On Zen Work


My talk on Zen Work, the recording goes into a bit more detail but the notes are pretty good, see especially the list of pointers for the work leader and the workers towards the end.

Baizang was the Zen Master famous for establishing the Zen monastic rule. He was always very insistent on working every day. When he was old he persisted in this, and the monks felt sorry for him so they hid his tools. He said, “I have no virtue. Why should others work for me?” And he refused to eat. He said, “A day of no work is a day of no eating.” This saying became very famous in Zen circles, and to this day the Zen schools are noted for their practice of work.

Once Yunyen asked Baizang, “Every day there’s hard work to do. Who do you do it for?” Pai Baizang said, “There is someone who requires it.”
Yunyen said, “Why not have him do it himself?”
Baizang said, “He has no tools.”

And the case we named our wonderful garden produce fundraiser from is about work:

Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
Xiushan said, “There’s extensive discussion.”
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”

Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”

Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”

Norman Fischer one time wrote:

If you really think about what work is you see that everything is work—being alive and in a body is already work. Every day there is eating and shitting and cleaning up. There is brushing and bathing and flossing. Every day there is thinking and caring and creating. So there’s no escape from work—it’s everywhere. For Zen students there’s no work time and leisure time; there’s just lifetime, daytime and nighttime. Work is something deep and dignified—it’s what we are born to do and what we feel most fulfilled in doing.Even within conventional notions of work there are a lot of kinds of work. There’s administrative work, clerical work, creative work, and emotional work. Clearly all these forms of work are important and useful, but in religious practice, especially in Zen, there is a special place given to physical work and the dignity of physical work.
And I really appreciate that when the community comes together hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, to work there is a really good feeling. When we put this place together 8 years ago it was amazing. The generosity that everyone who came shared was amazing. And it was interesting for me to see that for some people in our broader community work as practice seemed to be more important and accessible than zazen and our formal ways of being together. We saw people very regularly whom I wasn’t seeing that often at zazen meetings.

And lately we’ve been trying to keep the building clean and serviceable and we’ve been building the garden in back in bits and pieces of great effort and then lulls.

What I learned as a young man at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Centers about work was really valuable and these are lessons I’m still trying to develop. The simple idea of starting and stopping work at scheduled times is an incredible thing really. When the bell rings you start the work period, you get your assignment form the work leader, you work quietly, and when the bell rings you put away your tools and stop.

The radical difference between that and how we usually work is the focus is just on making effort for the allotted time. There is no “just one minute, let me just finish this up.” That impulse seems honorable on the face of it. We want to complete our tasks. And in many cases our tasks are for others so it seems like an act of generosity to insist on working a little longer, on trying a little harder to get something done.

But there is a cost – a huge cost – to that way of thinking. It turns the value of the work into the accomplishment of something. It puts all the energy into the result. And of course the result is basically and imagined and projected result, we don’t really know ever what the real result will be.

And when the emphasis is on the result is takes our energy away form appreciating the doing of the work. It makes the doing unimportant and only the accomplishment is important.

And then the mind is so darn good at adding more conditions to what constitutes accomplishment. On that track there are ways that we are always scrambling. That way of working undermines our stability.

Remember than in the 7 factors of enlightenment we have energy, joy, and also samadhi – mental stability or concentration. Working with an appreciation for the feeling and the moment of the doing of the work supports these factors. It also supports mindfulness practice, coming back to the many subtle feelings of the task at hand. And this way of working is a training in presence and being present for our lives.

Sometimes we look at work that needs doing and aversion arises. I felt that the other day. When we planted the garden on top of the back parking lot there were some horsetails growing in the cracks. We just dumped 20 yards of soil on top and started watering gently with our drip irrigation creating perfect conditions for a horse tail bonanza. I was looking at the way they’re taking over the other day and I felt anger arising. Why didn’t we get rid of those darn horsetails? We blew it. We’ll be forever pulling horsetails.

And then I was working during the work period of the retreat with Matt back there and he was expressing his joy at getting to work in a garden as we pulled the horsetails. And I remembered, that’s right! Work is work and work is a joy. Of course we can’t be utterly unrealistic with our time but in the end the horsetails are a gift. A way to explore our work and express our appreciation for this living planet.

So tonight we’ll go over the procedures for work in a little more detail and spend an hour cleaning and attending to the building. If it’s not too dark we could send a few people to the garden even.

A few pointers:

  1. It’s best if the work leader has some idea of the tasks needed ahead and has checked that tools and supplies are to hand
  2. the work meeting should be quite brief, and it’s a time for 99% communication from the work leader to the workers – if there is a lot of discussion needed something is a little off and can be looked at for next time
  3. it’s best if the work leader assigns people tasks – just take the tasks and match them up with people, it’s not a matter for preferences. It seems nice to have people volunteer but there can be some valuable learning in being assigned a task that you don’t want. Like my horsetails we can learn so much. The work leaders does need to be sensitive to people’s abilities – the assignment can be in the form of a question: “Can you clean the bathrooms?” and the workers need to know it’s okay to say “not with my back issues may I have another task”
  4. when working work steadily and quietly – only talk if it’s essential and about the task in front of you
  5. when the task is finished either find another one or ask the work leader for new work to do, the idea is that everyone works steadily the whole time. It is very bad form to be like “I finished the bathrooms I’ll get a cup of tea now” even thought that seems to make sense in the usual way of completion oriented working. Instead start wiping down the baseboards.
  6. it’s great if everyone starts looking at the temple and grounds as opportunities for working – and then if you finish a task and the work leader isn’t at hand you have already tucked into the back of your mind other work to do. And to really look around for work during the work period is an important practice of awareness. Seeing areas that are dirty or disorganized.
  7. organizing and sangha tasks like mailings and so on could happen during work periods – it doesn’t just have to be cleaning and weeding. the bet thing is to let the work leader know ahead if you have a task in mind and then the full form is that he assigns it to you. This is a little more complicated so we can just do our best.
  8. feel your body and work with your attention during work
  9. work vigorously but don’t rush during work.
  10. the signal to end work is a loud roll down on the clackers followed by one hit, work leader should do this downstairs first (in open back door if people are outside) and then in the zendo, all return to the lobby to bow out after work.

deep cleaning thoughts for this week:
put everything up downstairs and mop – 3 people, mop, towels to dry with
wipe all window sills and baseboards – 3 people, yellow rags
pull the books one section at a time and dust down the shelves, especially the top shelves – 2 people
take all the cushions on the front porch and whack/brush them off – 3 people (kyosakus!)
shoes off the shoe racks, damp yellow rags, wipe down and dry, shoes back on – 2 people

regular cleaning:
zendo dust mop – 1
altars – 1
vac stairs and downstairs ahead of mop crew- 1
vac/sweep entry and library- 1
bathrooms, esp downstairs shower- 1 or 2
trash/recycling/towels + trash, clean green, recycle down to alley- 1

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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