If your waking hours are anything like mine, many if not most are spent in attending to ordinary things. Although you might wish to be contemplating the meaning of life or encountering something out of the ordinary, groceries need to be bought and e-mails answered. Bills need to be paid. Whatever your spiritual aspirations, ordinary life assumes the foreground.
At first glance, Zen practice might seem a welcome escape from the daily round. At its deeper levels, Zen is indeed concerned with the alleviation of suffering, the cultivation of compassionate wisdom, and the “Great Matter” of life and death. Cloistered in their mountain monasteries or secluded in their urban centers, Zen masters and their disciples may appear to have risen above the quotidian fray and to have transcended the concerns of everyday life.
In practice, however, Zen practitioners are as engaged as anyone else with the common life, if not more so. “My miraculous power and spiritual activity,” wrote Layman P’ang, an 8th-century Buddhist practitioner, “drawing water and carrying wood.” More recently, in her poem “A Cedary Fragrance,” the poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield recalls her three-year residency at Tassajara Monastery: “Even now, / decades after,” she reports, “I wash my face in cold water.”* What action could be more ordinary, one might ask, or more enmeshed in everyday life? “Zen,” an old Zen saying reminds us, “is picking up your coat from the floor and hanging it up.”
This emphasis on ordinary things and common actions, so conspicuous in the literature of Zen, may be partly a matter of convention, but it is also grounded in Zen teachings, particularly those pertaining to the ethic of care-taking, the practice of non-discrimination, and the aspiration to enlightenment. In ways not immediately apparent, acts as seemingly trivial as picking up one’s coat support those long-term aims.
Years ago, when I was preparing for my first stay at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills, I called ahead to ask what I should bring with me. “Expendable work clothes,” a resident monk replied. And upon arriving, I understood the relevance of his advice. Dai Bosatsu Zendo, like most Zen centers and monasteries, exudes a spirit of cleanliness and order. Windows have been washed, mats and cushions vacuumed, stair steps scrubbed by hand. Cups, bowls, incense sticks, and other functional objects have been meticulously placed, with ample space around them. By their quiet presence, those objects reflect the mindfulness of the residents and their abiding attention to ordinary things. By treating their surroundings in this way, Zen practitioners cultivate an attitude of respect and a habit of wholehearted regard.
Beyond that, “work practice,” as it is called, serves a deeper purpose in Zen training. Whether as monastics or as lay practitioners like myself, Zen students are encouraged to cultivate the “wisdom of non-discrimination,” which is to say, to set aside such conventional dualities as “high” and “low,” “worldly” and “unworldly,” and “sacred” and “profane.” In Zen teachings, if not always in practice, raking sand and managing a complex budget, cleaning toilets and studying sutras are deemed to be equally important activities. Distinctions between manual and intellectual, blue-collar and white-collar labor do not apply. By recognizing the illusory and relative nature of those concepts, we can fully embrace whatever task we might be performing, however menial or distasteful. In Jane Hirshfield’s words, we can choose to “make the unwanted wanted,” infusing new life into a conventionally devalued chore.
By so doing, we can also strengthen an aspiration toward enlightenment, which for the Zen practitioner resides in everyday life. To give full attention to one’s work is a virtue in itself, but in the context of Zen practice, it is also a way of opening our minds to a reality masked by ordinary thought. According to Zen teachings, common objects, deeply regarded, can reveal the impermanence and interdependence of all conditioned things. A cup is indeed a cup, but it is also an event in the selfless, dynamic web of life. By caring for that cup, and by looking deeply into its impermanent nature, we can free ourselves from the habit of grasping, having realized that ultimately there is nothing substantial to grasp. And by stopping to contemplate both the cup and the “non-cup” elements–soil, water, air, the labors of a potter–of which it is made, we can penetrate the illusion of separateness, which divides subject from object and the mind from the material world. Should that realization occur, suddenly or gradually, ordinary things will no longer be merely ordinary, nor our labor merely labor.
* Jane Hirshfield, “A Cedary Fragrance”
Photo by Michael Dougan