Work Practice

In Zen practice, our work itself is an essential avenue for waking up. While for centuries Indian Buddhist monks were prohibited from working and were completely supported by the generosity of their neighborhood lay community, this shifted when Buddhism spread into China, where people were unresponsive to the value of monastic rules against working as a form of renunciation. To the Chinese it did not make sense that one group would not work and be supported by others. This was especially true in the Zen tradition. Each member was expected to contribute their labor for the support of the community, monastic or otherwise. Old Abbot Baizhang, after his students hid his tools to spare his aging body the rigors of farm work, refused to eat, shouting, “a day without work is a day without food!” His students quickly returned his tools. This saying became very famous in Zen circles, and to this day the Zen schools are noted for taking up work as an integral part of their practice.

In another famous story from 13th century Japan, Dōgen Zenji (the founder of Sōtō Zen) traveled to China to study Buddhism. There he met an old Tenzo (Head Cook) who had walked 12 miles to buy some Japanese mushrooms brought over on Dōgen’s ship. Dōgen was puzzled by the distinguished monk and asked him, “Venerable Tenzo, in your advanced years why don’t you wholeheartedly engage the Way by doing zazen or studying the sutras instead of troubling yourself by being Tenzo and just working? What is that good for?” The Tenzo laughed loudly and said, “Oh good friend from a foreign country, it is clear you have no idea what it means to whole-heartedly engage in the Way!” When Master Dōgen returned to Japan, he brought with him several distinct practices of Chinese Zen training. These same practices form a core part of Zen training: the practice of zazen (sitting meditation), face-to-face meetings with a teacher, and work-practice. It is pretty conventional notion to see work as merely a means to an end, something that has to be done now in order to do what we really want to do later. But Zen training takes work far beyond this narrow point of view. The founder of our Soto lineage in America, Suzuki Roshi, valued work so highly as to say, “First clean, then zazen.”

It’s not just WORKING, it’s JUST working.

Work as practice is an indispensable way in which our Zen training must move off the cushion and into the sacred activity of living and being in the wider world. At the Austin Zen Center we offer a short daily care-taking period (Soji) each morning to begin to explore labor that is nourishing to ourselves and others. Starting with simple, repetitive tasks, and gradually increasing their complexity, we learn to see how our minds respond to the task at hand.

Work as practice means paying attention to what is happening right now, to be mindful of digging in the garden or of chopping carrots in the kitchen by staying in the NOW of the present moment. As such, working in the garden or the zendo or the kitchen and sitting zazen are not so different: It’s not just working. It’s just working! Far beyond being about completing a task or seeing it through to the finish, when work is engaged as practice it is seen as part of our zazen (meditation). It is an end in itself. Work and zazen go hand in hand. Both are necessary and without one, the other suffers. When work is practice, it is a Buddha doing what a Buddha does, how a Buddha does it. So when our work is practice, it is less about what we are doing and more about how we are doing it. This particular how in Zen training refers to bringing our zazen, or Zen, Mind to our workplace. “Zen Mind” is a willingness to engage ourselves wholeheartedly in whatever we are doing, whether it is making up a bed, cleaning a toilet, chopping a carrot, or cooking a meal. It is a radical willingness to go beyond our usual limited, small mind; the one that is ruled by its likes and dislikes, its prejudices, narrow points of view and fixed ways of seeing and doing things. The small mind is fueled by habit energy, which says “I don’t like that kind of work,” or “I know all about that.” When we bring our zazen practice into our work, we take a leap out of that conditioned small mind and into the freedom and generosity of the mind that is accepting, fresh, and full of possibility. This mind is the unfettered mind of a beginner; it is “Beginner’s Mind.”

In cultivating a meditation practice, it needs to be part of a broader approach to spiritual growth that includes all aspects of one’s life. Working mindfully helps create this breadth. By including work as part of our practice, we learn that mindfulness, peace, and spiritual freedom are not just found in meditation, but reside in the activities of life itself. In fact, if found only in meditation, one’s freedom and peace have not fully matured. Work-practice, is a mainstay of this maturation.

When we think about it, everything is work—being alive and in a body is already work. Every day there is eating and shitting and cleaning up. There is washing and walking and bathing and flossing. Every day there is thinking and caring and creating. So there’s no escape from work—it’s everywhere. Work is something deep and dignified—it’s what we are born to do and what we feel most fulfilled in doing. Even within conventional notions there are many different kinds of work. There’s administrative work, intellectual work, creative work, and emotional work. Clearly all these forms of work are important and useful, but in Zen practice there is a special honor given to the dignity of physical work.

Work brings us together and makes us into a real community. There are many places to do sesshins and retreats, but it’s not the same when members of a community don’t have real work they accomplish together. When there’s real physical work we struggle and sweat together and create a place together, and that place then inspires our practice on a daily basis because we know we have worked to make it.

Work as Meditation

“Work as meditation” illustrates how work is just as important a time for mindfulness practice as sitting zazen or walking meditation. In work as meditation, there isn’t too much need for thinking, planning or conceptualizing. While effort is made to do what we are doing efficiently and beautifully, we needn’t hurry or worry about how much is getting done. In not rushing to get the dishes washed or the carpets vacuumed, we have an opportunity to just appreciate the work for what it is—a thoroughgoing engagement with our life in the moment.

