On Zen Work

by Norman Fischer

[The following article is reprinted from the Winter, 1997, Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and is based on a dharma talk delivered at Green Gulch Farm on May 5, 1996.]

Pai Chang was the Zen Master famous for establishing the Zen monastic rule. He was always very insistent on working every day. When he was old he persisted in this, and the monks felt sorry for him so they hid his tools. He said, "I have no virtue. Why should others work for me?" And he refused to eat. He said, "A day of no work is a day of no eating." This saying became very famous in Zen circles, and to this day the Zen schools are noted for their practice of work.

Once Yun Yen asked Pai Chang, "Every day there's hard work to do. Who do you do it for?" Pai Chang said, "There is someone who requires it." Yun Yen said, "Why not have him do it himself?" Pai Chang said, "He has no tools."

If you really think about what work is you see that everything is work—being alive and in a body is already work. Every day there is eating and shitting and cleaning up. There is brushing and bathing and flossing. Every day there is thinking and caring and creating. So there's no escape from work—it's everywhere. For Zen students there's no work time and leisure time; there's just lifetime, daytime and nighttime. 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 of work there are a lot of kinds of work. There's administrative work, clerical work, creative work, and emotional work. Clearly all these forms of work are important and useful, but in religious practice, especially in Zen, there is a special place given to physical work and the dignity of physical work.

I am a little embarrassed to be speaking about physical work because I don't do that much of it these days and haven't done that much of it throughout my life. When I was young I used to have very little use for it. But probably the most important thing I have learned in my years of Zen practice is to appreciate physical work and to honor it as a special practice. So even though I do not have great skills as a worker I hope I have a good spirit for work. Most of the physical work I do nowadays is housework—dishes and bed-making and taking out the garbage and compost and recycling. And I always enjoy our temple communal work times, hoeing together in the early mornings, or digging, or planting potatoes, or the long soji [temple cleaning] periods every month.

I think we are lucky at Green Gulch to have as much work as we do. 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 the members of a community don't have real work they need to accomplish together. When there's real physical work we struggle 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.

At Green Gulch we have good basic work—taking care of land, growing flowers and food that will actually be used by people, making good soil and a sustainable agriculture and horticulture. We also have the practice of cooking food and of cleaning up after cooking. And we have the practice of taking care of guests—making beds and cleaning the guest house, making spaces feel beautiful and warm. And we have the very fundamental work of stewardship of the physical plant—making sure the invisible things—like sewage and water—as well as the visible things—like buildings and walkways and cars and trucks—will be in working order when we need them. All these forms of work are really wonderful. We couldn't ask for more straightforward and meaningful work.

I recently gave a weekend poetry workshop at Green Gulch. One man, an older retired man who had lived a full life, was very moved by the weekend, but his being moved had nothing to do with the poetry. What moved him was the feeling he had about our community. He said he was so touched by the way the guest house was taken care of, the way the dining room was taken care of, the quality of the food, the way people treated him and seemed to treat each other. He had gone into the kitchen at midnight and found fresh bread there with butter, freely offered—this really impressed him! He said that after a whole lifetime of working within organizations he had become pretty cynical, that he'd seen many organizations begin with lots of idealism but very soon devolve into battles for turf and the usual pettiness and meanness, and he had the strong view that all organizations must be this way. So he was very surprised by his feeling that our organization was somehow different. I didn't bother to mention to him that we too have our turf battles and our pettiness, because our life here at Green Gulch is not so different from anywhere else. And yet I think there is something else that happens at Green Gulch that comes from our commitment to the bodhisattva path, a commitment that isn't just theoretical or emotional, but is grounded in the daily activity of our shared work.

I would like to distinguish between two modes of work practice. One is work as meditation and the other is work as giving, or work as love, or maybe simply, work as offering.

Work as meditation happens when the work you are doing is very simple and repetitive, and it can involve an actual meditation practice that you do as you are working—like being aware of your hands and feet, or of your tool as it moves, or of the rhythm of your movements in the work. Most physical work involves some sense of rhythm or timing. When you can enter into this timing and flow with it, you can work very efficiently and at the same time be very relaxed. You enter into something bigger than the thoughts inside your head or your distractions and complaints. Work as meditation can also involve periodic pauses during the work to recollect yourself—to go to your breath, or stop for a moment to come back to the present if your mind is wandering. In some of our work places we have the custom of striking a bell every now and then to bring us back. Just as in zazen, you can be aware of your mind as you work and keep trying to bring it back to the task at hand all the time, even when there is no bell or no special pause.

