Garden Buddha, by Robin Caster
If you have lived in America for the past two decades you have almost certainly been enjoined to take care. Among contemporary American expressions, that benign valediction ranks with Have a nice day in frequency of use, and it is often used in much the same way. What we are supposed to take care of is left unspecified, but that is beside the point. Take care of everything, the phrase might well be saying, until we meet again.
Zen teachings also admonish us to take care. In her book Mindfully Green, the environmentalist Stephanie Kaza provides a vivid example:
In Zen kitchens, students are trained in what is called “knife practice,” that is, how to take care of knives properly. First, this means noticing the properties of the knife while you are using it—its weight, its sharp edge, the way it feels in the hand, how it cuts. Then, when you’re done with the knife, it means washing and drying it immediately and putting it back in the chopping block to keep the knife safe. Doing this practice faithfully changes your relationship with knives. You are practicing caretaking as an investment in the well-being of things. This is the opposite of consuming things until they are gone. *
As here described, “knife practice” exemplifies conservation and ecological awareness. Taking care of our kitchen knives, we also take care of the planet Earth.
Knife practice is but one instance of samu, or work practice, which is as integral to Zen as sitting meditation. In Zen centers and monasteries, residents and guests alike devote at least an hour a day to caretaking: to scrubbing steps, cleaning bathrooms, chopping vegetables, and other mundane chores. As a practical matter, these daily labors keep the zendo clean and running smoothly. Beyond that, they train Zen students to “lower the mast of the ego,” respect the humblest pot or pail, and concentrate on one thing at a time. Performed in silence and with full awareness, work practice prompts the practitioner to examine conventional notions of low and high, menial and exalted labor. And as an embodiment of an ethic, it extends beyond the zendo into domestic life, where the same principle may be applied to the care of a house or garden, bicycle or car.
The ethical principle of “taking care” also extends beyond the care of material objects. Broadly interpreted, it includes the care of one’s body, mind, and heart, moment by moment, through the practice of meditation. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way:
To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that are happening around you. All meditation exercises are aimed at bringing you back to your true home, to yourself. Without restoring your peace and calm and helping the world restore peace and calm, you cannot go very far in the practice.**
In keeping with this admonition, Thich Nhat Hanh directs us to bring awareness to the parts of our bodies, moving systematically from the eyes to the lungs to the heart, and so on. In another exercise, we bring awareness to our sensations, noting whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And in another, we attend to our states of mind, including those of anxiety and anger. If we are experiencing the latter, we are urged to take care of it, as a parent might care for a crying child. Rather than vent or suppress our anger, we bring a gentle attention to its presence. By so doing, we allow its energies to disperse or to change into something more constructive.
The wisdom of Zen is not confined to arcane koans or ancient Chinese stories or the cryptic sayings of the masters. It also resides in everyday life—or, in this case, in the commonest of American expressions. So may I suggest that when you hear that expression, you regard it not as an empty cliché but as wise and timely advice. Let it remind you to take care.
*Stephanie Kaza, Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking (Shambhala 2008), 135.
**Thich Nhat Hanh, “This Is the Buddha’s Love,” an interview with Melvin McLeod, Shambhala Sun (2008), http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2882.
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