Work
April 2014 Graduate Meeting


    The word work is apparently about five thousand years old, and from the beginning—in its Proto-Indo-European version, werg—it simply referred to “something being done.” How are we in relation to this something being done in our daily lives? What is the heart of our work? What are the qualities surrounding our something being done?
    Work can mean our career or simply how we make money; it can be our calling (our “life’s work”) or simply our functioning in the world: cleaning the zendo floor, making the beds, doing the dishes.
    I like to think of work as what we do; it is the activity of the life we live. Work is any activity we’re engaged in that requires our energy and focus, whether or not we’re paid for it. We all know you can work really hard for no money. There’s work in the marketplace, and there’s work at home. There’s paid work and unpaid work. When I was a young woman, I took a few years off from the university and learned so much about the world. I learned to cook, to paint, and to write poetry; I tried my hand at pottery; I did canning; I gardened; I sold organic vegetables; I learned to quilt; I even sewed my husband’s shirts by hand. Then I’d go to a party, and someone would ask me, “What do you do?” And because what I was doing had no value in the marketplace (even though I was experimenting and learning and full of creative energy), I felt like saying, “I don’t do anything.” But I was working twelve hours a day on all my projects. Amazing!
    What is valid work? I know a woman who is a wonderful writer. I met her because she walks dogs for my neighbors in the apartment building where I live. We have the same daily schedule, so we often meet in the mornings and evenings when she’s making her dog runs. I join her, and we walk the dogs together. This is her profession, how she makes her money. Simultaneously, she’s also a really fine writer and probably has many other talents. Yet our society looks down on those who do such tasks as walking dogs for a living when they actually may also be involved in creative, nurturing, and service work.
    What is work? There’s a story about the great thirteenth-century Zen master Ju-ching, who was once the sanitation officer at a monastery. In those days, the job of the sanitation officer was to shovel the shit. Back then, they had wooden toilets, and shit and piss would fall into tiled trenches below. Every week Ju-ching would go and clean out the trenches with buckets and take the manure to the garden. Then he’d wash the tiles with rags and brushes.
    One time his teacher, Setcho, asked him, “How do you clean that which has never been soiled?” He was asking Ju-ching about himself.
    Poor Ju-ching did not know how to answer. He kept practicing with that question for a full year, during which time he continued cleaning toilets. Finally Ju-ching went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.”
    This would be a good question for each of us to ask ourselves: How do you clean that which has never been soiled? Finally, after much struggle, Ju-ching saw that there is no work that isn’t of high value. Shoveling shit is not soiled work any more than walking a dog is soiled work. He went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.” To this day, in all Zen communities, a tradition for practice leaders during retreats is to go out in the middle of the night and quietly, unobtrusively, clean the bathrooms and toilets.
    How do you think about work? Is some work of value and some not? Are you “too busy”? Are you trying to get one thing “done” so you can get the next piece “done”? Are you anxious about, angry about, or resentful of your work? Do you neglect your work? Do you do it in an obsessive way or in a sloppy, careless manner? Do you think, If I work harder, I’ll be successful, and when I’m successful, I’ll get what I want? Do you think, This work is not what I am capable of, or deserving of, so I’m not going to give it my all?
           - from The Work of the Moment by Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, as published in Shambhala Sun, March 2014

Closing Thoughts

     Every job from the heart is ultimately of equal value. The nurse injects the syringe; the writer slides the pen; the farmer plows the dirt; the comedian draws the laughter. Monetary income is the perfect deceiver of man's true worth.
           - Criss Jami

     Work is love made visible.
           - Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet