Zazen: The Incredibly Difficult Practice of Not-Doing

Zazen: The Incredibly Difficult Practice of Not-Doing

Our practice of zazen is also known as shikantaza, a Japanese term that can be translated as “nothing but precisely sitting.” The whole point is to just sit there. Doing nothing. A practice of not-doing.

This is so difficult for us, we can hardly even conceive of it. Instead, we imagine we are supposed to sit there meditating. We’re supposed to concentrate, or be aware of this moment, or something. Anything. Anything but really, really doing nothing.

When I settle into my morning zazen at home, I sometimes try to inspire myself by inviting myself not to meditate. Without even realizing it, I will have taken the seated position and started to do this practice of shikantaza. Then my mind will wander and I’ll think about how I’m not sitting zazen very well, and the whole thing will feel off. Laughing inwardly, then, I’ll remind myself I don’t have to do anything. Just relax and sit there!

For a moment, just sitting there, the whole universe opens up. I’m awake. I’m here. I’m appreciative, intimate, dependently co-arising with everything. My embrace of my life, momentarily, is no longer contingent on this and that. So simple!

Then I’m off again, thinking about things. Often thinking about meditation and practice, ironically.

Or am I really “off again?” Who is “off again?” Who is me? Am I only my self-consciousness, the part that is aware of, “I’m sitting?” Am I not my body as well, which through all of my mind wanderings, continues to patiently just sit?

Still, it’s nice to wholeheartedly sit – to mentally and volitionally just sit, as well as physically just sit. As expedient means, therefore, we “practice not-doing.” A practice is something we do, although paradoxically, in this case, our practice is not-doing. Because human beings are so attached to doing, this is a clever way to get us committed to zazen.

How do you practice not-doing? Basically, you use whatever technique you can find that convinces you, or allows you, to stop doing. You might do as I do, and invite yourself to relax. Or you might remind yourself there’s absolutely no legitimate reason you have to think about all that stuff during the 20-30 minutes you’re sitting zazen; you’ll have plenty of time to think later. (If you really need to think about something that badly, you shouldn’t be meditating!) Or you might try to imitate a cat when it’s just sitting there, alert and watching everything, but just letting time go by.

Another classic way to practice not-doing is to gently follow your breath. This is a good way to sustain not-doing for more than a moment – but it’s important, from the perspective of shikantaza, that you don’t make following your breath into doing! Instead, you settle into not-doing, and because you’re not doing anything else, you can follow your breath. Okay, it’s a little bit of “doing,” but it’s a relative tiny and simple “doing.” You might even want to count exhalations 1-10, and then start back at one.

Sometimes beginners are taught breath following or counting as a way to learn to do zazen. If this works for you, great. For many of us, however, we actually have to gradually grope our way towards not-doing in a less straightforward way before we can follow or count the breath! It’s taken me 20 years of diligent sitting practice to be able to reliably count my breaths 1-10 and start back at one. This isn’t because it’s taken me 20 years to develop a skill, or 20 years to figure out how to do zazen! It’s because I’m really attached to doing, and it’s taken me 20 years to let go enough – to be still, simple, and spacious enough – to allow my breathing to be the most exciting thing that’s going on.

Whichever gateway into not-doing works for you – concentration or relaxation – the process of finding that gateway, entering it, and learning what it really means to not-do, is itself the beauty of practice. We continue to learn how to “do” zazen our entire lives.

Missing Kyogen Carlson and His Dharma

Missing Kyogen Carlson and His Dharma

[I wrote this short essay in 2015; Kyogen Carlson passed away Sept. 18th, 2014, and we held our Founder’s Memorial ceremony for him last weekend.]

At my Zen Center last Sunday we read and discussed a beautiful teaching from Kyogen Carlson, one of my Zen teachers. It was from the chapter “Dharma Realm” in a little booklet Kyogen wrote called Zen Roots. I called this excerpt “Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha.” We lost Kyogen suddenly last September to a heart attack, and rediscovering this teaching from him made me miss him terribly.

It isn’t so much that I miss him personally, in the sense of regular interactions, although he was generally a fun and interesting person to be around. Since I completed my junior priest training I had not seen Kyogen that often, so I can’t claim to be one of the many people directly impacted by his absence on a daily basis.

What I felt profoundly this last weekend was a longing for his Dharma. This “Dharma” includes his teaching, or his unique way of understanding and expressing Buddhism, Zen, and practice. However, that’s only part of it, because I had that aspect of his Dharma when I was holding his written teaching in my hands. The part that was missing was his living testimonial to the truth and reality of those teachings. His posture, his eyes, his physical expression that grounded the teaching in front of you in a provocative, encouraging, and indisputable way.

Anyone can write or speak teachings that sound pretty good. They may resonate with us, challenge us, or inspire us. But just because they sound good doesn’t mean they are true or effective, and just because we like them doesn’t mean we understand them. And then sometimes we don’t like teachings and we want to avoid them.

