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, 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.”
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.”
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.
 Wick, pg 13
 Wick, pg. 63
 Conze, pg. 13
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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,” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.”
Uchiyama, Kosho. From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life. Translated by Thomas Wright. New York, NY: Weatherhill, 1983.
 Uchiyama pg. 13
 Uchiyama pg. 18
 Uchiyama pg. 15
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 14
 Uchiyama pg. 9
 Uchiyama pg. 12
 Uchiyama pg. 5
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 100 (Translator’s note)
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 9
 Uchiyama pg. 6
 Uchiyama pg. 8
 Uchiyama pg. 17
If you’re always satisfied with your zazen, you’re probably selling yourself short. If you’re never satisfied with your zazen, you may want to learn how to deepen it.
Possibly the worst thing to do is ignore any dissatisfaction with your zazen because you think you’re not supposed to feel dissatisfied with it. It’s easy to come to this conclusion in Buddhism, where we’re taught that, essentially, dissatisfaction – dukkha – is a disease of the mind, and if we can just accept and be present with “whatever is,” all will be well. While it’s true, to a certain extent, that the key to peace, joy, and liberation lies within our own minds, that doesn’t mean we can truly attain liberation by merely wishing our dissatisfaction away.
How Dissatisfaction Can Be Good
Dissatisfaction is our friend! It’s just like a sensation of physical discomfort – it’s information, telling us something needs to be adjusted or addressed. If we didn’t feel physical pain, it would be difficult to avoid injury or know when we’re sick. If we didn’t feel dissatisfaction, it would be difficult to recognize when our approach to zazen – or life – isn’t working as well as it could.
It’s important to acknowledge our dissatisfaction with our zazen, because zazen is our gateway to enlightenment. No matter how diligent and rewarding our practice in the midst of everyday life, we need the stillness and simplicity of zazen to push the boundary of our experience of non-duality. In the depth of zazen, our usual way of going about things is called into question. In zazen, we touch our true being, and align our lives with truth.
Now, it’s understandable if you have a developed a deep faith that zazen is a beneficial practice regardless of the nature of your experience on the cushion. I know lots of people who diligently sit, gently bringing their awareness back to their breath whenever their mind has wandered. They do this, over and over – sometimes for 8 hours a day at a meditation retreat! Year after year, their zazen doesn’t really change or deepen, but they keep at it. This patient determination is admirable, and clearly zazen does have some kind of benefit even when approached this way!
However, zazen can be so much more. Just read a few descriptions of zazen from our ancestors, which suggest we should never feel satisfied with our zazen:
[Zazen] “is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized, traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” – Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
“Now, zazen is entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha. The pure and clear mind is actualized in the present moment; the original light shines everywhere… Zazen alone brings everything to rest and, flowing freely, reaches everywhere. So zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.” – Keizan Jokin (Zazen-Yojinki)
“Silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before you. When you reﬂect it you become vast, where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted. Spiritually solitary and shining, inner illumination restores wonder.” – Hongzhi Zhengjue (Guidepost for Silent Illumination)
Working Constructively with Dissatisfaction
Now, of course, it doesn’t help to set up ideals and expectations about our zazen and strive to achieve them. For most of us, that just makes things worse and increases our dissatisfaction.
So what can we do, short of just trying not to be dissatisfied with our zazen, no matter how it is? Which amounts to being satisfied with our zazen even if we rarely ever experience it (or have never experienced it) as “joyful ease,” “returning home and sitting in peace,” or full of “bright clarity” and “wonder.”
Different Zen teachers have different answers and approaches to this, but here’s mine: In the midst of zazen, pay attention to your dissatisfaction and let it guide you toward a deeper experience. Rather than brushing away your dissatisfaction, let it inform you. Then renew your determination to taste what the ancestors have described, and unleash your creativity in order to find a way forward. All without setting up an ideal or creating a struggle within.
Okay, let me walk you through four steps in this process so you can see what I mean:
1) In the Midst of Zazen, Pay Attention to Your Dissatisfaction
This is not intellectual analysis! This is about paying attention to your direct, immediate, embodied experience in zazen. Where do you feel obstructed, or tight? What are you doing or trying that brings you “back to the moment” for an instant but then sends you off into daydreaming or dullness? What do you want? What are you expecting? What is keeping you from being completely and utterly at peace? What are you holding on to that obstructs your appreciation and joy?
I can’t emphasize enough that this is not intellectual analysis, and yet it also isn’t a purely physical exploration that excludes thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. This is an experiential exploration of what’s going on in the moment without arbitrarily dividing yourself up into parts like “body,” “mind,” and “heart.” For example, maybe you are filled with grief because of a recent loss. That’s part of what’s going on for you. You can be aware of the grief, or of your desire to be free from pain, or of your self-doubt, without that awareness being merely intellectual analysis.
