years Naikan practitioners will formulate diverse and creative ways for engaging people in Naikan.    Clark Chilson

How to Find a New Perspective on Your Relationships

 Photograph by Helgi Halldórsson


Our brains keep us from seeing reality objectively. In fact, they skew our reality toward the negative. Memories of unpleasant experiences stick in our minds while recollections of positive experiences slip out of our everyday working memories.  The neurologist Richard Mendius and the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson cleverly conceptualize this fact in their book The Buddha’s Brain when they write that our brains are like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

If you live in the same cognitive universe as most mortals, negative memories of what someone has done to you are more frequent and powerful than memories of what someone has done for you. The injury of one insult is rarely healed by one compliment.

The natural tendency of our brains to give more attention to the negative than the positive often results in us forming a warped perception of others and our relationships with them.

Our biased brains, however, need not condemn us to a life of negativity. There are meditative practices that can give us a more accurate view of our relationships and that are conducive to happiness. Among these one powerful practice is Naikan (pronounced NYE-khan).

Naikan involves reflecting on our lives using three questions: What have I received? What have I given back? What troubles and difficulties have I caused?  The first question focuses on the benefits we have received from others and the second on what we have done for others. These two questions allow us to take an inventory of our relationships.

For the third Naikan question, we examine how we, intentionally or not, have burdened others. Because it is much easier to see and remember how others have burdened us than we them, particular attention is given to this question so we can get a better sense of reality. While some fear this question because they think it might hurt their self-esteem, or because they think the remorse it might bring is incompatible with well being, the vast majority of people who have done Naikan report a very different response to this question. Done in conjunction with the other two Naikan questions, this question leads us to see better the extent of the kindness we have received from others. As a result, it often induces a sense of gratitude and of having been cared for. Seeing the kindness and compassion we have received from others when we have been less than perfect, stirs up a desire to be kind and generous to others. Remembering how I failed to live up to a promise I made, for example, makes it easier for me to forgive others who failed in their promises.

While the full effect of Naikan is best experienced in a one-week Naikan retreat, even small amounts of Naikan can provide some people important insights into their lives and relationships. To see if you are one of those people, you can try the following Naikan exercise. Find a quiet place to sit where you can concentrate without distraction for 15 minutes. Pick one person in your life. It may be your mother, your spouse, a brother, a best friend, a coach or someone else that you have been close to over the past year.  Ask yourself: What did I receive from that person over the past year? What have I given back to that person over the past year? What troubles and difficulties have I caused that person over the past year? You can write your answers down, but it is not necessary. What is more important is to answer the questions in your mind’s eye using concrete details rather than abstractions. For example, rather than saying I received emotional support from the person, it is more effective to answer with what the person specifically did that gave you emotional support. For example, “My husband listened to me on the phone about a problem at work.” Or, “My sister sat with me in the doctor’s office while I waited for blood test results.”  If you cannot visualize the answer, it is probably too abstract.

Fifteen minutes is not enough time for any meditative practice to change the innate circuitry of our brains. But this 15-minute Naikan exercise can help you remember something in your life or in a relationship that gives you joy. Repeating the practice daily for two weeks might lead you to realize that despite human imperfections you have relationships filled with goodness and compassion.

by Clark Chilson


A Poem For the Road

The photograph is by tciriello and can be found at

The poem below was written by Morikawa Riu, the mother-in-law of Yoshimoto Ishin, the founder of Naikan.  Yoshimoto regarded Riu as a profound practitioner of self-reflection.  The poem is commonly displayed at Naikan Centers in Japan so those doing Naikan can read it.

(Translated by Clark Chilson)


Before you lies today’s road,
a new road,
one you cannot take again.

If you run from something because it is painful,
joy will become more distant.

Everyone has and can find a grateful heart.

Winners are strong;
those who yield are stronger still.

The world of people
has many mountainous roads to travel.

If you become conceited with your strengths,
they become weaknesses.

If you notice your weaknesses,
they become strengths.

Don’t be a doer;
be someone people rely on.

No matter the excuse,
your foolishness cannot stay hidden.

Instead of trying to do what you can today,
you worry about what you can’t do.

