From Our Teacher

A Dharma Talk Given at Chapel Hill Zen Center

Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018

“What Is It That Must Be Done In Zen Practice?”

It is a great pleasure to be back at the Chapel Hill Zen Center and an honor to give the Dharma talk this morning.

This morning, I am going to talk about two stories from China. These stories provide a structure for me to speak about the question: what is that must be done in Zen practice?

The first story has to do with a monk named Hyakujo (Baizhang, Chinese). Hyakujo was one of the great Zen masters in Chinese history. Both stories that I’m going to speak about today are stories that I think many of you are familiar with. One of the great things about these stories is that if we put ourselves in the shoes of the person asking the questions, it’s possible to really make these stories our own. Hyakujo is well-known because he was the first man said to have formulated the standards for monastic life in China. At a certain time in Chinese history, the monks at Zen temples had to work to provide their food. They had to grow their own food, and consequently, work became an important part of their practice. This story about Hyakujo contains a well-known teaching attributed to him: “A day without working is a day without eating.”

In our meal sutras, we chant the words “We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us. We reflect on our virtue and practice and whether we are worthy of this offering.” Through the words in the meal chant, we are being asked to consider how the food we eat comes to us. Are we worthy to receive the offering of food we are going to eat? The Chinese character for rice can be read as “eight ten eight”, in other words, the number “88.” This is sometimes said to mean that it takes eighty-eight steps to bring rice to the table so that we can eat it. In other words, it takes a lot of work to grow and produce rice. In the monastic standards, it specifically mentions that physical work was an important element of practice; that all people in the monastic community were expected to come out and work, even the abbot of the monastery. However, as Hyakujo got older, his disciples became concerned about him. They thought, “He’s coming out every day with his hoe and helping to work in the fields, weeding the vegetables and so on. So, why don’t we hide his hoe? That way, he won’t have to work.” It may have been that Hyakujo was eighty years old. The monks’ plan sounded like a good idea but when Hyakujo came out the next morning, he couldn’t find his hoe. “Where’s my hoe?” he asked. And then he said, “If I can’t find my hoe, I’m not going to eat.” His disciples then thought, Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. They explained to him that they thought he was getting too old to work. But he said, “No. If I’m going to continue living and practicing here, I’m going to work in the garden.” So, they returned his hoe to him and he continued working, as he had been, in the vegetable fields. This was the origin of his teaching, “A day without working is a day without eating.”

I mention this story partly because in my own case, I lived for many years in a Japanese monastery and I’ve often thought about how important work is in the monastery. We had six or seven sesshin a year. And zazen was, of course, part of the daily schedule, especially during the angoor practice period. But there was also a lot of work to do. The environment surrounding the monastery was a little bit like Chapel Hill Zen Center with many trees, but there were more mountains. The monastery was surrounded on three sides by mountains. There was a lot of sweeping to do to keep the temple gardens neat and orderly, especially in the autumn. There was much wood that had to be chopped and carried and stacked. We used wood in two different ways. One was to boil water in the kitchen. This hot water was used both for cooking and for hot water pots that were used in each of the rooms where people lived to make tea and coffee and so forth. The bath water was also heated with wood. So, it was a big job to cut, chop, and carry the wood that was used for those fires. And then, we had a big vegetable garden. It was often my work to take care of the vegetable garden. We were busy in the vegetable garden from the end of February through December. In Fukui, where the monastery was located, the winter was not a harsh winter there, although sometimes there was a lot of snow. I think it might be like the winters you have here in Chapel Hill. The temperature rarely went below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit), so, we were able to grow two crops of vegetables every year. That was a lot of work and that was something I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed working. Of course, work doesn’t have to be physical. There is work as a teacher, as an administrator, and so forth.

One of the things I took away from monastic life in Japan was the value of physical work. A lot of the practice was with the body. For example, getting down on our knees and haunches and wiping the temple floors. The floors were not wiped with mops, but rather with rags. We would squat down near the bucket, take the rag, wring it out well, and get down and push it along the floor. I don’t know if there was any intention for this activity to be physical exercise, but certainly it was exercise. Simply to get down like that and wipe the floors requires a certain flexibility. We got good exercise that way and then there was all sorts of other work that had to be done. Westerners frequently came to the monastery and it wasn’t uncommon for them to ask, “Why is there so much work? Why isn’t there more zazen?  I thought zazen is what we’re supposed to do in the monastery.” And we would have to explain, “Well, we do have many sesshin throughout the year. And we do sit zazen every day, but we are also taught that working is zazen.” My teacher was fond of talking about Zen within stillness. That was what we were doing this morning, right? Sitting quietly. In fact, “za-Zen” literally means “sitting Zen.” So, it’s easy to think that sitting quietly is zazen. But there is also Zen within movement or activity. That’s weeding the garden, sweeping up and carrying the leaves, making compost, cutting and chopping wood, all the things including cooking that take place in the kitchen. Of course, it’s well known that in the monastery that there is all this work and the importance, of course, of cooking. In Dogen Zenji’s “Standards for Eiheiji Monastery,” one of the chapters is “Instructions for the Cook.” This was an important part of the monastic life and placed first in his book of monastic standards.

