Work practice is more than offering volunteer time to the temple, although giving is an important practice in itself. Work practice is in fact a great opportunity to investigate what giving really is within the network of interconnectedness. “Giving is not one person’s good deed to help another,“ Okumura Roshi explained. “Since we are living together, if we have something extra and someone else lacks something, something just moves from here to there. That’s all. We can’t say, ‘This is mine. You are in trouble. I will give this to you to help you, and I get merit from that action.’ There’s no such calculation. When my hands are dirty, I just wash my hands because they are mine, without thinking that I did a good thing.”
While we may read and discuss texts as part of our study activities, our work activities are where we really experience those teachings with body and mind. It’s a practical study of interconnectedness and the nature of community as a manifestation of Indra’s net, whether that community is the practitioners within the temple or the beings in the entire ten-direction world.
Even if it is painful and difficult, you should become familiar with good friends and practice the Way with them.
Inside the temple: studying the three minds
Work practice at Sanshin has in general included activities that support the practice calendar—things like morning soji (cleanup), ringing bells, taking care of altar flowers, cooking meals during retreats or teaching zazen—as well as the heavier work involved with maintaining the buildings and grounds undertaken during monthly work days. Both residents and householders engage in these activities according to their lifestyles.
Physically applying and experiencing the teachings is an important part of traditional Zen training. In the senmon sodo, six temple officers (roku chiji 六知事 ) take leadership of day-to-day operations, including the ino 維那, overseeing activities in the zendo; the tenzo 典座, in charge of cooking; and the shissui 直歳, leading work practice. Other individuals may also be put in charge of managing the vegetable garden, taking care of guests or other functions. Those without particular roles participate in morning and afternoon work periods that center on maintaining the buildings and grounds. It’s not possible to simply sit zazen from morning to night every day and survive as a temple or community, so work is necessary on a practical level as well as an important dharma gate.
Work practice supports the temple community as a miniature network, with each person’s practice supporting the practice of all the others. This network of activity includes everyone from the abbot on down, so in addition to individual work practice, there is also only one action—the action of the community as a whole. (This is not unlike chanting during liturgy; we all have individual voices, but when we put them together there is only one sound.) Work is a means of studying how to be together with ingredients, tools and other practitioners. It’s an opportunity to engage in the practical study of sanshin, the three minds about which Dogen teaches in the Tenzo Kyokun: magnanimous mind, nurturing mind and joyful mind. This concrete, practical, physical study within the temple makes possible practitioners' commitment to beneficial action outside of the temple.
Inside and outside: studying the ten major precepts
Overall, whether we practice inside or outside of the temple, as residential practitioners or as householders, our work practice is a study of the ten major precepts as a concrete and practical teaching. Each of us encounters difficulties
and frustrations in our daily lives and is in search of the most wholesome way to deal with them according to Buddha’s teachings. Our work is an investigation into the meaning of receiving the precepts and making them part of our bodies and minds rather than abstract theory. One of the most important things we learn from our study of the ten major precepts, as well as the threefold pure precepts and the three minds, is how to be together and how to foster wholesome human relations. Okumura Roshi has said many times that the precepts are a set of koans rather than commandments. We have to study and experience them directly in order to keep their spirit and find the best way forward for ourselves and others. Work practice is a study of how to be a community.
The Way is inherent in each of us; still our gaining the Way depends on the help of co=practitioners. Though each person is brilliant, our practicing the Way still needs the power of other people [in the sangha]. Therefore, while unifying your mind and concentrating your aspiration, practice and seek the Way together.
Outside the temple: studying the threefold pure precepts
Because Sanshin includes householding practitioners who are not in residential practice, we take the carrying out of beneficial action as a means of including them in our work practice. In the same way that work inside the temple is a gateway to the study of the three minds, activities outside the temple are gateways to the study of the three pure precepts:
• Shōritsugikai 摂津儀戒: The precept of avoiding all evil acts or embracing moral codes
• Shōzenbōkai 摂善法戒: The precept of doing all good acts or embracing all good dharmas
• Shōshujōkai 摂衆生戒: The precept of embracing and benefiting beings
Practitioners engage in the practice of beneficial action through their external activities like taking care of their families, carrying out their jobs or professions, or doing volunteer work in the community. It’s a concrete way to apply the precept
of embracing all beings—not just the practitioners within the temple, but the neighborhood, society as a whole, and even plants and animals. “In this way, we understand that the dharma is not a theory or philosophy, but something concrete,” Okumura Roshi says.
When we’re spiritually healthy and have some clarity about the nature of reality, we naturally engage in skillful action—action that moves us and others toward understanding two related things: interconnection and cause-and-effect.
Interconnection, or non-separation, means that within this one unified reality, nothing is actually disconnected; there is nothing outside of Buddha’s way. That sounds nice when we think of it as being supported by all beings. It sounds scary and uncomfortable when we think of it as being unable to escape from the things in our lives that we don’t like so much. How can we help ourselves and others to see and acknowledge interconnection?
Cause-and-effect is important because it reminds us that what we do has consequences. We don’t operate in a vacuum; when we do something, it sets up causes and conditions that unfold across space and time. That means that it’s important that our actions in the world—even small actions—are skillful, because whether we’re being wholesome or unwholesome makes a difference for others besides ourselves. How can we help ourselves and others to see and acknowledge cause-and-effect?
Through their professions, volunteer activities or material support, individual practitioners can and should be involved in their communities in ways that seem the most meaningful to them based on their bodhisattva vows. They are free to take positions on issues, engage in public processes of debate and decisionmaking, and work for particular changes, outcomes or circumstances as they see fit. By supporting their study of the three minds, the threefold pure precepts and the ten major precepts, work practice at Sanshin can help to equip these bodhisattvas for effective community engagement.
Ideally, our individual practice of beneficial action includes discernment, action and reflection. It’s helpful to create a solid foundation in the precepts, the practice of zazen and the study of teachings about interconnectedness and cause-and-effect that points us toward using our particular karmic conditions most effectively in liberating beings from suffering. As individuals, we each have particular skills and abilities, experiences and interests that we can offer for the benefit of others. When we decide in what activities we will engage, we can start or partner with community organizations, get training, commit time and resources and concretely carry out our vows. But our practice doesn’t stop there—we also need to reflect on that What insight are we gaining into our own motivation, assumptions and delusions? What fear and ignorance are we unearthing? Where are craving and aversion arising, and what might we do differently next time?
We offer our practice to our community as part of our individual bodhisattva activity, but we’re also supported in the deepening and maturing of our practice by those very activities. Our actions don’t need to be grandiose. If we’ve got the wherewithal to organize large initiatives, donate significant funds or train and manage a legion of volunteers, that’s terrific. It’s also meaningful beneficial action to walk to nearby destinations rather than driving, rake an elderly neighbor’s leaves or volunteer at the food bank. Activities inside and outside of the temple are practices of beneficial action that manifest the dharma and are also opportunities for personal inquiry into the nature of community.
Transformation of our understanding of interconnectedness is key. We practice beneficial action in the intersection of abstract theory and concrete activity, seeing
one reality from two sides and expressing two sides with one action. Sanshin becomes the place to which we return to share our growing understanding, check our perceptions, broaden our awareness, and gain support to wrestle with the tough questions. There will be a diversity of views, interests and experiences of engagement as practitioners identify their bodhisattva paths. What holds it all together is our shared commitment to a healthy network.