Although you know it,
you tend to forget what your parents did for you.

Happiness is not seen anywhere.
No one knows it.
Yet it is close to all of us.

The past creates the present.
The present creates the future.

At times of suffering,
look for the lesson in the suffering.

Nothing makes you suffer more than yourself.

Even if you don’t know difficult things,
there is virtue in simply not speaking ill of others.

Avoid anger.
Work to avoid it.
When you become angry, it shortens your life.

What you gain by burdening others
will not stay with you.

You quickly notice the faults in others
but readily overlook their good points and acts of kindness.

Rather than give attention to appearances,
Keep in mind the light within you.

Your plans for doing this and that are perfect gems,
but your failure to execute makes them flawed.

Many are pleased when praised,
but few examine themselves when scolded.

No matter how much you give,
kindness does not decrease
and the merit of it survives.

The course of events is not coincidental.

If you joyfully do a job you don’t like,
it becomes a job you like.

Even if you are good at doing things for others,
not expecting anything in return is difficult.

The true path is neither to the left or to the right.

At work, think of things from the perspective of others.

Money is precious and has magical powers,
but many torture themselves with it.

People do not give because they are prosperous,
they are prosperous because they give.

Wake up smiling;
go to bed with gratitude.

As days of hope, gratitude, and self-reflection grow,
your life takes on deeper meaning.


            A different translation by D. K. Reynolds and R. Omaki of the same poem can be found at The original Japanese version is available at


Naikan and David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”

Late one night a couple of years ago, I searched youtube for “David Foster Wallace” after watching the film about his life titled The End of the Tour. I stumbled upon his speech “This is Water,” which he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, but was not depicted in the film. After listening to it, I sat in a state of awe at its simple brilliance. I then did a Google search of it and found that many consider it one of the best commencement speeches ever given.

About a year after I encountered the speech, a student in a class I was teaching came to talk with me. I noticed “This is Water” tattooed on her wrist. Surprised, I asked her if it had anything to do with David Foster Wallace’s speech. She confirmed that it did.

The speech is about how to think intentionally, and how to avoid falling victim to our default way of thinking about the world from our self-centered perspectives. With a vivid description of a trip to a grocery store, he illustrates how our self-centered perspectives lead to suffering.  He advocates for using our attention in new ways when he says, “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

You can find the complete text of the speech here

But rather than read it, I strongly recommend listening to David Foster Wallace give the speech. Listen here on youtube.  He delivers it in less than 23 minutes with humor and humility.

David Foster Wallace, as erudite as he was, may have never heard of Naikan. Yet, those familiar with Naikan will have no problem seeing how his speech resonates with it. For those unfamiliar with Naikan, the speech makes a persuasive case for the importance of Naikan in so far as it promotes using our minds to liberate ourselves from self-centered ruminations that lead to suffering.

Written by Clark Chilson




Naikan’s Purpose is Spiritual Awakening

Naikan’s Purpose is Spiritual Awakening

The founder of Naikan, Yoshimoto Ishin, was a devout Buddhist who saw Naikan as a spiritual practice. In the 1950s, he had some of this writings translated into English and compiled in a book titled Self-Reflection will Guide You to the Right Way. In this book, Yoshimoto describes the purpose of Naikan as follows:

“To be spiritually awakened from suffering is the aim of it. In other words, trying to get rid of the selfishness in you, to reach the stage to be able to endure whatever difficulties you may have.”

In this passage, we see how Yoshimoto makes a direct correlation between suffering and selfishness. Although current discussions of spirituality in North America rarely mention selfishness, there is no greater obstacle to living a spiritual life than it. At the heart of spirituality is self-transcendence and freedom from self induced suffering. Neither of these is possible when we are seized by an ego that demands people act as we wish, that grow anxious over the future, and that becomes angry when we do not get what we want.

Naikan’s three basis questions —What did I receive from others? What did I give back to them? What troubles and difficulties did I cause others? — are simple. But the consequences of reflecting on them are profound. They can liberate us from the prison of self.

Photo Credit Empty Cage by Hartwig, HKD. Licensed under Creative commons.