Then we encounter a true teacher like Kyogen – someone who verified for himself, through direct experience, what he taught. And someone who had achieved the spiritual maturity to abide peacefully in his understanding without needing to convince or convert others in an effort to feel more secure. Such a teacher gives you the opportunity to experience a full, embodied encounter with That-Which-You-Do-Not-Yet-Know.

Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha” is his take on the Zen encounter with what Huston Smith calls “The More,” and what Kyogen’s teacher Roshi Kennett called the “Lord of the House.” Vaguely theistic imagery is often troubling to Zen students, and when I first encountered it in Zen I was definitively ambivalent. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of having some kind of transcendent experience, but on the other I was worried that this “woo-woo” stuff was a sign Zen was going to prove itself to be based on B.S. in the long run.

I went to Kyogen with my ambivalence, hoping he would tell me to ignore all of the references to the “Lord of the House” and the “Cosmic Buddha” in Roshi Kennett’s writings because they were irrelevant to Zen practice. He didn’t. He compassionately tried to explain the presence of devotion and theistic imagery in Zen (as he does so well in his essay), but he didn’t back down. There he sat, a thoughtful but slightly wry expression on his face, a concrete testimony to a reality I had not yet experienced.

There is much more I don’t understand, and much more Kyogen could have taught me just by living his truth.

Let’s value our living teachers!

Renewal in the Stillness and Silence of Meditation

Renewal in the Stillness and Silence of Meditation

It can be helpful to think of meditation as renewal time for our body-minds. The space of meditation, at least Zen meditation, involves a realignment of the self with the universe.

Getting caught up in activity can invite us to assert the self against the world, especially when we care deeply about what we’re doing. We get busy trying to understand, maneuver, express, create, change, hurry, finish, resist, and come up with an effective plan. Our actions may even be fruitful, but operating like this takes its toll. Our perspective shrinks. Our sense of ease and joy become contingent on the outcomes of our activities. A subtle but pervasive sense of imperative starts making everything more stressful.

When we sit in meditation we allow ourselves to just be. We try to be completely silent and still internally as well as externally. We try to refrain from commenting on anything – not judging anything good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, righteous or terrible. This silence is not about refraining from judgment because judgment is bad, agitating, or will interfere with our pleasant meditation. It’s not about pushing our legitimate concerns out of our mind so we can feel happy and calm. This meditative silence is about connecting with our living body-mind, a seat of awareness that doesn’t want to be constantly commenting, evaluating, and deciding. Our living self finds this moment inherently worth it, even with all of the suffering happening in the world. Not despite all the suffering, as if we were deciding, on the balance, that life has more good in it than bad. No – in that silent aliveness there is a vibrancy and willingness independent of conditions.

Not all moments of meditation are perfectly like this, of course, but being able to settle into this silence for even a little while is immensely beneficial. Having meditated, we can go about all of our activities with increased gratitude for the simple fact that we’re alive to do them.

When we pay attention to what’s happening in the world, we need to sit more often. We expose ourselves to the suffering and need in the world, and it arouses our compassion and concern. We allow our imagination free reign to come up with ways to help, arousing our excitement and ambition. It’s pretty easy to start asserting the self against the world again. Before we know it, this “little self” is stressed… and frankly, less effective. So then we renew ourselves in silence and stillness and reconnect with the aliveness that is always there under all the activity.

How do you make space for silence in your life?


Photo Credit

Meditation by Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr – Creative Commons License BY 2.0

The Practice of “Not-Knowing:” Relief of Stress, Ground for Effective Action

The Practice of “Not-Knowing:” Relief of Stress, Ground for Effective Action

What’s your response when I say, “The best way to respond to the great suffering in the world is with the practice of ‘not-knowing’?”

Maybe you react to that statement with suspicion and aversion. Part of me does, because I care deeply about the suffering, destruction, and injustice in the world and want to do something about them. Responding with “not-knowing” sounds like retreating into complacency – doing nothing to change the world, and using the excuse like, “You can’t know what to do, it’s all too complex and confusing.”

Fortunately, the Zen practice of “not-knowing” is not like this. It’s not an excuse or a cop-out. It’s not clinging to ignorance or passivity. It’s not at odds with the bodhisattva path. It’s actually an incredibly intimate response, in touch with reality, which provides the ground for effective action.


Quicklinks to Content:
Some Ancient Chan Teachings on Not-Knowing
Practicing Not-Knowing in the Moment
Recognizing Versus Knowing
Not-Knowing Is Most Intimate – and How That Helps
How to Know When Your Not-Knowing Is a Cop-Out


To be honest, the teaching of “not-knowing,” also called “don’t-know mind,” can be easily misunderstood and therefore misused. All potent spiritual teachings are rather like knives: Very effective for certain tasks, but potentially dangerous if used recklessly, incorrectly, or in the wrong circumstances. The Zen teaching of don’t-know mind can be easily twisted into a near-enemy – in this case, refusing to take a stand even when the situation calls for it.

