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Work and Practice

This being a center for lay practice, everybody here has a day job.  As part of our practice, we're working with the relationship between what happens in the zendo and what happens in the rest of our life. And even Claire, who is the closest thing we have to a full timer, has to go out and independently make a living. I think the other day when she was talking about her looking for a job, it got me thinking about the relationship of practice to work and how that has gone through such different, very distinct phases over the course of the development of Buddhism. 

In Buddha's day, to practice meant to be a monk, and to be a monk meant to be a mendicant. It meant that you had no fixed abode, that you went out on a begging round every day into the community, and that traditionally, nothing was saved for the next day. Every day you took only as much as you  would eat that day, and you would have to go out and do it all over again the next day. The patch robe, kesas, monk's robes, in those days were traditionally made from discarded burial shrouds, and everything was meant to show the total contingency of your life, that the way of life was a model of impermanence, of the dharma itself. Now to do that takes a whole culture to support it. Buddhists would have hundreds, maybe thousands of followers, all of whom would go on begging rounds together from town to town and be supported by the community, because mendicant monks had a particular relationship to their surroundings: the begging kept the monks from living in some ivory tower, retreating to a special spiritual life of practice. They were dependent on the community and had to go back to it every day, and in turn they brought something of their practice to the community around them, and their lives and their presence were a reminder of the dharma to those who gave to them. So there was a kind of symbiosis, and a distinct role that was being enacted by living that kind of life in that culture. If you do that today, you're not a mendicant monk, you're just a homeless person, and you occupy a very different niche in the social fabric. We have no cultural model for people going around begging for their livelihood.

Some years back, one teacher, Bernie Glassman, used to try to run street sesshins where he had people basically try to live the life of homeless mendicants on the streets of New York for a few days or a week. It's an intense experience, but in a certain sense it's play-acting, because there's no role for that in this culture. when Buddhism went to China, a great transformation took place: for the first time monks were organised into communities, at the monastery, with a fixed abode, a fixed way of life, with fixed rules for monastic living. He settled them down in one place instead of having them be wandering beggars. And in that model, the monastery became a self-sufficient farming community in which everybody worked and monks went from being mendicants to being manual laborers.

Part of the transformation also in zen was the notion that what was being transmitted was direct and immediate, and that the work itself, the daily activity, was the practice. What was transmitted was not to be found in the sutras and was not to be in intellectual activity, but was to be found in the immediacy of chopping wood and carrying water. And throughout the history of zen there's been a kind of valorization of manual labor at the expense almost of intellectual work, precisely because there was a sense that the intellectual became detached,  stuck in conceptualization, lost to the immediacy that's available to those who do direct manual labor. A certain romanticization going on there I think, but one that carried over to American zen practice, where work practice, which usually meant doing a lot of what most people thought of as menial work, was a mode of focusing attention. That became enshrined as a big part of sesshin activity or community life.

The monasteries though were really probably very rarely self-supporting the way that the ideal model made it look like. There may have been monasteries that really went deep into the mountain   and communities that were self sufficient but also they were very dependent on wealthy patrons. And there's also then a disconnect between the image we have of a community and what's actually supporting it and making it possible. I always think of the iconic story of Bodhidharma refusing the patronage of the emperor and going to sit facing the wall in a cave for nine years, waiting for a true disciple to show up. Well, the cave was apparently a cave on the precinct a monastery so he was connected to a community and somebody was bringing him that bowl of rice very day, you know. You don't know who's creating the environment that allows somebody to face the wall for nine years, but somebody's doing it.

The next transformation in livelihood I think occurred when zen rook root in Japan, and then the model seemed much more to be the model of the temple as much as the model of the monastery. There were certainly still mountain monasteries that were independent, or seeming to be, in the Chinese model, but I think that what happened in Japan is that the communities got reintegrated through temple life into the community and zen monks typically supported themselves by doing services, usually funeral services, for the community and so they had much more of a parish church quality to them. And that's something that by and large doesn't happen much in America. When we transplant Buddhism here we're not typically transplanting it into whole Buddhist communities. People may turn to Buddhist teachers for weddings and the occasional funeral, but it's not an on-going week after week kind of livelihood that provides the support of the temple, and very few teachers really are fully occupied in the role of being a priest. In fact, a big  controversy in American zen now is what does it mean to be ordained and be a priest when so much of priestly function is absent and in a certain sense is reduced to a few ritual roles within the community and the temple itself.

It got me thinking when Claire talked about working as a personal assistant and thinking about the role of manual work and the community of zazen - I think the practice side of all that comes down to paying attention to what aspect of life are we most inclined to split off - a personal assistant in a sense is by definition a person who does all the things that somebody doesn't want to do and doesn't have time to do - taking care of  the bills, the organization, maybe the shopping, maybe the cleaning - sometimes the money. All the things that somebody has decided is not central/essential to who they are. Then there are obviously a lot of ways  in which it's sensible and practical for people to specialize in their lives, but we could say the nature of practice, particularly in sesshin and in community, is to have everybody do all the things they normally split off. In the early days, particularly when the zendos were filled with men, it was great to get them to do all the cooking and cleaning, that was usually delegated to women. I know I've certainly heard women tell me that it was no great practice to tell them to come and wash the bathroom - they had to do that at home all the time. But to get the men to learn how to scrub a toilet, you know - that took some doing, it was real practice.

I think work practice within a community like that functions as practice when it's having us pay attention and reintegrate things we that normally split off from our lives. Paradoxically, a lot of us now split off the intellectual as much as other people split off manual labor, and I think that in koan class we try to get people to engage with literature, and history, and tradition in a way that a lot of people have split off and don't bother with. A lot of people will approach koans as something that, well, that's you know, complicated esoteric stuff that doesn't speak to me. I don't really want to figure out what all those obscure texts were about. So we tend to split off the responsibility of study, a real intellectual understanding, so we try to reintegrate that when we can.

I'm much less inclined to feel that people need to in sesshin just re-own the physical pain but the part of that that really matters was getting people to pay attention to what they ordinarily don't pay attention to. I remember years ago after a sesshin in San Diego when Joko asked students to think about how did practice change their life, the one memorable comment one person made was "well, since I started practicing, my apartment is much cleaner." People often have that experience of going home and taking care of, paying attention, doing the things at home they were only doing in sesshin, that they learned to do in sesshin.  It's one thing to think you're cultivating compassion in the zendo and it's another thing to go home and be the one who does the dishes. And again, particularly if you're the man in the house.

It's also true that what is split off so much in our awareness about work and community is the issue of money, and where it comes from. You know in the meal chant, we say, "72 labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us." That's certainly true of the zendo and practice and everything about it - we should know how it comes to us. I've always tried to make this place self sufficient in the sense of being supported by the dues and sesshin fees of the members; that's very much not the model of most zen communities, which are very much dependent on big donors. I really don't like that model very much although I know that it's probably a necessity if you're running a place like the San Francisco Zen Center. We try to stay small, keep it modest, maintain as low overhead as possible so that what this is is what we as individuals can afford to make it be. And our biggest, really our only expense, is our rent, and we really just try to get everybody who comes to pay dues sufficient to pay the rent. We should stay mindful when we look around the room and see how many people are here and do some simple arithmetic, and understand what it takes to keep a place like this open - just a few dozen people.

I don't mean this to be a fund-raising talk, but that's what we split off when we need to think about  bills. Practice really is about breaking down the compartmentalization that we ordinarily have - whether it's splitting off our relationship to manual labor, or splitting off our relationship to our emotions, splitting off our relationship to money, or splitting off our relationship or responsibilities to one another. When we think about work practice we should think in terms of putting all those things back together into one whole.