“Do your work,” wrote Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “then step back—the only path to peacefulness.” Sage advice in itself, this admonition also points toward two complementary practices in the Zen tradition. Undertaken individually, these practices can deepen and illuminate our everyday lives. Undertaken together, they can promote a wholesome balance of action and insight, engagement and contemplative awareness, enabling us to live more wisely.
Although the popular image of Zen practice—that of a monk sitting serenely in his robes—may suggest otherwise, work in general and physical activity in particular are important aspects of Zen discipline, second only to formal meditation. In Zen monastic training, the chores attendant to maintaining a monastery are known collectively as samu, or “work practice.” Whether the assigned chore be washing windows or vacuuming the meditation hall, chopping vegetables or planting a tree, one is expected to work in silence and to give wholehearted attention to the task at hand. However trivial that task may appear, Zen students are enjoined to afford it the utmost care: to wash a cup, for example, as if you were “bathing the baby Buddha.” Once acquired and absorbed, this attitude toward so-called menial work encourages a high standard of cleanliness and order. It erases illusory boundaries between “high” and “low” forms of labor, and it reinforces the habit of paying full attention to whatever one is doing. And, not least, it engenders a deep respect for such ordinary objects as mats and cushions, cups and bowls.
Beyond this revaluing of manual labor and its objects, Zen teachings also urge practitioners to examine the ethical dimensions of their jobs and professions, be they physical or intellectual in nature. For Zen monastics, who have voluntarily chosen a life of renunciation and selfless service, the moral and social value of the work they are doing may be self-evident. By contrast, for committed lay practitioners, who may need to reconcile the demands of Zen practice with those of a household and a full-time job, the ethical issue may be more complex. In either case, however, the underlying principle is that of “right livelihood,” one of the “folds,” as it were, of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Simply put, this principle calls upon us to assess whether our way of earning a living is harming others or contributing to the common good. Considered in this broader context, the admonition “Do your work” means not only to perform one’s duties with undivided attention and infinite care but also to choose work whose purpose is to help rather than exploit other people, replenish rather than deplete natural resources, and strengthen rather than corrode the social fabric.
Such, in brief, is the place of work in the Zen tradition. In my own experience the attitude and practice outlined above, applied to professional as well as household tasks, have more than proven their inherent worth. Yet, as Lao-Tzu reminds us, one can have too much of a good thing. And the other half of his prescription, namely to “step back,” is as essential to well-being as the practice of doing one’s work.
In Zen teachings this countervailing practice is known as “the backward step.” Its classical source is a revered, thirteenth-century text known as the Fukanzazenji (Recommending Zen to All People), in which Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) urges us to “stop chasing after words” and to take “the backward step that illuminates the self.” By so doing, Dogen explains, we allow “body and mind to drop away” and our “original face” to appear.
Here as elsewhere, Dogen’s language is opaque, but the practice he recommends is relatively straightforward. To take the backward step, we shift our orientation from doing to being. If we happen to be walking, we stop walking. If we are working, we stop working. And if we are thinking, we turn our attention from our transitory thoughts to our abiding awareness of those thoughts. The Tibetan master Sogyal Rinpoche has likened the mind having a thought to an open sky with a bird flying through it. By taking the backward step, we become the open sky. We rest in the spaciousness of pure awareness.
The backward step is no quick fix. Like other meditative techniques, it requires practice and commitment. But for those who persevere, this practice can afford relief from compulsive working. It can tame obsessive thinking. And, most important, it can foster empowering insights into our prevailing habits of mind, particularly the habits of harboring expectations and worrying about possible outcomes. Having learned to do our work and then step back, we can allow the future to unfold as it will. And should that occur, next week or years from now, we will indeed have set foot on the path to peacefulness.
Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 9. Translation by Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi (1938-2002), as recorded by Eiko Joshin Carolyn Atkinson in her book A Light in the Mind (Everyday Dharma Zen Center, 2010), 45.