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408px-representation_of_laozi“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.

Photo: Lao-Tzu

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gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.

In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.

Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.

For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (more…)

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Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows. (more…)

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25-10-16-adelchurch3aThe wisdom of the ages, some would contend, is lost on the young. Looking back on my own youthful follies, I’m inclined to agree. But if my thoughts and actions at the age of twenty sometimes lacked the component of wisdom, that lack cannot be blamed on my formal education. On the contrary, I was a student of English literature. I had read my Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.  And as it happened, on many a morning I was reminded of ancient wisdom in general and the brevity of life in particular. (more…)

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sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate. (more…)

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Hand on BibleIf you have ever testified in a court of law, you have sworn an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And as you may have discovered, that is a tall order. Even if we are trying our best to be honest, our best intentions may be at odds with imperfect memory, the slipperiness of language, and the inherent complexity of human affairs. “The whole truth,” if it exists at all, may be well beyond our comprehension or powers of expression.

In practicing Zen meditation, we also seek the whole truth, though our means are not primarily verbal. Rather than talk, we endeavor to realize ultimate truth through a variety of practices, one of the most essential being that of conscious breathing. Coming home to our breath, time and again, we embody the truth of our lives in general and three kinds of truth in particular. (more…)

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177. Fear and belief


“Nine out of ten people I talk with about retirement,” our family accountant remarked not long ago, “are afraid they will run out of money.” Most of his clients, he went on to explain, have sufficient resources to enjoy a secure if not affluent retirement, but that doesn’t keep them from believing otherwise or fearing future hardship.

The entangled relationship of fear and belief was one of the themes of a retreat I recently conducted at the Olean Meditation Center in Olean, New York. Around thirty people attended this retreat, whose aim was to explore how mindfulness might help us recognize, accept, and release our everyday fears. In this three-hour period we did not purport to address traumas or their aftermaths. That is the job of a qualified therapist. Nor were we attempting, in one Saturday morning, to allay such profound apprehensions as the fear of death. Rather, we had convened to examine whether, in the words of the Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, we might “turn toward our fears with warmth and compassion”. (more…)

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