Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 29
Work to live - or live to work?

Sawaki Rôshi tells us to "avoid sitting when you are physically exhausted", but the question is why we feel so tired and stressed out in the first place? This relates again to the question of our use of time and our attitude towards work and rest. It is an important issue and has a lot to do with our cultural background, I think.

In one of his books, Uchiyama Kôshô Rôshi says that as a junior highschool student he was struck when he found the English sentence "I don't live to work, I work to live" in his textbook in school. It seems that this was a completely new and unexpected perspective on life for him, differing from that of the common Japanese. As a matter of fact, many foreigners as well as Japanese seem to agree that the Japanese in general are like ants that "live in order to work" rather than "work in order to live". I myself had heard a lot of talk like that before I came to Japan, and on my first visit was most impressed by the so-called "convenience stores" which you find at each corner in the big cities. Unlike Germany, where it is illegal to open your store after 6 pm and on sundays, and many shops in Catholic areas even close for a lunch break from 12 to 2, these stores are open 24 hours a day, all around the year. While a town in Europe can be as dead as a cemetery on a sunday, there seems to be no such thing in Japan: you couldn't tell from the traffic in the street if it was a regular week day or the week end. Japanese are also famous for not taking their holidays even when they have a right to, and working extra hours without being paid.

On the other hand, I was quite surprised to find that the Japanese were not at all the "working animals" I had heard they were. They spend a lot of time at their jobs, sure, but they are not necessarily hard-working. Sometimes I even got the impression that they weren't doing pretty much anything. It would for example cost me an hour to cash in a traveller's check, even though there were no others customers in the bank and more than half a dozen clerks sitting behind the desks, straing at their finger nails. But not only desk workers seem to be killing most of the time of the day. Construction sites in Japan are often crowed with people, but only few of them are actually working. Others will just stand around and take care that "everything is safe", while still others sit in the shade and chat, take a nap or read the tabloid paper. Only when their boss is watching will people pretend to be doing something, but even for an outsider it is obvious that no-one really feels responsible for or connected to the job. No wonder that work takes forever even though people work until late at night and take only a few days of holiday during the year. In short, the quality of the work is extremely low if you put it into relation with the quantity of time that is used up for it. This was also my first impression of the work we did at Antaiji when I came here as a student for 6 months in 1990 (I wrote about this experience in the "Shitpaper" of January 2004). The monks were working a lot and for long hours, but not in an efficient way at all. Although forgetting about efficiency and just putting your body to work turned out to be a good lesson in Zen practice for a lazy intellectual as myself, the long hours of un-efficient work were also the reason for many monks to regard zazen and especially the sesshin as a kind of holiday. They were sitting when being totally exhausted, and as reducing work was not an option, they seemed to have decided that they couldn't be blamed for taking a rest during those hours and be fast asleep.

Now, when Sawaki Rôshi tells us to "avoid sitting when you are physically exhausted", does he mean that we should stop doing zazen when we can not reduce the amount of work we have to do? I do not necessarily think so. Although there are limits to our physical exhaustion, most of the time when we feel so tired from work that we can't sit, it seems to have something to do with our attitude towards work and zazen. Do we feel that we spent our whole lives as "work slaves" with no time left for ourselves? And even though we became monks to practice the Buddha way, after living in a monastic environment for a couple of years, we might even think that zazen itself is not "our time". We start to complain that we have no time because we sit too much zazen!

There is a Zen saying that claims that "a day without work is a day without food". Especially in a self-sufficient environment like Antaiji, we have to work hard to live. But how come that we end up feeling as if we were just "living to work"? And is it really true that we should "work to live but not live to work"? I have the feeling that it is exactly this divison between work and life and the attitude of putting one above the other that makes us feel so tired and exhausted. Isn't it because we do not understand work as a part of life that we complain that we are stressed out and have no time? Both the Japanese approach, that seems to value work more than everything else, when in reality people just work long but nothing gets done - and the Western approach, where work seems to be understood sometimes as a "necessary evil" to keep us alive rather than work itself fulfilling our lives, have their pitfalls. Both fail to see the unity of life and work. As long as we feel that the time we spent at our jobs is not "our time", and we think that our lives are eaten away by our work, we will always feel tired no matter how hard we try to recreate and have fun after five. Because we do not live our lives "after five" or on the weekends only. It is not only the holidays which we spend on the beach when we are alive - we live right now, and our practice has to be the attitude with which we live this present moment.

I want to continue to investigate why we feel so enslaved by our work next month.

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