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How to Practice Zen Meditation in Daily Life (working meditation)

        given in Taiwan on November 19, 2000

Nam-Mô Bổn Sư Thích Ca Mâu Ni Phật

Today I am going to speak on "applying the concentration of sitting empty meditation (Zen) to everyday life."

I will go over what this kind of meditation is and isn’t. I will explain how to do it. And lastly, I will talk about the benefits you will reap by applying this kind of meditation to your everyday life.

"Sitting empty" meditation is being completely aware of every sound, smell, sight and the touch of a breeze on your cheek while having your mind clear of thought. You are aware of the traffic noise or the dog barking but you do not put this awareness into words. We think in words, in fact most of us have an incessant internal dialog going on all the time in our heads. What we should have said or done yesterday, what we will do or say tomorrow. We go over and over the same thoughts, building up ill feelings and stress. This is like picking at a sore and then wonder why it won’t heal.

Sitting empty is clearing the mind but does not mean turning it off. Meditation is not a mindless activity. In the seventh century, the sixth Patriarch of China, Hui Neng, said, "Sitting like a rock in the matter of posture is fine, but not thinking would be the same as being a rock. How would you gain insight into anything?" Don’t be like a computer that isn’t plugged in. Be like one that is plugged in and booted up - ready to process but not currently running a program.

You don’t want to zone out. Zoning out is concentrating on something to the point of not being aware of anything else. If I come up to you and say "Hi" and you jump out of your skin - you’ve zoned out.

Let me explain the empty mind of Zen meditation in this way. You are looking through a fixed telescope at a point on a road. Cars and trucks come into sight and then out again. You can’t anticipate a vehicle nor follow or push one away. They come, they go. So it is with thoughts. Don’t anticipate, participate, entertain, manufacture, follow or push thoughts away. Just let them come and go.

I won't tell you it's easy. It's not easy to quiet the mind. That's why we’re told to follow or count the breath, returning to it each and every time your monkey mind strikes. In the beginning it’s helpful to follow the breath in and down and up and out or count the breath, ‘one’ on the inhalation, ‘two’ on the exhalation and up to ‘ten’ then return to ‘one’. Each time you find your mind wandering, go back to the breath without thinking that you’ve failed or berating yourself. When the mind realizes that you’re the boss, fewer thoughts will arise and they will become mere flickers.

You’re aware of everything. But while you should be aware of a dog barking, avoid thinking in words. "Dog barking" in words, leads to "I wonder what he's barking at" to "I hope it's not after my cat" and your mind is off and running. The next thing you know you're oblivious, no longer meditating and instead, sitting there planning tomorrow's schedule. When not anticipating, entertaining, manufacturing, following or pushing thoughts away, your mind is clear; ready for flashes of insight.

An added benefit of sitting empty and following the breath is that stress is reduced and the mind its allowed to rest. Normally, we carry on a continuous conversation with ourselves. An internal dialog that seems to go on forever. Like a monkey, we jump from thought to thought supplying both questions and answers "What do I have to do tomorrow?" "Get up, wash, fight with the boss, etc." "Why did I let her say that to me yesterday?" "Why am I so dumb?" "Why am I so fat?" or skinny, or tall, or short? Your mind will give you reasons by the dozen to these questions and a lot of the answers may not even be true.

These incessant conversations are what turn minor slights into unforgivable insults. "Hi, Jack." "Oh, I guess he didn’t see me." "No, he must of seen me. He’s just ignoring me." "I wonder what he’s mad at me for?" "Well, I don’t need a friend who snubs me." "I never really like him anyway." "I hate him!" They are something that spoils our relationship with others (or cause wars).

Even when we sleep, internal dialogs appear in the form of dreams and nightmares. No wonder many of us go through life in an exhausted state. So instead: when thoughts come up, let them go; without adding to them, changing them or pushing them away. Just allow them to lightly float through your mind, being aware of them but not participating in them.

Wouldn't that not only give your mind a rest but your emotions a rest, too?

I know a lot of people think that Zen meditation - sitting empty meditation is very difficult. Well, it is! But just like anything else worth while, you must make an effort. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano for the first time and expect to play like a professional. It takes practice, sometimes years of practice and that’s why it’s called "Zen Meditation Practice". Another word often used is "cultivating". Just as when you plant a garden, you don’t just stick seeds in the ground and expect to come out the next morning and pick vegetables. It’s not going to happen unless you do the dirty work of preparing the soil and after planting the seeds, coming out and weeding and watering until the plants are in full bloom. Even after the Buddha gained complete enlightenment, he continued to practice meditation for the next forty five years.

Let's look at how much time we spend in sitting meditation? An hour twice a day?, twice a week? Five minutes every now and them. And it's not easy to find a place where you’ll be undisturbed. I'll tell you, I am a full time nun, living in a temple and I have trouble putting aside enough time. It would be nice to be able to spend large blocks of time sitting empty.

