Filed in Zen (Chan)

Participate Fully

Janet Jiryu Abels

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When we just function, just act, just work, with no idea of a “me” that is functioning or acting or working, the dharma is fully expressed, for then there is no separation. Although things are accomplished in the relative sense (cause and effect), there are no results in the absolute sense (no cause and no effect), for functioning is simply the pure expression of that which we call “it” or “thusness.” This is one of the most difficult truths to grasp, much less to carry out, and it is why work practice is such an essential part of Zen training. Work practice periods are built into the daily structure of all Zen centers and are an integral part of all meditation retreats not merely because they are practical but because they help practitioners live and function in the world with a still mind, detached from placing meanings of greater or less importance on any one thing. Zen is not limited to the meditation mat; Zen is sweeping, cooking, and cleaning as well, and work practice offers us the opportunity to practice this regularly in the zendo setting so that we can then extend such mindful practice into our daily lives.

How do you view work practice? Is it a duty to be performed at the end of a sitting session? How do you view work? Is it a burden for you in one way or another, something to be endured until you can escape into the relief of the evening, the weekend, or the meditation mat? Are the daily chores around your home seeming impediments that keep you from more “interesting” pursuits? Do you undertake such chores with a heavy sigh, postpone them as much as possible, carry them out in a sloppy way? If so, the 8th-century Chan master Guishan was addressing you when he said, “Beware of spending a lifetime in vain; later regrets are useless.” Work and home chores are the Way. Pay attention! The place to begin seeing work and chores in this new light is at the zendo, to participate fully when work practice is assigned. Cleaning the bathroom or chopping the onions is no less important than sitting in deep meditation. Grasping this and acting on it is called waking up.

From Making Zen Your Own by Janet Jiryu Abels © 2012. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications, www.wisdompubs.org.

Illustration by Mike Taylor

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rbculises's picture

Today, my wife and I were doing something: we were waiting for my mother in Law. I thought I have to rush to do some translation and to do something else. I did not want to be in the car, my mind was split in two. A light just crossed my mind: if I am not able to enjoy this very moment, just seated next to my wife, I will not be able to enjoy the other time when I will be translating. In my mind translating time was more important than waiting time. Both of them are equally important. I became joyful and happy after I realized that I was not being at once.

najiali's picture

Thanks for this reminder on mindfulness in the work place. Ironically, I work in a soup kitchen and often find that chopping onions, sweeping the courtyard, washing the sidewalk and cleaning the bathrooms to be as important as serving the guests that come to eat.

Shae's picture

While the focus of this is on housework, I can apply this to my two jobs. My first job, which is more career oriented and looks better on my resume to get me where I need to be in the future, is full of mindfulness in environmental sustainability and recycling in the community. My second job, the one that is just there to "pay the bills", is one I work with on autopilot half the time. My second job is in the restaurant industry, and on the nights you get really busy with 10 different things and 10 different people trying to get your attention all at once can be difficult to be fully in the moment with each situation. There's a lot of multitasking, a lot of automatic action you do to get things done quickly. It doesn't often give you time to really focus on yourself, and makes you into a worker drone who does what is requested with no individuality put into it.

I have been trying to be mindful in my restaurant job more. I've noticed when I put my full focus into one table in that very moment, making sure each detail is perfect with *that* table, the experience is better for everyone all around because they feel I really *am* there to serve them and also get to know them a little bit, unlike any other ordinary server who just goes through the routines of getting through their shift for the night. I've noticed while being mindful I don't have as many little mistakes as forgetting certain items in a menu anymore, because I take the time to be fully present with listening, writing down, and understanding customers.

I can see where it can be applied to housework. When you focus on the little details, you do a better job of being fully in the moment and doing what needs to be done in the moment without getting distracted by another task. It's nice to be flexible with multitasking every now and then, but I do agree you do so much better with absolutely *anything* when you bring your focus to that thing in the moment.

Great wisdom this morning!

rbculises's picture

Today, my wife and I were doing something: we were waiting for my mother in Law. I thought I have to rush to do some translation and to do something else. I did not want to be in the car, my mind was split in two. A light just crossed my mind: if I am not able to enjoy this very moment, just seated next to my wife, I will not be able to enjoy the other time when I will be translating. In my mind translating time was more important than waiting time. Both of them are equally important. I became joyful and happy after I realized that I was not being at once.

bluesharper's picture

hmmm... i think the original admonition to work was "who does not work, does not eat". this was for monks who just sat around and meditated. in today's world, people pay for retreats. they pay with money that typically has been earned through work. i don't know anyone who works, manages a home and/or raises children who needs work sessions during a retreat. that's why it's called a retreat. we are mostly lay persons. there are ample opportunities to practice during work that a monk doesn't have to deal with. there may be practical reasons for shared or assigned work, but it's strange that one should pay to work. ie: if one has paid for food service, no one should not be required to do the dishes just to make up work. exercise would be more useful in today's sedentary world and would be of more benefit for bodies that are sitting a lot. changes in life should be reflected in changes in retreats.

patrice16953's picture

I believe this philosophy is not limited to Zen. I have experienced exactly the same teachings in many a Shambhala retreat and its basic teachings. perhaps this concept is part of basic Buddhism?

drurypbrennan's picture

To a great extent I believe I owe what little cultivated awareness I possess to a summer job I held in Aspen, CO two years ago. I was hired on as a ceramics tech and I.T person at a big arts facility there, but more often than not my main duties were helping out the groundskeeper with heavy gardening, cleaning and light construction work. One of our first big jobs was to power-wash and refinish a giant redwood deck, we're talking hundreds of boards. I remember being daunted by the task, but when my manager started to use the power sprayer, he applied the water to the boards not unlike a dancer, rocking gently back and forth , going board by board and being fully present for the task at hand. I had never seen anything like this before, and also, if we didn't focus and power-wash smoothly, we'd leave uneven discolorations in the wood which would also emerge in the finished product. I became in love with power-washing this deck, I had never realized that anything you do with selfless focus becomes great, no matter who or what rewards you. It is from cleaning that we realize almost all the important points of a cultivated awareness: details, even if no one notices them, are wonderful; doing a great job is reward in itself; it is oftentimes the quietest people who are pulling the heavy loads to make other things seem effortless, but it's not a question of thanks or no thanks, it's a question of have you ever danced with a power-washer in the mid-afternoon? :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off." The Karate Kid (1984)

steveien's picture

Interesting article ^_^ thanks!... May I enquire as to peoples thoughts about a matter I have experience with... what of the phenomenon of inequality within this environment? I mean to say the exploitation and ignorance that occurs and I see being used frequently in a sanghic setting myself (not to say all sanghas do, but do we not have a buddhist duty to protect our borders maturely, especially as leaders). It seems many leaders or junior leaders are not aware of the nature or consequentiality of their own behaviours, and will not maturely and openly allow the topic to be addressed righteously and freely expressed. Once lazy leadership occurs a chain of unfortunate evens ensues. Sadly exploitative people will not partake in the duty of lessers, many will feign conditions to gain an unseen social status which many innocent newbies will be to kind to consider possible in their new setting. Thoughts please dear friends ^_^ Steve

peterpowers's picture

The rest of the world may or may not need fixing--my own conduct is the important issue.

bluesharper's picture

that has been my experience as well.