You might argue that we shouldn’t teach something like don’t-know mind because of the chance it will be misunderstood and do great damage. However, that would be like saying we should never use knives because occasionally people cut themselves with them, or use them as weapons. It’s better if we learn how to properly use and store knives, and to clearly identify when they’re being misused. I’ll try to do that, here, with the Zen teaching of not-knowing.

Some Ancient Chan Teachings on Not-Knowing

The teaching of acknowledging not-knowing as a profound practice seems to have appeared early on in the Chan (later the Zen) school of Buddhism in China. According to the second koan in the Book Equanimity,[1] the Indian master Bodhidharma invoked not-knowing in his response to the emperor of China:

“Emperor Wu of Ryo asked the great master Bodhidharma, ‘What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth of Buddhism?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘Vast emptiness. No holiness.’ The Emperor asked, ‘Who stands here before me?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know.’ The Emperor was baffled. Thereafter, Bodhidharma crossed the river, arrived at Shorin and faced the wall for nine years.”

On the surface, it may seem like the Emperor’s question stumped Bodhidharma, and he subsequently had to go sit in meditation for a long time in order to deepen his understanding. However, this probably wasn’t the case.

By the time he met the Emperor, Bodhidharma had already been practicing a long time, and he carried the lineage tradition. His “I don’t know” isn’t the same as our ordinary “I don’t know.” Our meaning would typically be: “I’m wracking my brains for an answer but can’t come up with one for you.” Or, “I’ve been trying to figure that out but the answer eludes me.” Or, even worse, “I feel separate from my true self, my true nature, so I feel alienated from who I really am. Your question has exposed my inadequacy.”

If Bodhidharma didn’t mean these kinds of don’t know, what did he mean? And how could his response be a teaching, as opposed to an admission of insufficient understanding? Before I go into that, I’ll share another ancient story about not-knowing from the Book of Equanimity. This is Case 20:

“Master Jizo asked Hogen, ‘Where have you come from?’ ‘I pilgrimage aimlessly,’ replied Hogen. ‘What is the matter of your pilgrimage?’ asked Jizo. ‘I don’t know,” replied Hogen. ‘Not knowing is the most intimate,’ remarked Jizo. At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.”[2]

Hogen awakens at Master Jizo’s comment not because he suddenly realizes why he’s been wandering so long and practicing hard, and not because he finally conceives of what he’s been searching for. Rather, he momentarily drops all of his preconceived notions, and at that moment there is only his body-mind, Master Jizo’s compassion, the Buddha Way, the sandals on his feet, the cicadas buzzing in the trees. There, in his direct experience of his life, the meaning of it all becomes clear – without conception, definition, description, or “knowing” of any kind.

As soon as Hogen thinks about it, as soon as we think about it, knowing creeps in again, creating a sense of separation. And yet – to always have the refuge of not-knowing, how wonderful!

Practicing Not-Knowing in the Moment

To bring this discussion back to our time and place: the practice of don’t know mind, or of not-knowing, is immensely practical, and serves the bodhisattva well.

How? How can this kind of thoughtless, immediate, not-knowing be useful when you’re facing a neo-Nazi? When you need to decide how resist the environmental destruction and degradation that’s threatening all life on this planet? When you have to find a way to defend democracy, or truth, or compassion? Or when you need to claw your way out of a hole of suffering in your personal life?

The key is that not-knowing isn’t clinging to a state of indecision or ignorance. It’s not a fixed position you take. Instead, it’s a way you engage the next moment: fresh, open, unbiased. You let go of clinging to fixed views, of your sense of knowing. It’s grounded in reality, because in reality, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know for sure what’s going to work. You don’t know the person standing in front of you – at least, not completely, and maybe hardly at all. You don’t know who you are, as if you could sum yourself up in a sentence or paragraph.

You practice not-knowing in this very moment – not in the abstract. As soon as you make not-knowing into a position, it’s not actually not-knowing anymore, it’s refusing to know or decide. It becomes a position you hold for your own convenience, comfort, or ego, and lacks compassion.

The point is not to be attached to anything – neither knowing, nor not-knowing. When it’s time to have a conversation with someone about what needs to happen, you take your best stab at knowing. When you have to make a decision or take an action, you make your best call, based on your best knowledge. But then, in the next moment, you let it go and take a breath in not-knowing – which completely and utterly changes your relationship to knowing. When you see that your best knowing comes and goes, that your “best calls” sometimes work out and sometimes they don’t, it actually frees you up to get more creative and take more risks with your knowing. There is no one, fixed, absolute truth you’re eventually going to arrive at; instead, it’s a crazy balancing act all along the way.

Recognizing Versus Knowing

Let’s say you read about a terrible injustice somewhere in the world – maybe not that far away. People are suffering and dying – and the worst thing is, they’re suffering and dying needlessly, because of exploitation, fear, and greed. (And if you read the papers, of course, this is more or less a daily experience.) When we read about this, we have reactions. We know this wrong. We know this suffering and injustice needs to be ended.