Perhaps an example will help. Mandy (a hypothetical Zen practitioner) has been sitting zazen for a number of years. She spends much of the time on the cushion caught up in thoughts, but when she notices, she patiently shifts her awareness back to her breath, or sound, and experiences a moment of stillness. She does this a dozen times or more over the course of meditation period. She doesn’t usually experience anything that feels very special during zazen, but finds that it helps her feel more sane and joyful in her everyday life.
One day Mandy reads an annoying post by a Zen teacher that suggests her zazen could be more. She’s doubtful, because she’s tried awfully hard to be “more present” during zazen and it’s never worked. However, she tries to pay attention to her dissatisfaction during zazen. In one moment, she’s not caught up in thoughts and just notices the sunlight on the carpet in front of her. She tries to stay present with that experience, but then starts thinking about zazen, and what Julie said about it last week, and whether Julie has special experiences during zazen, and…
As Mandy wakes up to the present again, she notices resistance within her to staying present. Her mind seems to be leaning away from the present, toward something more interesting or exciting. Staying with this reality for a bit, she realizes the resistance is reflected in her body as well, as if her energy is surging forward and upward toward her chest and head as opposed to settling down in her lower abdomen and legs. She becomes aware of a conviction that she knows what’s going to happen next. She’s aware of this as a real attitude she’s holding, not as a thought about her experience. Exploring this attitude, she recognizes a conclusion that the present moment is boring, and staying aware of it – except for a second or two – is pointless. Therefore, she also recognizes – within herself – an unwillingness to attend to the present unless she knows there’s going to be some kind of payoff for doing it.
2) Renew Your Determination for Enlightenment
Okay, “enlightenment” is a pretty vague and lofty term, but essentially it refers to your deepest aspiration(s). What do you really want? Do you want to be free from your pain – not just temporarily, through distraction or coping mechanisms, but truly healed? Do you want to be as awake as possible for every moment of your precious life? Do you want to cultivate wisdom so you can respond as skillfully as possible to the suffering of the world? Do you want to access your innate compassion so you can respond with love to all sentient beings?
It’s okay to want stuff! Desire, like dissatisfaction, is not a problem in and of itself. As long as we work with desire and dissatisfaction appropriately – without making our happiness contingent on their resolution, or resorting to self-centered behavior in order to get what we want – they are the fuel for our practice.
So go ahead and call to mind what you truly want. Remind yourself of why you practice. Acknowledge to yourself that your current understanding and manifestation is relatively small compared to that of a buddha (which is true for all of us), and think of all the amazing experiences that lie ahead of you.
3) Unleash Your Creativity and Find a Way Forward
Many people conclude they don’t know enough about meditation to deepen their experience of it. However, while it’s certainly true that suggestions from teachers, seniors, and even peers can be helpful, ultimately we have to learn to navigate our own body-mind in zazen. We’re the only ones who actually know what’s going on in there, and we’re the only ones who can apply a particular technique or approach. You may need to tweak your body-mind in a way that no Zen ancestor or teacher has yet described.
Let’s return to Mandy’s story in order to explore this more fully. Having noticed a number of assumptions and attitudes she was holding, she tries letting go of them. She experiences what feels like a little energetic shift, but it doesn’t last long and pretty soon her mind’s just wandering again. So she returns to the sensations of resistance to staying present. She also reminds herself of her aspiration to open herself up to a deeper experience of the Divine.
Mandy remembers a teaching she heard once that in order to hear the Divine, you have to listen carefully. She works on listening. Instead of her energy being centered around her face, it now spreads more evenly throughout her body, as she settles into her somatic (embodied) experience. However, after a couple minutes her mind has wandered again because, she realizes, “nothing was happening” (that is, she didn’t “hear” anything from the Divine). She acknowledges this self-interested aspect of her experience, and it occurs to her that true devotion to the Divine involves the act of listening without the slightest expectation of a response.
Suddenly, Mandy’s energy settles down and even seems to penetrate into the earth. For a moment, she experiences a warm, embracing silence – as if she has, indeed, returned home to where she belongs. She has a sense that this supportive embrace is always present, even when she’s caught up in thoughts or self-interest. All she has to do is offer her awareness up without the slightest agenda in order to rest in it. A few minutes later, Mandy’s mind is wandering again, and for the remainder of the zazen period she doesn’t have another experience of embracing silence quite as deep as the first one – but the impression of the experience remains, spreading a kind of peace throughout her zazen.
4) Celebrate “Moments That Make You Dance” – and Then Let Them Go
Recommending that you “work on” your zazen is potentially confusing and harmful, I have to admit. Watch out for whether this recommendation makes you judge your zazen or yourself and get discouraged, or invites you cling to ideas about what “deep” zazen is like, or causes you to compare yourself to others, or makes you dwell on the “special” experiences you’ve had and try to recreate them. If you find yourself doing any of these things, though, these are just more examples of dissatisfaction that you can work with.