So, a day without working is a day without eating, I wanted to mention the importance of work.  Now, this is not a criticism, but rather an observation that here in the West, we have a tendency, I think, to try and get the teaching by reading and listening to podcasts and so on. As I often say, we need to hear the teaching. We must hear the teaching. And then, it is necessary to think about the teaching. And thinking is something that we can do while we are working. So, there is the importance of the body, of movement, of being one with work in Japanese practice that is also a big part of zazen. And it can be a big part of your life as well, that your work is Zen, regardless of whether you are doing physical work or work that requires thinking. That is Zen and to try to add something to it is extra.

One of the interesting things about this story “A day without working is a day without eating” is that these Chinese characters can also be read, “A day without doing what has to be done is a day without eating.” “A day without doing what has to be done…”, so this way of interpreting these characters makes it a broader statement, a broader teaching. Then, it isn’t just about physical work, although it can certainly be understood that way. And yet, Hyakujo’s statement can be understood to mean “Today, have I really done what has to be done?”

I lived for several years at City Center in San Francisco and often heard it said, “Just do the schedule.” This was said especially regarding the schedule at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where the schedule is quite strenuous. It’s even tougher, in some ways, than in a Japanese Zen monastery. My teacher liked to joke that Zen practice in America is even tougher than in Japan. That’s a good joke (laughter from the audience). He thought it was funny, because it’s easy for Americans to imagine that Zen practice in Japan is tough, and it is. But what we see here in America is that the schedule is often set. You get up at 4:00 am and go to bed at 9:00 pm, that that schedule is carved in stone. I often thought when I was training at Hosshinji that every day the schedule was different. The schedule was constantly changing, and the way that could work was that we had great trust in our teacher. We simply did what we were told to do. It wasn’t “Why are we doing it like this?” which isn’t to say that that question didn’t arise from time to time, but we just went along with the changes that were made. One day the wake-up bell was at 5:00 am, the next day it was at 6:00 am, the next day at 4:00 am, and so forth. In any event, Hyakujo’s statement can be formulated this way. Is there something that needs to be done apart from the daily monastic schedule? In the zendo, we hear the bells: three bells for the beginning of a period of zazen, two bells for kinhin, one bell for the end of kinhin or perhaps there is a Dharma talk, and so on. But what must be done beyond the schedule? What is Zen practice beyond what we are told to do or what we are expected to do?

We hear the teaching “A day without working is a day without eating” or “A day without doing what has to be done is a day without eating” (“Ichinichi nasazareba, ichinichi kuwazu”), what is the purpose of Zen practice that allows us to eat? When I was in Asheville with my family, my nephew asked me, “Well, what are you going to talk about at Great Tree Zen Temple?” I mentioned that I was thinking of talking about the Chinese story of “A day of not working is a day without eating,” and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ve been working since I was sixteen years old.” For him, of course, if he doesn’t work, he also doesn’t eat. The conversation quickly went elsewhere.

The second story I would like to speak about is also a well-known Chinese story, “Everyday mind is the Way.” I’d like to speak about this story in the context of “What is it that has to be done every day?” This story, as many of such stories, involves the student and the teacher. The student, in this case, was a man named Joshu (Zhaozhou, Chinese). He later became, like Hyakujo, one of the all-time great Zen teachers in ninth-century China. However, in this story, he was a student. Maybe like you guys. Maybe like me. He wasn’t sure about practice or the teaching. So, he asked his teacher, Nansen, “What is the Way?” I’m sure many of you are familiar with this story. We can understand this to mean, What is the way of Buddha? What is the way of liberation? Please tell me, Joshu said. What is the way of enlightenment? If you’ve ever had a question like one of these, imagine that you are asking the master. Don’t just think of this as a story about Joshu, as if it were only his story. It could also be your story. We must have the confidence that we can also be Joshu because in some very basic sense there is no difference between you and Joshu. And Nansen said – a very famous answer – “Everyday mind is the Way.” Your everyday, ordinary mind, that’s the Way. The trouble with these great teachings, I think, is that we can get stuck there. It’s quite easy to say, “Oh, yeah, everyday, ordinary mind, of course, that’s the Way. Whatever I do, that’s the Way. He said it, they said it, Nansen said it. I’ve read it.” This is the same with a teaching like “Beginner’s mind”, which I know in the San Francisco Zen center lineage is often spoken of. It’s very easy to think, “Yeah, I know what ‘beginner’s mind’ is.” But these stories, these teachings of the Zen masters are really pointing to something that we cannot perceive. If we think, “I’m going to do this with beginner’s mind,” already that’s not beginner’s mind. The instant we think, “Everyday mind is the Way,” that isn’t everyday mind. And this is a problem. We often don’t realize that these words are pointing to a world that is completely empty and before thought, and that those people who have transmitted the Way have really made “everyday mind is the Way” their own. Consequently, they have let go of those words, that teaching. They have realized, as we often say in Zen, that these teachings are simply fingers pointing at the moon.

And Joshu, when he heard Nansen’s answer, he thought about that, Hmmm…. everyday mind is the Way. Well, why don’t I know that? Maybe he thought that. Or, How can greed, anger, and ignorance, how can those things be the Way? Greed, anger, and ignorance are also part of everyday life, so how can those things be the Way? Certainly, Joshu thought of many things and finally he was compelled to ask another question. And that question was, “How can I find the Way?” This is a likely question. He had that question, “What is the Way?” And now, “You’re telling me that ‘everyday mind is the Way,’ but how can I really find it?” And, the teacher gave him a surprising answer, he said, “If you try to find the Way, you will only get further away from it.” In other words, if you have some idea of the Way – let’s say you’ve got some books about Zen at home; we all do, right? – and we’ve read these books and have some idea of what the Way is, if we have some conceptual understanding of the Way and try to practice like this, Nansen is saying we will only get further and further away from it. Nansen is saying, “You are already in the Way. Your whole life itself is the Way. If you try to find it, you’ll go in the wrong direction.”

This had to be confusing for Joshu, the person asking these questions. He was certainly an earnest young man, said to be very young when this story took place. Who knows how long he thought about that answer? When we read about these stories, it may seem as if the questions and answers happened instantaneously, but it’s likely that he thought about that answer for some time. And then, at a certain point, he was compelled to ask another question, “Well, if I look for the Way and I simply get further and further away from it, how am I ever going to make the Way my own?” And Nansen gave a very famous answer, “The Way is neither knowing nor not knowing. Knowing is delusion, not knowing is indifference. When you reach that place that is beyond doubt. You will find that it is as vast as outer space. How, then, can [the Way] be talked about in terms of right and wrong?” And this was the condition by which Joshu awakened. In that instant, he really made the Way his own. And in that instant, both Joshu and the Way disappeared.

As human beings, we can think of either the past or the future. It is simply not possible for us to think about what is happening in the moment now, what we call “now.” That may seem puzzling. “I’m having a good time now” or not, that’s how we usually think about the present moment. But according to the Buddhist teaching, the instant we perceive the moment now, it’s already gone. And the more we know from modern psychology, there is a gap between what we perceive and that actual experience of something. Whatever we perceive is no longer there. [Daigaku claps his hands.] “He’s clapping his hands,” by the time you perceive that sound, the sound is no longer there. But, as I was saying earlier, if we perceive “Everyday mind”, from our point of view, from the ego’s point of view, then it’s very easy to think, “Oh yeah, everything is fine as it is. I’ll just do things as they have to be done.” There are well-known Zen teachings like “nothing to realize, nothing to attain.” You might think, “That’s the condition of ‘everyday mind.’” But if we perceive these teachings in this way, if we perceive “everyday mind”, then we are creating a wall between the self and the way things are. In fact, it’s the self that is creating that wall, and then, that wall becomes even more important to you than what the teaching is pointing at. We get stuck holding onto or looking at the teaching and that becomes a barrier. Zen practice is really a matter of becoming the Way by grinding it up, by bringing an end to what is called “seeking mind.” Nansen’s teaching “Everyday mind is the Way” is telling us not to look for the Way outside of our everyday life. That our everyday life itself is the Way. And yet, we must take this one step further, otherwise, it’s very easy to create a barrier which prevents us from realizing the Way. Joshu, on the other hand, was able, because of his questioning mind, to realize the Way.

Dogen Zenji, in the “Bendowa” chapter of the Shobogenzo, wrote, “For Buddhists, it is not a matter of debating the superiority or inferiority of a teaching or of choosing between the depth or shallowness of someone’s understanding. All we must know is whether our practice is genuine or not.” This is another way of expressing this matter of what it is in practice that must be done. What is the nature of our practice? Whether it is sitting in stillness or whether it is in activity, what is it that must be done? That’s the question I would like to leave you with.

In my lineage, we have an important teaching: zazen is zazen. It’s possible to find this teaching in only one or two places in the Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji’s great masterwork. “Zazen is zazen;” that zazen, whether in stillness or in activity, is to be the thing itself. If “I’m” doing zazen, if I’m sitting, I’m working, I’m sweeping, that’s two things. Zazen is zazen. This points to the underlying oneness of all things, that our practice is really to eliminate that sense of separation between the self and other things. That our practice is to forget the self. That is the place where everyday mind is the Way, that place where the ego cannot enter, cannot interfere, cannot impose its own ideas of the way it thinks things should or should not be. So, we must make that effort to investigate the Zen teaching, “A day without doing what has to be done is a day without eating.” What is it that must be done? Everyday mind is the Way, what does that mean? To really study the self with those questions is, I believe, what Zen practice is all about.

Thanks so much for listening.

Daigaku Rumme´, November 2018