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Number 2: The Spiritual World of Work

Pilgrimage to the place of the wise is to escape the flame of separation. Underhill

I know. The quote may be difficult to understand. Read it again. Look carefully. With full attention. Where is this place of the wise? And what is the essence of going there?

I recently attended a class on ‘activity’ as devotion. The group was diverse in regards to stage of life and history and lifestyle. Each participant was given an opportunity to say something about their practice. The content of what was said remained specific to each person, and yet, the content was very much the same. There was a harmony that emerged quite naturally.

The underlying revelation was effort; making an effort to escape some tendency, some habit, to change in such a way to ease up something difficult or heavy in their life situation. In doing so, they each exhibited the willingness to attempt to purify some tendency that prevented them from living in the clear circle of brightness. Yet, there was a brightness there.

The language, the word-sets used may not be words such as the quote above, pilgrimage to the place of the wise, nevertheless, each person spoke about their daily trip of doing some activity. This trip-taking happens every day all over the world.

Much of the work, especially in the beginning, is with the material world of things and inner tendencies that we have fabricated into habits. Habits, those fabrications we rely on to remain stable; are what we need to examine.

We do things, work, stay busy as a way to feel safe. In the American culture, work is a central tenet. It is a “DO SOMETHING” commandment. If we are not doing something, we feel adrift, inconsequential, unappreciated, bored, depressed, a failure…oh you see what I mean. Being useless is a sin of the worst sort.

Action is not the spark of causing the flame of separation; our desire to get something for our selfish ego is. Desire to be rewarded in some way causes us to set-up separate identities of me, my, mine.

To escape the flame of separation we need to drop this imaginary identification that we all so very much believe is real, ever-lasting, and worth fighting to keep.

In order to understand how to escape, we need instruction on devotion. To begin to see our karma, our actions as devotion.

When we devote ourselves to a thing (people, place, thing, material world) we give without reward. It is without measure. Giving without measure requires courage. Courage to relinquish our identity as a separate being of some identity which carries a boat-load of constructed rights and privileges of I-ME-MINE.

When we act for the sake of the self, we act in a quid pro quo manner; in other words we want something to show for our actions. It’s the old adage, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

But the quote suggests we take a journey to escape this flame of separation of I-ME-MINE.

This practice, this yoga of life is a find-out-for-yourself; are these teachings worthwhile, spiritually valuable. Finding out is not by believing anything; but tasting the Truth yourself through experience.

If you live the other way-round, the way of the world of one hand washes the other, you live bound to the other, whether the other is a friend, a mate, a boss or whomever. There is a debt. There is disappointment. There is suffering. My dear late teacher would say, friendship requires you keep track of how many cards you got and how many cards you sent. She’d say that is not a ‘true friend.’ That’s some sort of deal.

So, let’s turn the instructions of how to escape the flame of separation. In other words, instructions to help us see and know that there is no separation between one and the other, no matter how many cards you may receive or how much you owed or paid.

The Tenzo’s Prayer, an old Zen Buddhist chant, will be the main instruction. Let’s look at it with a slow and careful attentive mind. We’ll start with the first line; the first instruction.

Pay full attention to all the work, the Way seeking mind is actualized by rolling up your sleeves. Dogen

It suggests we bring our full attention to all the work – in other words, to whatever comes our way – that is the work. Paying bills, caretaking another, getting dressed, fixing a meal, going for a walk, washing the body and on and on the endless activity comes and goes. Lending a hand fully to whatever shows up.

To give without measuring and without seeking a reward. The requirements are that we must be willing to help, to give, to offer what we have to offer as a devotion. This requirement rests upon paying full attention to what shows up.

Giving attention, our full attention to what shows up is devotion; it is, to give unconditionally. It requires that our full attention is given freely without any sense of self-gain. Pretty stiff requirements.

It is, however not to be a passive, falling apart door mat. Let me give another example from my late teacher. On this particular occasion she was ill and in bed. A phone call came in and her husband took the call and explained to the caller that Ming Zhen was ill and could not come to the phone. The caller ramped up her need insisting she must speak to her. Back and forth the caller and husband went and at such time he felt the need to tell Ming Zhen of the apparent needy caller who sounded distraught. Ming Zhen hearing the urgency of the caller got up out of bed to take the call. As the caller began to talk Ming Zhen heard in the background a clattering of dishes and silverware. On hearing the noise, she inquired of the ‘frantic’ caller of what she was doing as she began to talk to Ming Zhen. The caller explained that she was filling the dishwasher with dishes. On hearing this, Ming Zhen immediately hung up the phone.

Ming Zhen was willing to get up out of a sick bed and give her full attention to the caller. It did not require any reward or quid pro quo from the caller; but once Ming Zhen was told the caller was distracted by her selfish act of filling the dishwasher, she hung up and went back to her sick bed.

Consider this story in light of giving without reward, without gain. Giving one’s full attention to what shows up. What does to pay full attention mean? Contemplate it.

To pay full attention with all activities is the Way. We do not and cannot predict what that looks like. This is where we start.

Keep going. Don’t give up.


Humming Bird

Author: Fashi Lao Yue

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