But this knowing should perhaps better be called recognizing. We recognize sadness, pain, empathy, grief, frustration… we feel a basic human response to the suffering of others (at least, this response is basic to people who have a healthy, functional body-mind). This is a bodhisattva’s natural response. We also recognize the contraction and darkness of greed, hate, fear, and delusion, just as we recognize warmth, coolness, ease, and pain.

And yet, very quickly, most of us are going to take our basic recognition further, willfully crafting it into knowing. In our efforts to understand, and therefore exert some measure of control over our experience or over the world, we speculate on why this is happening, who is to blame, the systems that are to blame, what needs to change. If at the very least we figure out what our opinions are, we know what kind of actions we should take – or at the very least, what kind of attitude we should carry around. Even if we’re at a loss for how to help, we can take solace in the fact that we’re opposed to what’s going on.

If we know, we can predict and plan. We can imagine an alternative future, where things have been fixed according to what we know, and suffering has decreased. When we start to feel overwhelmed or stressed, we can rely on our righteous stances and thereby insulate ourselves in some subtle way from what’s happening right now.

Of course, with new facts, complexity, arguments, opposition from others, our knowing needs to be constantly revised and maintained. It can get quite stressful, establishing a moral world order in our minds!

Not-Knowing Is Most Intimate – and How That Helps

Some of this thought is good, of course. We should consider what’s happening, our opinions about it, and look for things we can do in response.

But at some point, when our thoughts get repetitive, when we’re trying to impeach the president in our minds, or create a plan to end world hunger, or when we’re stuck on a terribly sad or traumatic fact or image, or imagining the many forms in which doom could come…

Then it’s time for balance – a time for the medicine of not-knowing. This takes courage. We have to be willing to become intimate with our fears, our sorrows, and our sense of overwhelm – exactly the kinds of feelings we try to keep at bay with our knowing. (And even “negative knowing” has this effect. For example, you may be convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket – but in some ways it easier to be prepared for the devil you (think you) know, then to open up to the vast possibilities of reality.)

For a time, we let go of the stress of having to figure everything out, of maintaining our positions and opinions, of identifying everything we encounter as right or wrong. This helps our body-minds to settle, and become more relaxed, healthy, and clear.

How do we heal our country and our world? Lots of ideas may spring into our minds. But if we momentarily let them go and say quietly, humbly, compassionately, “I don’t know…” Such sadness! Such grief! Such concern! Such intimacy!

How do we end racism? Again, let go ideas, however good they might be. It’s not the time for ideas. It’s time for listening. “I don’t know…” Notice how the reality of the struggles of people of color, momentarily, comes closer to your heart?

How do we radically redirect the entire human way of life on this planet away from limitless exploitation toward long-term sustainability? Let go of ideas… “I don’t know.” Do you see how this practice of “I don’t know” includes, “I want to help. I love. I ache for suffering beings. I ache for myself. I’ll do my best. How? What?”

Then, when we’re ready, we engage our discriminating mind again, and know when we need to. But the open, intimate space of not-knowing gives us more effective ground on which to stand when we take action.

How to Know When Your Not-Knowing Is a Cop-Out

Of course, sometimes we cling to not-knowing instead of knowing. We just take a breath and enjoy each day, one moment at a time, aware that ideas are abstractions and you can only deal with what’s right in front of you. But clinging to not-knowing is not intimate. You can tell because you need to turn away from suffering in order to maintain it. It’s a cut-off, limited position that feels somewhat deadened or numb. It’s not an open, responsive, other-focused way of operating; when we cling to not knowing, our world becomes self-centered and small.

When I thought about writing about the practice of not-knowing, I considered calling it the “refuge” of don’t-know mind, because of the relief it provides from stress… but the term “refuge” implies you can hide out there and avoid responsibility, so I didn’t want to use it.

Then I thought about the term “stance,” as in a posture or position, which maximizes the effectiveness of your response to challenge, as in a martial art. This is a pretty good word, because although it may imply something static, in practice an effective stance is dynamic, open, and responsive. It also contains the truth that really employing don’t-know mind is complementary to taking a stand or being open to action. But “stance” does summon an oppositional image…

Perhaps it’s best to discuss the “ground” of don’t-know mind. This term points to the fact that this mind reflects an aspect of reality – it’s not an attitude or view we adopt for utilitarian purposes. We really, actually, don’t know. We have to decide and act, but within the groundless reality of emptiness. This way of looking at it is described in the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8,000 Lines:

“The Leader [Buddha] himself was not stationed in the realm which is free from conditions,
Nor in the things which are under conditions, but freely he wandered without a home:
Just so, without a support or a basis a Bodhisattva is standing.
A position devoid of a basis has that position been called by the Jina.”[3]

So, a Bodhisattva is standing. She is free, and she is devoted to the deliverance of all beings. But she stands without a support or a basis. How is that possible? Intellectually it makes no sense, but it describes the reality of our lives and our functioning. “Knowing” is an abstraction that we use to make decisions, so it has it’s uses, but if we can recognize knowing is also empty of inherent self-nature, we aren’t overly attached to it. We don’t mistake it for reality itself. We are free from the compulsion to maintain a fiefdom of knowing, and we can be directly informed and touched by the world – which means our responses will be more on-point, and therefore more effective.



