Zen Labor



Tesshin opened his talk this week speaking about the three main pillars of Rinzai Zen which include seated meditation (Zazen), Koan study, and “Samu” or labor.  This week Tesshin wanted to delve into Samu specifically as we have not really discussed it much in the past.  


From Wikipedia, Samu is defined as “physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical, and spiritual practice.”  This is typically seen as cooking, working in the garden, and general maintenance.  A common parable in Zen which really captures the centrality of Samu is “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” 


Tesshin next described life in a Zen temple.  When one first arrives as a student, they are not allowed to touch anything.  The novice is considered inexperienced – and to be frank – the monks are worried that they may actually break something.  Once the student has gained some familiarity with the temple and its routine, work can then be assigned.  Typically the first job is something menial like cleaning the toilets.  However, we must remember that EVERYTHING in a Zen temple is an opportunity to teach.  The toilets are assigned because it is right there where the student first encounters resistance of the mind.  Many students see menial or unpleasant work as an insult or something which must be borne in order to get to the “good stuff.”  Tesshin was clear – the toilets are the good stuff of Zen!  At his temple, Tesshin personally cleans the toilets as the last thing before closing a retreat.  It reminds him about Samu and that every job is another chance to work with the mind.    


Tesshin next described the role of the Tenzo – or cook – in a Zen temple.  Why would the cook be considered the most important job in a temple, except maybe for the Abbot?  Traditionally the Tenzo is seen to care and protect the practice of all the other monks.  Also, a Tenzo with an undisciplined mind will produce subpar food – and this will become clear immediately.  In other words, the Abbot can “fake” realization, but the Tenzo cannot – as everyone will taste it right away!!  Tesshin then related a story when his teacher – Ban Roshi – first asked him to prepare the Miso soup (a big deal in a temple!)  Tesshin’s mind raced with excitement and worry – would the master approve of his offering….  Of course, Tesshin’s mind was reflected in the soup and the master called it the WORST miso soup he ever tasted!  This was yet another loving teaching of Ban Roshi – food does not lie – it clearly reflected the chaos in Tesshin’s mind.  This is why the kitchen is so sacred in Zen temples and the Tenzo is so prized!


Tesshin continued the discussion on labor by relating a story about his visit to Tenryu-ji temple in Kyoto during his recent tour of Japan.  This is a famous temple and Tesshin personally knew the Abbot.  The idea was to show his traveling companions an authentic Rinzai temple – specifically the meditation halls, statues, and other religious artifacts.  However, all the abbot was interested in sharing were the gardens he personally tended.  Why would this be so?  It is because the garden is the abbot’s Samu.  It was what had significance for his own practice!  We spend so much of our lives in labor that it makes sense that this is where we can really practice.  It is in labor that we can confront our mind and understand our delusions.  Tesshin was clear here – labor is our best opportunity to practice wisdom.  The abbot wanted to show Tesshin his realization, which was his Samu, which was the garden.


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by announcing that we would have an opportunity to “labor like the abbot of Tenryu-ji!”  Yorktown Zen is sponsoring a plot in the Yorktown Garden of Hope.  Here the group will have the opportunity to tend crops with all the produce being donated to charity.  Tesshin reminded us that this will be a great opportunity to strengthen our practice and do some good for the community.



Lastly, the group decided to meditate outside in the beautiful spring weather.  Below is a picture Tesshin…