Meditative work occurs when the work is very simple and repetitive, and one cultivates awareness of one’s hands and feet, or of the tool as it moves, or the rhythm of movements in the work. Most physical work involves some sense of rhythm or timing. When one enters into the flow of the task at hand, working can be both very efficient as well as very relaxed: entering into a deeper experience than our usual compulsive thinking about distractions or complaints. Work as meditation can also involve periodic pauses during the work as a way of grounding oneself—to reconnect with the breath, or to pause for a moment and return to the presence when the mind is wandering. It can help to utilize a ‘mindfulness bell’, to bring us back to our focus. Just as in zazen, you can be aware of your mind as you work and keep trying to bring it back to the body, breath, and the moment-by-moment work itself, even when there is no bell or no special pause. It is a time to observe and let go of the many attitudes, beliefs, and feelings that interfere with having a meaningful awareness of one’s immediate experience, no matter what that task might be. Even a taste of work-practice illustrates how the mind can wander off in thought just as readily while working as while sitting in meditation. Just as mental hindrances to wakefulness arise while one is seated in the meditation hall, so desire, aversion, dullness, restlessness, and doubt can hinder mindfulness and concentration during work. And, just as one can overcome the hindrances of a wandering mind in seated meditation, so one can do while working. When one is focused on the work itself, with nothing extra, the mind becomes concentrated, calm, energetically still and insightful.

There are a few important ways to practice with this kind of work. One important way is by working in silence. When we work silently we put ourselves more fully in touch with our actual working, with more clarity and energy. Silent work isn’t strictly silent, as functional speech may be necessary: speaking about the task – where we put something, or where to get something, or how to do something. Functional speech means we don’t have conversations or make social talk. There’s a time for that too, but if we always chat when we work we won’t appreciate the depth of the work and we also won’t appreciate how wonderful it is to chat together!

Another important practice can be found in bowing-in and bowing-out. Beginning work together intentionally (for example, with an incense offering and bow), helps to remind us that we’re working together, even if we go off to different locations, and it helps to remind us that our work is an offering.

Next is cleaning up and caring for our tools. If we do a flurry of work and don’t leave time to care for our tools or clean up properly, we’ll come back to work the next time and won’t be able to begin well: perhaps we’ll end up having to look for something we’ve misplaced, or we’ll have a sour feeling seeing such a mess. It’s good to start each work session with our work area and tools in order. It’s also important to have a sense of finishing something before we go on to the next thing. Even if we don’t complete a task, we can try to bring it to a place that has the feeling of finishing. We have an opportunity to take a moment to consider where we have gotten to before moving on to something else, rather than just dropping one task and flying off to something else. This includes proper care and maintenance of our tools.

Work as Offering

Another form of work practice is work as giving, or work as love, or maybe simply, work as offering. This form of work practice is not as simple as work as meditation, and sometimes it’s not as relaxing. The essential characteristic of work as offering is not the how of the work—because there may be a variety of ways to accomplish the work depending on the situation. Here the crucial factor is the underlying attitude and purpose of the work. Our work is an offering: we are accomplishing it for the benefit of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—in other words, for the benefit of others. So work as offering is a kind of burning up of the self in the activity of work: just doing it completely without holding anything back. There’s no sense of an observer or of our “practicing” at all. There’s just doing what you do completely and with a good spirit.

In one Zen story Yun Yen asked Baizhang, “Every day there’s hard work to do. Who do you do it for?” Baizhang replied, “There’s someone who requires it.” Yun Yen asked, “Why not have him do it himself?” and Baizhang said, “He has no tools.” Who is that someone? We might say all beings, or reality itself, or Buddha, but none of these is quite accurate. Someone requires it and maybe it’s best to say we don’t know who that someone is. Why doesn’t this person do it herself? Because we are her tools. Our body, our mind, and our whole life are her tools. So we throw ourselves into our work with a lot of verve and joy.

In this kind of work there may be lots of planning and organizing and concern about how much money we make or how much work we get done. But the reason we are concerned about all this is not because we want to get rich or become famous or get a promotion- the reason is that we love the one who requires us to work and we want to do as good a job for that one as possible. So this kind of work is a little difficult and we have to take care of ourselves in the midst of it, but it is also very fascinating, because every task requires a different kind of effort and we need to discover the kind of effort that is appropriate. And we need always to reflect on our attitude and to see how we are doing. Complaining a lot or feeling like we’re working too hard or joylessly are signs that we’re forgetting to own our work—we’re sliding into a conventional view of work for pay or profit or promotion, a view that serves no one. It takes the joy out of work. It makes us feel pressured; it grinds us down. No amount of money and prestige justifies wasting our precious time, our precious life, doing something that isn’t important to us. We need to feel that we are choosing to work because a human being works for the one who requires it. This is what a human being does. Fish swim and birds fly; humans work. This is our life and our joy. When we make wholehearted offerings, we always receive more than we have given. We receive our freedom and our dignity.

The training that we do together through physical, intellectual, or creative work in places like the Austin Zen Center is important not only for us, but in a wider context as well. When we put our bodies and minds into work as mediation and as offering, while we may learn distinct skills—like cooking, cleaning, carpentry, gardening—we also learn how to work well with others, to appreciate the fulfillment of contribution, and we develop an attitude and an understanding of work that we will carry throughout our lives.

– adapted from a lecture by Zoketsu Norman Fischer at Green Dragon Temple, May 5, 1996.