Conze, Edward, trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & its Verse Summary. San Francisco, CA: Four Season Foundation, 1973
Wick, Gerry Shishin. The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.



[1] Wick, pg 13
[2] Wick, pg. 63
[3] Conze, pg. 13

Five Ways to Make Your Work Spiritual Practice

Five Ways to Make Your Work Spiritual Practice

These are five ways we can make our work into spiritual practice. They’re from the “Tenzokyokun,” or “Instructions to the [Head Monastery] Cook,” which was written by Zen master Dogen in 1237, following a long tradition of Zen “work practice.” In the essay, Dogen writes, “just working as tenzo is the incomparable practice of the Buddhas.” While it may seem like specific instructions for cook in a traditional Zen monastery isn’t relevant to us, fortunately that’s not the case at all. Enjoy!


1) Taking Joy in Serving Others
2) Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
3) Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
4) Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
5) Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”
Advice for Approaching Work Practice on a Daily Basis


1) Taking Joy in Serving Others

First, we can take joy in our work as service to others. Dogen writes, “The true bond established between ourselves and the Buddha is born of the smallest offering made with sincerity rather than of some grandiose donation made without it. This is our practice as human beings.”[1] Note he says, “the smallest offering,” so this includes a sincere smile, leaving something cleaner than we found it, adding an edible flower to the top of a dish, or quietly taking up the slack when our co-worker overlooks something.

In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen describes how the tenzo should have an attitude of joy in her work, and approach it with the selfless love of a parent. He suggests we recall that it would have been very possible for us to be living in circumstances where we would be unable to engage in the work we’re doing, and how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to be of benefit to others. Rather than feeling burdened or underappreciated, we’re asked to approach our work as parents take care of their children: “A parent protects the children from the cold and shades them from the hot sun with no concern for his or her own personal welfare… In this same manner, when you handle water, rice, or anything else, you must have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child.”[2]

The idea of enlivening our work by engaging it as service or generosity isn’t that radical, but many of us tend to imagine it’s only surgeons, firefighters, or particularly talented and remarkable people who get to feel deeply gratified by the benefits they are offering to others. However, Dogen emphasizes how the monastery cook serves others even as he’s going about simple, unglamorous tasks like washing rice or putting away pots and pans, so he’s clearly encouraging us to see the service and generosity within the work we do.

It can be challenging to see your regular daily work as beneficial to others to the extent that you can consequently take great joy in it and see it as noble and worthwhile. Personally, I don’t find it easy to sit alone at my computer, putting together a podcast episode, and nurture a sense that I’m benefitting others. Even though people have told me they enjoy the podcast and appreciate it, it’s still easy just to see it as something I’ve got to get done today – and certainly no big deal compared to the work that has to be done to meet the critical needs of the world today, like ending world hunger or researching climate change.

However, bringing a joyful sense of service to your work isn’t really about how much it technically benefits others in relative sense. It’s about the state of your own heart as you work; your offering may be small, but as Dogen said, the true bond between ourselves and the Buddha is “born of the smallest offering made with sincerity.” He also instructs us to “see that working for the benefit of others benefits oneself,” and to “understand that through making every effort for the prosperity of the community one revitalizes one’s own character.”[3] The beautiful thing is that a community truly thrives when each person in it sees themselves as contributing, and aspires, in the manner of a selfless parent, to give whatever is needed without concern for reward or reputation.

2) Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha

A strong theme in the Tenzokyokun is treating each thing you encounter with great care. Dogen quotes a Chinese Chan master, “Use the property and possessions of the community as carefully as if they were your own eyes.”[4] In Zen work practice, we’re never supposed to do anything thoughtlessly or carelessly. Nothing is dismissed as garbage, or beneath our attention, or beside the point. Tools are handled with care, washed after use, and stored carefully. Things are carried with both hands. Assistants are treated kindly and thoughtfully. Parts of vegetables you’re not going to eat are conscientiously composted, and even wash water is carried outside and poured at the base of a plant instead of being tossed down the drain.

Dogen writes, “Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha.”[5] What does this really mean? First, we usually have to slow down a little, and actually look at what’s in front of us. This cultivates mindfulness, one of the main practices of Buddhism. Then we refrain from evaluating the leaf in our hand simply in terms of ourselves. Ordinarily we are thinking only about completing our task so we can rest, or get praise for how good a job we’ve done. Or we’re daydreaming about something else, because, frankly, this leaf isn’t very important to us.