But even it we didn't have things that had to be done, few of us could stand the physical exertion required to sit hour after hour. I know I couldn't do it. The answer, of course, is what's called "working meditation." And working meditation includes eating and playing meditation.

When we apply "sitting empty concentration" to our daily activities, we not only have the benefit of getting in more meditation time but the additional benefit of doing the activity well.

Part of the Buddha’s meditation practice was in forms other than just sitting. As he got older, walking meditation was an important part, along with eating meditation, washing meditation and so on. That is, when he walked, he just walked; when he ate, he just ate; when he washed, he just washed. You can call it "being in the now". Most of the time when we do anything, we think about everything else but what we are doing, especially if it’s a chore we’d rather not do. How often have we done something poorly or made mistakes and said, "I was thinking of something else" or "I wasn't concentrating". It is one of the reasons, we often take longer to do an unpleasant chore and then don’t do the job as well as we might. When we do those chores with the same kind of concentration as we use in Zen meditation, we are aware of everything about us, and having quieted the ever present internal babble of our minds, we do the task better.

Why, we even have places to do it undisturbed. Who's going to bother us when we are cleaning the toilet? They'd be afraid we'd want them to do it.

One of the hallmarks of sitting empty is a concentrated awareness. The awareness of sound, color and texture. We've all seen beautiful works of art and poetry done by Zen Masters. Think of the pictures you've seen of Japanese Zen gardens made of stone and sand.

And one of the things that makes unpleasant chores, unpleasant, is that we repeat over and over again, almost as a mantra, such things as "I don't want to be here" "It's not fair." "How'd I get stuck with this yucky job?" And other whiny, sorry for myself thoughts.

Formerly unpleasant chores can become moments to look forward to. Doing the dishes or raking the yard become opportunities to do the sitting empty kind of concentration and meditation.

Being mentally still, you can put your whole attention on what you're doing. Not only will you do a better job of it but you'll find the chore will probably take less time than usual and you'll come away from it feeling mentally and emotionally rested. And what about pleasurable pastimes? Wouldn't this concentration enhance them, too? Apply it in all your activities.

Note that I have used the word ‘practice’ above. In the beginning, it's going to take a lot of effort to throw off the habit of internal babbling. I'd suggest starting with a simple manual activity such as walking, sweeping, or cleaning. I find that dishwashing is especially good because your mind is aware of the hot water, soap, texture of the dishes but deep thought isn't required. When your mind wanders and it will, instead of going back to following the breath, pay attention to what you're doing. Really see it, really feel it, really smell it.

Just as with sitting meditation, it’s helpful to fall into a routine that tells the mind, "settle down, it's meditation time." Perhaps not ringing a bell or lighting a stick of incense, although something like that couldn't hurt in the beginning.

Take a moment as you start and tell yourself "Pay attention! This is a period of meditation." If you don't remind yourself that it is opportunity to meditate you'll easily fall into your usual internal chatter. After a while, as you get out of the habit of mental babbling, you'll find you've replaced it with the habit of sitting empty concentration. You’ll do it almost without thought. The pun's intended!

As an aside, Thích Nhaât Haïnh speaks about using this concentration when in conversation with others. With your mind still, you will actually hear what the other person has to say. Most of us listen with half an ear while we frame our reply. Don't you prefer to talk with someone who is actually listening to you?

So, let me wrap this up with these thoughts:

Few of us get to do as much sitting meditation as we'd like. Working meditation is a legitimate form of Zen meditation. The place in our lives for sitting - working - playing - eating meditation is in every activity. But in the beginning, save meditating while driving or other potentially dangerous thing until you really know what you're doing and it's become second nature.

Just as sitting meditation is practice, working meditation will not develop overnight. However, both practices will feed each other. You'll find it easier to clear your mind in both silence and chaos, as your practice matures.

Practice readies the mind for waking to your own true nature when the time is ripe.

Remember, except for the Historical Buddha, few enlightened people were doing sitting meditation when they woke up.

Te-shan Hsian-Chien in ninth century China awoke when the light he was about to take from his master was blown out.

Hui Neng worked gathering firewood for nineteen years. As a wood gatherer, he probably didn't have time for sitting meditation but he had years in which to practice working meditation. He awoke when he overheard the Diamond Sutra being recited as he was making a delivery. His mind was ripe. Here was a man who was illiterate. The fifth Patriarch called him a `barbarian' but made him the sixth Patriarch because, of the hundreds of monks in his monastery, Hui Neng was the only one awake. His words, as given in "The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch" stands as a shining example of what's possible through working meditation.

So: Clear the mind of internal babble. Be in the moment, in the now. Pay attention, concentrate on what you're doing. Be aware of sounds, smells, textures and so on. This is Working Meditation Practice.