On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

June 15, 2020

Cultivation and Worldly Activities

Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

Question: It is said that some people practice in the midst of worldly activities and other people perform worldly activities in the midst of practice. What is the difference between the two?

Answer: The Japanese term signifying “practice” or “cultivation,” kufu, was originally an everyday word in China that meant something to the effect of “leisure.” The concept of kufu as practice is one that applies to all activities.

For farmers the growing of crops is kufu; for carpenters and plasterers the construction of buildings is kufu. Drawing on this secular meaning, the word came to indicate cultivation of the Buddhadharma for seekers of the Way.

People who cultivate Original Nature itself experience no separation between practicing in the midst of worldly activities and performing worldly activities in the midst of practice.

For beginners, however, it is appropriate at first to recognize such a separation. Those who are still unsteady in their capacity to focus on the Way should follow a schedule in which they perform their worldly activities to the best of their ability and then practice zazen at set times during the day.

This is why the present monastic custom of sitting four times a day was instituted about two hundred years ago. Prior to that Zen monks would meditate under trees, on top of rocks, or together in monasteries, practicing day and night for the sake of the One Great Matter with no thought given to food or sleep.

In this Latter Age of the Dharma, however, not everyone who enters the clergy does so for the sake of the Dharma. Some reluctantly don Buddhist robes on the command of their parents; others enter the temple in order to escape the hardships of worldly life.

Even people like these, who enter the clergy unwillingly, do so because of beneficial karmic influences from former lives, and thus they’re not completely adverse to practicing zazen. Nevertheless, they lack a genuine aspiration for the Way, and therefore when eating meals or drinking tea their appetites distract them from the Buddhadharma, and when reading sutras or chanting dharanis, their focus on these relative practices causes them to lose sight of Original Nature.

Occupying themselves with such trifling matters, they can easily neglect their cultivation of the fundamental and pass their lives in vain.

The four daily sittings of zazen are an expedient established for people such as these. This does not mean, of course, that they should cease their cultivating outside of these four periods.

People with a true aspiration for the Way need never waste their time; there are people who ceaselessly cultivate the fundamental regardless of what they are doing, whether eating, dressing, reading sutras, chanting dharanis, going to the toilet, washing up, greeting other monks, or speaking to guests.

Those who do this are said to “practice in the midst of worldly activities.”

Although such people are superior to the aforementioned practitioners who perform their worldly activities to the best of their ability and then practice zazen at set times during the day, they still differentiate between practice and worldly activities and are therefore anxious that they might be distracted by those activities and forget their cultivation. This is because they regard things as existing outside of the mind.

The ancient masters tell us, “The mountains, rivers, the great earth, and everything that exists are all oneself.” If you have made this truth your own, then no activities are outside of cultivation.

You put on your clothes and eat your meals in cultivation; you walk, stand, sit, and lie down in cultivation; you see, hear, perceive, and know in cultivation; you experience joy, anger, affection, and pleasure in cultivation.

Those who can do this are said to “perform worldly activities in the midst of practice.” This is the practice of non-practice, the striving of non-striving. For those who can apply the mind in this way, remembering and forgetting are both cultivation, and it makes no difference whether they are asleep or awake.

An ancient master said, “The Way is found in pleasure and pain and adverse circumstances.”

Another ancient master said, “The Way exists in all things.”

Both statements are making the same point.

But even realization to this degree is still no more than a stage of realization, and doesn’t yet attain to the true teachings of the patriarchs.

Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

Excerpted from Dialogues in a Dream-The Life and Teachings of Muso Soseki trans by Thomas Yuho Kirchner 2015

Some people have a formal practice, attend many retreats, and feel like, Yes!, they are on the Way. Others have no teacher or group to associate with and meditate each day at a certain time.

Old timers have trained for many years, matured in practice, and still have their questions close to their hearts. Some just always feel like beginners as they bump into the spiritual ironies and sense of controlled folly that trip them up over and over.

No matter where we feel we are, which is usually illusory anyway, what does Muso mean by “cultivation?” Since he, like many teachers, leaves the details for us to come up with, what would you say cultivation of the Way is really all about?

Even Confucius had this challenge for students, “Every truth has four corners: as a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three.”

It will never be enough just to nod our heads as if we understand passively…it is up to us to bring back at least one corner!

What does it really feel like to be so immersed in practice there is no distinction between daily life and the time on the cushion? And how do we avoid fooling ourselves? These are two questions that are not simply answered; they require keeping close company with to reveal their answers.

Keep your questions close and be wary of when you think you know the answers…

Embracing Beginner’s Mind,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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