“It is well to note that while Zen Keys often presents weighty aspects of Buddhist philosophy, Nhat Hanh begins his book with the concrete, practical aspects of life in a Zen monastery, where the emphasis is not on the learning of philosophic concepts but on simple labor and a life of awareness. For in Zen, intellectual learning is nothing but the studying of the menu, while actual practice is the eating of the meal.
As Nhat Hanh says, the truth of existence is revealed through a deepening awareness that comes from living a life of single-mindedness, of being “awake” in whatever one is doing. There is no better laboratory for doing this “aware work” than everyday life, especially one’s daily work.
Yet we live in a society where the object for so many is to do as little work as possible, where the work place, whether office or home, is looked upon as a place of drudgery and boredom, where work rather than being a creative and fulfilling aspect of one’s life is seen as oppressive and unsatisfying.
How different is this from Zen! In Zen everything one does becomes a vehicle for self-realization; every act, every movement is done wholeheartedly, with nothing left over. In Zen parlance, everything we do this way is an “expression of Buddha,” and the greater the single-mindedness and unselfconsciousness of the doing, the closer we are to this realization. For what else is there but the pure act – the lifting of the hammer, the washing of the dish, the movement of the hands on the typewriter, the pulling of the weed?
Everything else – thoughts of the past, fantasies about the future, judgments and evaluations concerning the work itself – what are these but shadows and ghosts flickering about in our minds, preventing us from entering fully into life itself? To enter into the awareness of Zen, to “wake up,” means to cleanse the mind of the habitual disease of uncontrolled thought and to bring it back to its original state of purity and clarity.
In Zen it is said that more power is generated by the ability to practice in the midst of the world than by just sitting alone and shunning all activity. Thus, one’s daily work becomes one’s meditation room; the task at hand one’s practice. This is called “working for oneself.”
In Zen all labor is viewed with the eye of equality, for it is nothing but the workings of a dualistically ensnared mind that discriminates between agreeable and disagreeable jobs, between creative and uncreative work. It is to root out this weighing and judging that Zen novices are set to work pulling weeds by hand, licking envelopes, or doing other seemingly unimportant “non-creative” work at the start of their training, and why the abbot himself ‘often cleans the toilets.
For true creativity is possible only when the mind is empty and totally absorbed in the task at hand. Only at the point where one is freed of the weight of self-consciousness in the complete identification with work is there transcendence and the joy of fulfillment. In this type of creativity our intuitive wisdom and joy are naturally brought into play.
All this does not mean, of course, that attempts at bettering working conditions and making work more meaningful, such as we are witnessing today as a reaction against robot-like mechanization of the workplace, are worthless. But for a worker constantly to resent his work or his superiors, for him to become sloppy and slothful in his working habits, for him to become embittered toward life – these attitudes do most harm to the worker himself and serve little to change his working conditions. When it’s time to work one works, nothing held back; when it’s time to make changes one makes changes; when it’s time to revolt one even revolts.
In Zen everything is in the doing, not in the contemplating.
There is one more area in which the untrained, ego-dominated mind plays thief to man, and this is in terms of energy. The fatigue that grips many of us at the end of the workday is not a natural tiredness, but the product of a day filled with wasted thought and feelings of anxiety and worry, not to speak of anger and resentments openly expressed or inwardly held. These negative mental states probably do more to sap energy than anything else.
In contrast, the trained Zen person moves through his daily round aware and alert. The task in hand receives its due share of his energy, but none is wasted in anxiety, fantasy, or smoldering resentment. Even at the end of a full day’s work his store of energy is not exhausted.
Throughout Zen Keys, Thich Nhat Hanh stresses that Awareness – and this is more than mere attentiveness – is everything. It is precisely this lack of Awareness that is responsible for so much of the violence and suffering in the world today. For it is the mind that feels itself a separated unit from life and nature, the mind dominated by an omnipresent Ego – I that lashes out to destroy and kill, to satisfy its desire for more and more at whatever cost. It is the unaware mind that breeds insensitivity to people and things, for it doesn’t see and appreciate the value of things as they are, only seeing them as objects to be used in satiating one’s own desires.
