Spent the day on a nearby island, guiding a group of thirteen through a silent meditation retreat. Half-way through the morning we put on our wet-weather gear and went outside for work practice. During this one hour, we each performed a task in our host’s main house, yard, and forest. Some swept, others dragged branches to a burn pile; one cleaned out the woodworking shop, another went after cobwebs with a long pole, two transplanted a young lilac tree, and three cleaned fridge and kitchen counters. All in silence and deliberate tempo. But what, you may ask, does that have to do with meditating?
Based on an old custom going back hundreds of years to Japan and thousands to China, we practiced silent attention to the breath (and thus each moment) by taking the practice off the meditation cushion into the everyday world. Sitting still in a still place designed for that purpose is one thing, staying focused while doing routine tasks is another. Walking and sweeping are such routine actions that one quickly goes into auto-pilot and forgets to pay attention to each step and breath.
A further purpose of work practice is to give something to the place, to the meditation hall, the flower garden, the woods, and the toilets. Our host generously maintains it for the benefit of many groups who come there on retreat. By offering our combined labour, we helped to make her job a little easier.
Finally, doing menial tasks on a stranger’s property gave us the opportunity to practice humility and generosity: qualities which tend to go undervalued in a world where I, me, and mine carry such weight. Norman Fischer, former abbot at San Francisco Zen Center, tells a story with a nice twist:
We have a custom during our monastic training periods … of assigning the cleaning of the toilets to the head monk. The head monk is a highly honored person … and assigning him or her this job is a way of saying that even this work, which may seem lowly, is special work when it is practiced in the spirit of meditation.
source: Fischer, N. (Winter 1997), “On Zen work” in Turning Wheel: the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Click here for the full text. images: chiotsrun.com (top), yvw.com.au.