Unfortunately, struggling against ourselves doesn’t usually result in anything other than frustration. So it’s not advisable to set up an ideal and then strive for it – setting the part of you that holds the ideal against the lazy or stubborn parts of you that would rather get lost in thought or sleep on the zazen cushion. The kind of exploration and work I’m recommending you do in zazen is not like this. Rather, it’s a whole body-mind activity where, throughout, it’s just “you,” aware of your full and direct experience, curious and determined to push the edges of the zazen you already know.
So when, or if, you have an experience of zazen like the ancestors describe – a dharma gate of joyful ease, bright and clear, like returning home and sitting in peace – it’s important to appreciate it but then let it go. If you set it up as an ideal and try to recreate it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to chase the experience away indefinitely. Try to trust that these “moments that make us dance” have informed and changed us at a deep level. They are like a beautiful sunset – you’re never going to get them back, at least not exactly. Future moments that make us dance will be different and new, and we can’t predict what they’re going to be like.
We keep ourselves open to deepening our experience of zazen by doing the work I’ve described: Not just waiting passively for something to happen, but also not striving to make something happen. Instead, we navigate the dynamic Middle Way, staying alert, curious, and determined to master the elusive art of Right Effort.
Humans have been struggling with this dilemma for ages: God is good – even synonymous with love – and all-powerful, so why does God let bad things happen? Why does He continue to allow such suffering in the world? For a Zen Buddhist, this question is phrased like this: All being is Buddha-nature and this empty world is inherently precious and without defilement, but still the world is full of suffering. It feels as if there are two separate realities – and much of the time it seems they have nothing to do with each other. How do we integrate them? Is it possible?
Here’s the good news: the need to integrate what can seem like two separate realities is just one of the many stages of the spiritual path. Which means it’s possible, there’s more to come, and it’s worth forging ahead.
Note: the struggle I am talking about here is not about doubting whether God is good, or whether all being is Buddha-nature. That’s another struggle, and a fruitful one. What I’m talking about here is learning how to live wholeheartedly once you have a deep, personal conviction there is a profound and redemptive foundation to everything that embraces all the suffering and makes it, somehow, okay. This is conviction is wonderful, but at some point simply taking refuge in it, however comforting, begins to seem hollow and unhelpful.
I once wrestled publicly with this dilemma of two realities (see Wearing My Heart [and Doubt] On My Sleeve). After that event, my days were been consumed by normal, mundane activities like emails, databases, housecleaning, and worrying about money. At times it seems the doubt had dissipated, or was only a dramatic description of a momentary experience, but it was still there. It lurked like grief, which stays with us for a long time but can lie dormant, waiting for the right thing to wake it up.
Then one evening, happily munching on a veggie burger and not thinking any particularly deep thoughts, I was reading a passage from Ross Bolleter’s Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment. (1) My husband sat next to me reading his ipad, and I asked if I could interrupt him to share something. As I read the passages out loud from Bolleter’s book, I started to tear up. I couldn’t quite finish the section I meant to share because the words got stuck in my throat. (Fortunately, my husband is used to this and wasn’t alarmed.)
Strange – before trying to speak the passages out loud I knew I related to them, but I didn’t realize how deeply. Someone was putting words to my experience. Even more importantly, someone was identifying my experience as part of a larger process of awakening to reality and learning how to be a full and authentic human being. The depth of my doubt didn’t mean I was a spiritual failure, or that my spiritual path is ultimately useless. In fact, it was a sign that deeper understanding and integration was possible.
I want to share with you the passage in Bolleter’s book that so touched me, but it needs a little introduction. In this particular chapter Bolleter is talking about the fourth “rank,” a place in spiritual practice where we have personally experienced something transcendent (in Zen it is a realization of emptiness, in other traditions it might be an encounter with the divine, or a personal relationship with Christ) and now we are trying to integrate that experience with the often brutal or bleak reality of life.
In Zen, the transcendent is called the absolute, or essential, and the reality of daily life is called the relative, or the contingent. Bolleter offers commentary on a line of ancient poetry that describes the fourth rank, “No need to dodge when blades are crossed.” He writes:
“Crossed swords represent the opposition of darkness and light, which correspond to the essential and the contingent, respectively. Given that advance or retreat are equally impossible, we stay put and open to life where we are… Forgetting emptiness, we face up to hard-nosed particularity and oppositional circumstance, treating them as all there is. Yet, although we avoid taking refuge in emptiness, we nonetheless deepen and mature our experience of emptiness by facing up to the challenges we encounter…
“The image of the crossed swords may also symbolize a dilemma: we encounter the crumbling edges of our life and practice, where we sense that whatever we’ve realized can’t light up the darkness and grief of estrangement, or magically resolve our inability to forgive. We must respond by allowing this dilemma, filled with painful confusion and uncertainty, to be just what it is. This is the crux of the matter of not dodging when swords are crossed.”
