From a talk given by George Mathews on June 14, 2015

Samu has at least two purposes. First, samu is a training opportunity in two ceremonies of attention that we stress at this temple during sesshin. The tea ceremony, of course, that we just enjoyed is part of the daily sesshin schedule morning and evening. Oryoki, which we will exercise at today’s noon meal, is a formal dining ritual that we engage for morning and noon meals during sesshin. Becoming acquainted with these ceremonies during samu makes them more familiar and frankly less stressful during sesshin.

SenseiCutterBeside this instructional objective of samu, we have the prescribed function of samu. Samu is work practice. Samu is Zen practice expressed through work. Robert Aitken wrote: “Without samu, Zen Buddhism would be a cult, isolated from daily life. Samu is the extension of sutra services to the garden, the extension of meditation to its function. This is Bodhisattva practice within the temple setting – and for lay students samu is also Bodhisattva work in the world.” John Daido Loori designates work practice as one of the Eight Gates of Zen. …

Work as a critical element of Zen practice began with the institutionalization of Zen/Ch’an monasticism under Baizhang Huaihai in 8th century China. Some of you likely know his famous saying: “A day of no work – a day of no eating.” An anecdote goes that his monks took away his work tools when Baizhang was very old. They thought they were favoring his age and frailty to spare his labor in the garden. However, he refused to eat until they returned his tools. “A day of no work – a day of no eating.”

There is another story of the importance of work in Zen practice that is not quite as well known. This one also centers on a master Baizhang, but this is Baizhang Weizheng, who actually was the successor to the other Baizhang’s monastery (hence the same name). This Baizhang Weizheng said to his monks, “If you clear a new rice paddy for me, I’ll explain to you the Great Principle.” (Now there’s a hook!) After clearing the new rice paddy, the monks returned and asked the master to explain the Great Principle. The master held out his two hands.

Every job is clearing a new rice paddy. And for every job we ask you to clear your minds and be attentive to your work. Just as you are instructed to pay attention to each breath in your zazen, we ask you to pay equivalent attention to your work during samu. Your minds will stray, will be diverted. When you notice this, return to your work. Just doing. Just working. Where does the Great Principle reside? Don’t worry about completing a task. We are here to just work, not to just finish.

From time to time the densho will ring three strikes. Pause in what you are doing. Focus with a few deep breaths. Where does that Great Principle reside?

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