If we cut through the fog of our self-centered dream, however, we may glimpse what a miracle this leaf is, and how amazing it is that we’re holding it. Inherent in the leaf is the wonder of life, and the power of the sun. Someone planted a seed, carefully tended the plants, and then harvested this leaf. The hard work and generosity of many people were required for this leaf to end up in our hands. Right here, right now, we are alive, and healthy, and capable of grasping the leaf with our fingers… what else do we mean by “the body of the Buddha?” The body of the Buddha is the physical, real manifestation of the Ineffable, and here it is.

Do we think about these things while holding a single leaf of green, or a pencil, or the steering wheel of a car? Maybe, but that’s not the point. It’s nice to have a personal sense that everything is manifesting the body of the Buddha, but whether we feel that way or not, that’s the truth of things. In treating each thing with love, care, respect, and attention, we align ourselves with this truth and honor it.

We’re also not separate from this truth, so there’s a strange way in which our participation is necessary in order for the whole scenario to be complete. After Dogen tells us to handle even a single leaf of green as we would the body of the Buddha, he says, “This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf. This is a power you cannot grasp with your rational mind.” So, this isn’t about treating things carefully because they are sacred and we’re not, or about acting in a particularly way because we hope to glimpse of the Ineffable and we work. This is about learning how to treat things such that we allow the Ineffable to manifest through them. If we can do this, our whole day and everything we do has the potential to feel sacred.

3) Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences

You might think it would enough to say we should treat each thing as if it’s the body of the Buddha, but we tend to be very attached to our opinions and reactions, so Dogen devotes plenty of time in the Tenzokyokun to admonishing us to rise above them. He writes:

“Your attitude towards things should not be contingent on their quality. A person who is influenced by the quality of a thing, or who changes his speech or manner according to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a man working in the Way.”[6]

Specifically, Dogen instructs the tenzo to handle all food with respect, regardless of its quality, “as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor.”[7] He says a tenzo should “never feel aversion toward plain ingredients,” and instead should try to make the best use of whatever ingredients she has. Believe me, this is very relevant advice for a monastery cook, who is usually operating on a tight budget and forbidden to rely on rich, expensive ingredients to make the food delicious. It’s also common for monasteries to receive food donations that… well… prove a challenge. My teacher’s monastery once had to make good use of a semi-truck load of onions that overturned on a nearby freeway. For months, their tenzo had to find creative ways to incorporate way too many onions into the meals.

We’re also supposed to take care of people despite our judgments and preferences about them. Dogen is specific about this, saying “do not judge monks as deserving of respect or as being worthless, nor pay attention to whether a person has been practicing for only a short time or for many years.” He admits there may be significant differences between juniors and seniors, or those who are gifted with great intelligence and those who are not, but says, “Even so, all are the treasures of the sangha [community].” He explains, “Even though there may be right or wrong, do not cling to that judgment.”[8]

So, even though in the course of our daily lives and work, opinions, judgments, and preferences will naturally arise, we don’t have to allow them to interfere with our work practice. We can diligently hold to our aspiration to treat each thing (or person) such that it (or they) can manifest the body of the Buddha. We should respond to circumstances differently depending on what and who we’re dealing with, but stay true to our underlying intention to serve others and honor the Ineffable at all times. This is a tall order, of course, but essentially this aspect of work practice is not allowing ourselves to be pushed about by our own thoughts and preferences. We can easily be lost in the fog of a self-centered dream filled with our opinions and reactions instead of responding appropriately and compassionately to things as they really are.

4) Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can

Again, this probably follows from the aspects of work practice I’ve already covered, because if you’re taking joy in serving others, and treating everything you encounter such that it manifests the body of the Buddha, you’ll probably do the best job you can. Still, it helps to view work practice explicitly through the lens of diligence. This is about taking personal responsibility, and being energetic and meticulous in your work.

Dogen illustrates the importance of diligence in our work with another story about an encounter he had with a tenzo in China. The tenzo was again an older monk – 68 years, to be exact – and Dogen found him drying mushrooms in the hot sun. Dogen writes, “the sun’s rays beat down so harshly that the tiles along the walk burned one’s feet,” and says he was concerned for the tenzo, whose back was bent and whose “eyebrows were crane white.”[9] When asked why he never used any assistants, the old monk replied, “Other people are not me.” Dogen says, “You are right… I can see that your work is the activity of the buddhadharma, but why are you working so hard in this scorching sun?” The tenzo answers, “If I do not do it now, when else can I do it.”