The aware man sees the indivisibility of existence, the deep complexity and interrelationship of all life, and this creates in him a deep respect for the absolute value of things. It is out of this respect for the worth of every single object, animate as well as inanimate, that comes the desire to see things used properly, and not to be heedless or wasteful or destructive.
Truly to practice Zen therefore means never to leave lights burning when they are not needed, never to allow water to run unnecessarily in the faucet, never to leave a scrap of food uneaten. For not only are these unmindful acts, but they indicate an indifference to the value of the object wasted or destroyed and to the efforts of those who made it possible for us: in the case of food, the fanner, the trucker, the storekeeper, the cook, the server.
This indifference is the product of a mind that sees itself as separated from a world of seemingly random change and purposeless chaos.
From a Buddhist point of view the doctrines of Impermanence and Not-I, with which Nhat Hanh deals, hold the key to resolving the anxiety of this isolated point of view. Anyone alive to the realities of life cannot but acknowledge, for example, that Impermanence is not a creation of mystical philosophers but simply a concretization of what “is.”
In the last hundred years this process of constant and explosive change on the social and institutional level has accelerated to a degree unknown to men of earlier ages. Almost daily the newspapers report new and dizzying crises in the world: famines and natural disasters; wars and revolutions; crises in the environment, in energy and in the political arena; crises in the world of finance and economics; crises in the increasing number of divorces and nervous breakdowns, not to speak of crises in personal health, in the mounting incidence of heart attacks, cancer, and other fatal diseases.
The average person looking out on this ever-changing, seemingly chaotic world sees anything but natural karmic laws at work, nor does he perceive the unity and harmony underlying this constant and inevitable change. If anything, he is filled with anxiety, with a feeling of hopelessness, and with a sense that life has no meaning. And because he has no concrete insight into the true character of the world or intuitive understanding of it, what else can he do but surrender to a life of material comfort and sensual pleasure?
And yet right in the midst of this seemingly meaningless swirling chaos of change stands the Zen Buddhist. His equanimity is proof that he knows there is more to life than what the senses tell him – that in the midst of change there is something that never changes, in the midst of impermanence there is something always permanent, in the midst of imperfection there is perfection, in chaos· there is peace, in noise there is quiet, and, finally, in death there is life.
So without holding on or pushing away, without accepting or rejecting, he just moves along with his daily work, doing what needs to be done, helping wherever he can, or, as the sutras say, “In all things he is neither overjoyed nor cast down.”
Like the law of impermanence, the doctrine of the Not-I is not the product of philosophical speculation but the expression of the deepest religious experience. It affirms that contrary to what we think, we are not merely a body or a mind. If not either or both, what are we? The Buddha’s answer, stemming from his experience of Great Enlightenment, is ego shattering: “In truth I say to you that within this fathom-high body, with its thoughts and perceptions, lies the world and the rising of the world and the ceasing of the world and the Way that leads to the extinction of rising and ceasing.”
What could be grander or more reassuring? Here is confirmation from the highest source that we are more than this puny body-mind, more than a speck thrown into the vast universe by a capricious fate – that we are no less than the sun and the moon and the stars and the great earth.
Why, if we already possess the world in fee simple, do we try to enlarge ourselves through possessions and power? Why are we “alone and afraid in a world I never made,” at times self-pitying and mean, at other times arrogant and aggressive? It is because our image of ourselves and our relation to the world is a false one.
We are deceived by our limited five senses and discriminating intellect (the sixth sense in Buddhism) which convey to us a picture of a dualistic world of self-and-other, of things separated and isolated, of pain and struggle, birth and extinction, killing and being killed.
This picture is untrue because it barely scratches the surface. It is like looking at the one eighth of an iceberg above the water and being unaware of the seven eighths underneath. For if we could see beyond the ever-changing forms into the underlying reality, we would realize that in essence there is nothing but harmony and unity and stability, and that this perfection is no different from the phenomenal world of incessant change and transformation.”
Source: Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys, 1973, pgs. 2 – 5 (excerpt from the introduction by Roshi Philip Kapleau)
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