All of this may sound rather academic or philosophical, but it’s not. What it means is that when I go to visit my friend who is a more or less housebound with extremely painful rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, I refuse to comfort either her or myself with platitudes about how life is ultimately precious, or how if we can just appreciate this moment our suffering is just a concept. These observations about the essential or the transcendent are true, and we may need to take refuge in them at times in order to sustain ourselves. However, they do not make the suffering go away. They do not in any way make the suffering less real.
The way forward, is through the suffering. Not turning away, not reaching back for comforting convictions. Meeting the suffering directly, on its own terms. And I’m not just talking about the acute suffering involved in physical pain, disease, death, injustice, etc. I’m also talking about the daily suckiness of anger, confusion, and the general frustration of being unable to grab hold of lasting peace and happiness.
Heading into the suffering seems crazy, right? Isn’t the whole point is to alleviate suffering? It may be completely counter-intuitive, but according to the teachings of our great spiritual masters, leaving behind our answers and throwing ourselves into direct relationship with the messy, ambiguous nature of the contingent eventually allows us to function even more effectively at alleviating suffering. It does not mean turning our back on the divine, the pure, the transcendent, because that is not actually possible. Our convictions are part of who we are and will manifest in everything do even if we do not consciously hang on to them.
Wow. Maybe, just maybe, if I learn not to “dodge when blades are crossed,” I will someday be able to experience the fifth rank, where (according to Bolleter) “all that we have regarded as the essential and the contingent are found to be none other than each other. The polarities of the earlier modes are annulled, and the algebra of the spirit disappears without remainder into our lives lived as the Way.”
Don’t you think the defining characteristic of a compassionate sage is functioning in the fifth rank, where essential and contingent, divine and human, are realized to exist simultaneously – occupying the same space and time without separation? Think of the saints and other radiant people who have seemed more awake to the world of suffering than most of us, but who also seemed to be not of this world. As long as I let go of any idea that “I” might become such a person, the way forward seems clear.
(1) Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment by Ross Bolleter. Wisdom Publications, 2014.
Part 5 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4):
There are many, many more benefits of Sangha I could go into, but I’ll end this series of posts with how Sangha can become a practice of generosity and service to others. Let’s say you’ve been part of a Sangha for many years and your Zen or Buddhist practice is strong. You have a pretty good understanding of the Dharma, you can see your Dharma friends outside of Sangha events, and you’ve experienced a fair amount of polishing from potato practice (whether within Sangha or elsewhere in your life). Why keep participating in Sangha?
A short answer is this: as a strong practitioner, you strengthen the Sangha with your mere presence, and thereby make it a better refuge for others. Putting aside the relatively superficial differences between Sanghas in terms of overall flavor and style, healthy, mature Sanghas tend have a certain energy or tone. They feel stable and resilient as a group – and therefore able to accept new members and endure upsets and changes without fracturing. Strong Sanghas have a clear sense of their purpose and their commonly-held practice or tradition, so newcomers are less likely to be able to hijack Sangha discussions or events (this sometimes happens when new people bring particular agendas with them).
A strong Sangha will also feel – and this is a little difficult to describe – sane. Individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can sometimes feel to others, energetically, as if they’re vibrating at a higher or a discordant frequency, or, alternatively, as if they’re a drain on the energy of others. The more sane, strong practitioners there are in a room, the more the overall energy of the Sangha will feel sane – grounded, tuned in to reality and the experience of others, and able to behave appropriately.
This is why it’s important us to keep participating in Sangha even if we don’t feel so much of a personal need to do so: our sane presence grounds and strengthens the Sangha so it can hold people even when they’re new, uncertain, anxious, neurotic, on a soapbox, oblivious, obnoxious, or struggling with tragedy or mental illness. In other words, people who are really suffering need our support. A teacher or priest can’t provide a wholesome, stable, safe container for vulnerable or vibrating individuals all by themselves, so – ironically – the stronger and older your practice is, the less you may feel you need Sangha, but the more you have to offer the Sangha – the more Sangha needs you. Even when you don’t have a special role to play at a given practice event – or even especially when that is that case – you make a substantial contribution with your steady and enthusiastic participation.
I’ll close with some words about Sangha from revered Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Taking refuge in the Sangha means putting your trust in a community of solid members who practice mindfulness together. You do not have to practice intensively – just being in a Sangha where people are happy, living deeply the moments of their days, is enough. Each person’s way of sitting, walking, eating, working and smiling is a source of inspiration; and transformation takes place without effort. If someone who is troubled is placed in a good Sangha, just being there is enough to bring about a transformation.”
– Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, from Cultivating the Mind of Love