Elsewhere in the Tenzokyokun, Dogen quotes the Chanyuan Qinggui (a classic set of Chinese monastic regulations), which instructs the tenzo to “prepare each meal with meticulous care,”[10] and to “pay full attention to your work in preparing the meal; attend to every aspect of it yourself so that it will naturally turn out well.”[11] After conveying disappointment and disgust as he described a careless Japanese tenzo, Dogen writes, “Strengthen your resolve, and devote your life spirit to surpassing the refinement of the ancient patriarchs and being even more meticulous than those who came before you.”[12]

Now, we have to careful with these particular instructions about work practice because it’s common in our society for people to work too much, and to be very identified with the outcomes of their work. It’s not helpful for us to try to become even more controlling, obsessed, compulsive, ambitious, or self-critical. The valuable message for us here, I think, is an invitation to take a healthy pride in our work, no matter what it is, and to allow ourselves to unleash our energy, creativity, and vision as we engage in it. In other words, making our work into spiritual practice doesn’t mean making it half-hearted or dreamy, as we contemplate deep spiritual matters in the midst of our tasks. Rather, it means energetically applying ourselves. This reminds me of a sign I saw posted at Zen monastery, over a dishwashing area where mountains of pots and dishes were washed, rinsed, and sterilized after every meal. The sign was clearly in response to newcomers to the monastery who were just learning how to consciously engage their work as spiritual practice. It read, “Mindful does not mean slow.”

Personally, I was delighted when I learned that an essential part of the tenzo’s job is to make delicious and beautiful dishes. Dogen quotes the Chanyuan Qinggui: “If the tenzo offers a meal without a harmony of the six flavors and the three qualities, it cannot be said that he serves the community.”[13] The six flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, mild, and hot. The three virtues are light or flexible, clean or neat, and conscientious or thorough.[14] According to the tenzo tradition I was trained in, you need to consider all kinds of things when preparing a meal: flavors, textures, color, contrasts between dishes and ingredients, and variety. You serve beans no more than once a day, and vary the carbohydrates by meal using rice, pasta, root vegetables, bread, corn, and other grains. Lettuce for salad needs to be torn in tiny pieces in order to fit in people’s eating bowls and be easily picked up with chopsticks. Particularly popular dishes like egg frittata are deeply appreciated on the third day of retreat, which tends to be one of the most difficult for people.

There’s a funny phenomenon in American culture where people are considered annoying or mildly anal retentive when they concern themselves with the details of a task and are very particular about the way it’s done. Eyes are often rolled behind the person’s back, and when they are scrupulous in fulfilling their responsibilities – often going above and beyond what’s absolutely required – they are sometimes seen as obsessive or attached. I think this is unfortunate, because it’s beautiful when people do the best job they possibly can, whether they’re pumping gas, offering tech support over the phone, stacking produce in a supermarket, or teaching children. It’s especially inspiring when people are diligent and take pride and delight in their work just for its own sake, regardless of their level of compensation or recognition.

Again, the exhortation to do the best job you possibly can isn’t meant to stress you out by implying you need to work even harder. Instead, it’s an invitation to imbue your work with significance, vitality, and beauty, rather than holding something back from it because you don’t think it’s all that important, or you’d rather be doing something else. No matter the job, it’s always possible to bring something personal and special to it. We’ve all had the experience of being cheered up by a friendly and competent receptionist, or relieved by an empathetic nurse, or made to feel valued by an appreciative shop owner who recognizes us as a repeat customer. With our diligence, we enhance our service to others – plus, there’s satisfaction in a job well done.

5) Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”

Becoming one with your activity has long been a goal of Zen practice, but many people will be more familiar with the popular English phrase “in the zone.” This is an experience where our self-consciousness falls away and we become completely absorbed in an activity, allowing us to perform to the best of our ability. Rather than daydreaming about other things while we work, thinking about ourselves and our relationship to our task, evaluating our performance, comparing ourselves to others, or imagining what people think of us, we just do, wholeheartedly. We just cook, wash, write, speak, design, or dig.

In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen says that if we would only step back and reflect carefully on the way our minds are usually racing about, and how often our emotions are unmanageable, “our lives would naturally become one with our work.”[15] In practice, this means bringing awareness to our mind state whenever we remember to do so. When we notice we’re chopping carrots but thinking about an upcoming camping trip, we recall our aspiration to become one with our work, and therefore with our life. We want to be awake, right? Life is short, and we want to appreciate what’s going on. Right now, we’re chopping carrots.

In order to become more absorbed in our task, once we’ve woken up to the present moment, we employ one or more the practices I’ve already talked about: devoting ourselves to serving others, trying to treat the carrots as the body of the Buddha, refusing to be pushed about by our own preferences, and energetically doing the best job we can. Dogen explains, “If [the tenzo] throws all his energy into whatever the situation truly calls for, then both the activity and the method by which he carries it out will naturally work to nurture the seeds of the buddhadharma.[16] Sounds like being in “the zone,” doesn’t it?