In this kind of work there isn't too much thinking or planning or conceptualizing. There's no worry about how much you are getting done, though you do try to do what you are doing efficiently and beautifully, without hurrying. This is the kind of work we do during work periods in sesshin or during soji periods. Not rushing to get the dishes washed or the compost buckets emptied so you can get onto the more important job, which is the way I used to view physical work before I began my Zen study, but just appreciating work for what it is—a thoroughgoing engagement with our life. We have a custom during our monastic training periods at Tassajara of assigning the cleaning of the toilets to the head monk. The head monk is a highly honored person in the practice period and assigning him or her this job is a way of saying that even this work, which may seem lowly, is special work when it is practiced in the spirit of meditation.

There are a few important ways to practice with this kind of work. One important way is silent work. When we work silently we put ourselves more fully into our actual working, with more clarity and with more gusto. Silent work isn't strictly silent. It's OK to talk about the task—where we put something, or where to get something, or how to do something, but 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.

Second, there is bowing in and bowing out. Beginning work together with incense and a bow really 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, we'll come back to work the next time and we won't be able to begin well. 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 every work session with our work space and tools in order. This can be hard to do—in fact it's one of my biggest problems in my personal work. I get confused and sidetracked and I don't leave things in a good state when I stop work, and this snowballs. But I am very clear about the consequences of this—it leaves me in an even bigger state of confusion. So I am working hard on this myself and it is definitely improving. It's important to have a sense that we have finished something before we go on to the next thing. Even if we can't finish a task, we can try to bring it to a place that has a feeling of finishing, to a particular stage, and we can take a moment at least to consider where we have gotten to before we go on to something else, rather than just dropping one task and flying off into something else. And this includes cleaning and maintaining our tools.

The second kind of work practice, work as giving or as offering, is not as simple as this kind of work and sometimes it's not so 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 any practice at all. There's just doing what you do completely with a good spirit.

This reminds me of the story about Pai Chang. We work hard because there is someone who requires it. Who is that someone? We can say all beings, we can say reality itself, we can say Buddha, but none of these is quite accurate. Someone requires it and maybe it is 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.

As some of you may know, I have been exploring the possibility of setting up a restaurant in the new shopping development in Marin City near Green Gulch. I believe this Zen approach to work is important for everyone, not just Zen students, and especially for people for whom the most creative jobs in our society are not an option. Social welfare people say that it’s not enough to get someone off dope or out of jail—they have to have hope—and this means a job. And the dream for this restaurant is that it would provide jobs for people in Marin City and eventually be owned and operated by people in Marin City.

But the truth is, just having a job isn't enough to give you true hope. A lot of ex-cons do get jobs but they end up going back to jail because although they have a job they don't have a vision for how to do that job in a way that makes it fulfilling. If you don't see how you can become fulfilled through your job, then it is natural that you will feel taken advantage of, and the job will become not a source of hope but another way for you to feel denigrated and exploited. I imagine a restaurant in which every worker can practice making an offering. When we make wholehearted offerings, we always receive more than we have given. We receive our freedom and our dignity.

The other day I drove by a garden under construction in Mill Valley. All of the men working in the garden were Hispanic. And it reminded me that in most of the Western world white people do the management and people of color do the physical work. I saw it in Israel when I visited there some years ago, and it is the case in many European countries as well.

Everyone loses in a situation like this. The managers begin to develop the idea that physical work is beneath them, and the physical workers begin to overlay their work with a sense of its inferiority. So the managers lose their bodies, and their connection to the actual tasks that support their lives. They become abstract and ideological, they become ungrounded. And the physical workers lose their sense of dignity and ownership of the work they do. Such a social situation can't be healthy. How can there be justice if management people can't understand or appreciate working people? And how can working people grow and develop if they don't have a sense of the dignity of their work?

The training that we do together through physical work in places like Green Gulch is important not only for us but in a wider context as well. As we learn distinct skills—like cooking, cleaning, bread-making, carpentry, plumbing, farming, gardening—we also learn to appreciate the beauty of physical work, and we develop an attitude and an understanding of work that we will carry throughout our lives.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, 1997

Norman Fischer is a Zen priest, a poet, and one of the abbots of San Francisco Zen Center. He lives with his wife in Muir Beach, California.

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