But how does “the zone” work? How does paying attention to present moment, absorbing ourselves completely in a task, and letting go of thinking about the task, lead to everything naturally working out? Of course, this is an actual experience and not something that can be easily explained, but I think there’s a clue in Dogen’s instruction, found elsewhere in the Tenzokyokun: “Both day and night, allow all things to come into and reside within your mind. Allow your mind and all things to function together as a whole.”[17] In other words, when we’re one with our task, we’re not shutting anything out or excluding anything. Everything we know and all the skills we’ve developed are accessible to us. We’re not even excluding daydreams or thoughts about self – we’re simply channeling our energy and attention into our work as wholeheartedly as we can.

Dogen further explains the process of our lives naturally becoming one with our work, writing that, “Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them.” “Turning something while being turned by it” is phrase often used by ancestral Buddhist teachers, pointing toward the experience of simultaneously actively participating in something, and being carried along in a process by forces beyond yourself. When we become one with our activity in this way, amazing things happen – like the Buddha manifesting through a lettuce leaf! Dogen says, “This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way. At the same time, this power functions in our lives to clarify and settle activities and is beneficial to all living things.”[18]

Advice for Approaching Work Practice on a Daily Basis

Of course, the moment we think, “wow, I’m in the zone, I’m one with my work, isn’t this great,” we’re no longer in the zone. Still, the only thing we can do at such a moment is throw ourselves back into our work. Hopefully, the five aspects of Zen work practice I’ve distilled for you from the Tenzokyokun will be useful:

  • Taking Joy in Serving Others
  • Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
  • Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
  • Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
  • Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”

Now, by way of encouragement I want to say that while descriptions of “being one with our activity” may sound transcendent or profound – and occasionally we may experience our life that way – work practice is also very challenging. There are few other areas of our lives where we are so tempted to adopt a self-centered agenda, be obsessed with the outcome, or be preoccupied with our performance, comfort, reputation, or status relative to others! Just letting go and allowing ourselves to be “turned by” things can become an elusive ideal against which our ordinary ways of operating seem pretty pathetic. Our minds wander over and over, and our opinions and preferences grandstand in our brains as if they had a life of their own.

I vividly remember my work practice from a weeklong retreat many years ago. I was given the job of maintaining the walking trails at the monastery. This was my favorite job – I loved being outdoors, surrounded by nature, doing manual labor. However, at that particular retreat, my two Dharma brothers were assigned to work on the monastery roof. I couldn’t help but notice that women were rarely, if ever, assigned to work on the roof or at other physically risky or skilled jobs. This pissed me off to no end, and I spent the work periods over the entire week mentally rehearsing arguments against this injustice, sneaking looks over at my male friends running around on the roof. I tried to let the thoughts go and pay attention to my trail work, but it was extremely difficult to fight against myself.

It would be easy to conclude, when we find work practice a struggle, that we’re just “not good at it.” It could be tempting to give up trying to make our work into an opportunity for practice. However, there are two essential reasons not to judge, or give up on, your work practice. First, Buddhist practice is not about reaching some ideal, but about paying attention to your life just as it is, right now. In other words, you don’t make any progress by dwelling on how you should be. Instead, you fully face and embrace your current reality – which is only possible if you refrain from judging it. You are where you are. There are no guarantees you’ll make “progress” in this life, but you’re very unlikely to do so if you give up.

Second, the Great Matter of Life and Death is much, much bigger than we are. There is beauty and truth operating within your work practice as long as you’re trying, regardless of what you think. This is what Dogen means by, “This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way.” This doesn’t mean you should go passive and stop trying because it’s all out of your hands, or that the Dharma will manifest no matter what you do or don’t do. Because, remember, through our practice we allow the leafy green to manifest the body of the Buddha! Still, our efforts and failures are part of the whole picture: While my work practice on the trail, where I spent my time inwardly bitching about sexism, was not ideal in one sense, in another sense I was diligently doing my best to cultivate awareness of my life. I may have missed a lot of the joy, service, and beauty of my work assignment, but I was very aware of what was going on in my mind, and had to face a deeper question about how to be true to my values and experience while still not being pushed around by my judgments and preferences.

A closing word from Dogen: “My sincerest desire is that you exhaust all the strength and effort of all your lives – past, present, and future – and every moment of every day into your practice through the work of the tenzo, so that you form a strong connection with the buddhadharma.[19]



Uchiyama, Kosho. From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life. Translated by Thomas Wright. New York, NY: Weatherhill, 1983.



[1] Uchiyama pg. 13
[2] Uchiyama pg. 18
[3] Uchiyama pg. 15
[4] Uchiyama pg. 4
[5] Uchiyama pg. 7
[6] Uchiyama pg. 7
[7] Uchiyama pg. 4
[8] Uchiyama pg. 14
[9] Uchiyama pg. 9
[10] Uchiyama pg. 12
[11] Uchiyama pg. 5
[12] Uchiyama pg. 7
[13] Uchiyama pg. 4
[14] Uchiyama pg. 100 (Translator’s note)
[15] Uchiyama pg. 7
[16] Uchiyama pg. 9
[17] Uchiyama pg. 6
[18] Uchiyama pg. 8
[19] Uchiyama pg. 17

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