Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 30
Why are you so busy?

When we work and live in a Zen monastic environment, the question isn't really if we work to live or live to work - work has to be a manifestation of life in this present moment, it is not a means to an end. Last month I said that both the Japanese and the Western approach to work have their pitfalls. The Japanese work long hours and never feel completely comfortable when they don't have anything to do. They almost seem to be afraid of the vacuum of "free time" that would await them once they are finished with their job. Therefore, although they work long, they don't necessarily work hard. Often they are just killing time, rather than looking for ways to finish their work as fast and efficiently as possible to enjoy themselves with their families and recreate.

This might have to do with a basic difference between the Japanese and us Westerners that I was trying to hint at in the February version of the Lotus in the Fire. I had said that Westerners are usually tense while Japanese can be called flexible, or soft. This leads to the paradox that in the West zazen is (mis-)understood as a relaxation technique, while Japanese (especially the early Sawaki Roshi) tend to emphasize the necessity of tension in the sitting posture.

Gudo Wafu Nishijima Roshi, a Zen teacher in the Tokyo area, says that zazen aims at balancing the autonomous nervous system. Usually, either our sympathetic or our para-sympathetic nervous system dominates the other side. They are never completely in balance. In zazen that means that Westerners are so tense that they grind their teeth, while Japanese tend to be too lax and fall asleep. With work too, Westerners will be eager to do a "good job" and be efficient, even if it is only to finish work as early as possible. On the other hand, Japanese are in no hurry to finish their job, that is why they lack concentration and their efforts are generally not focused on a clear goal. In life in general, Westerners have much more problems with hate than the Japanese. You will never find kids in Japan that beat each other up after a football match, and you will also find no survivor of the atom bomb in Hiroshima who would say that he hated the Americans. This is less because of forgiveness than of the complete absence of the notion of "the enemy".

Maybe this has to do with the fact that Buddhism does not address the problem of love and hate so much. Sure, hate is counted with craving and delusion as one of the three evils, but in practice Buddhism in the East is mostly concerned with attachment and desire, and - at least outside Japan - not eating meat, not drinking alcohol and abstaining from sex are considered to be prerequists to practice. Christianity is less strict here, but rather asks us to "love our neighbour" and even "love our enemy", "turn the other cheek" and so on. This is because hate is the main problem of a person dominated by his sympathetic nervous system, while the person with a stronger para-sympathetic system experiences difficulties to control his desires. The para-sympathetic type is more physical and less self-centered, while the sympathetic type is aim-oriented and will favor "brain over body".

The relation of sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous system - in more conservative terms - corresponds to that of Yang and Yin. It is interesting that macrobiotic cooking, which emphasizes the right balance of Yin and Yang elements in the ingredients of a meal, is usually quite salty (i.e. Yang oriented) in Japan, while Western macriobiotic cookbooks usually tell you to use less salt. Japanese macrobiotics explain their preference of salty dishes with the argument that "human beings tend towards Yin anyway" - therefore a little more Yang in the dish is necessary. This mjight be true for the "para-sympathetic" Japanese, while Westerners quite contrarywise show an affinity towards sweet things like chocolate, cakes or ice-cream, that is not shared by the Japanese to the same degree. Maybe we sympathetic Westerners thus balance their surplus of Yang energy.

Now, when I say that Westerners are more focused and efficient in their work, it might sound if I favored the Western approach to work. This though is not the case. Actually I get the impression that our approach to work is quite sick at times. Although they do not succeed always in practice, the Japanese generally understand that work and life are not seperate. Japanese are not the work-slaves that we think they are, because work is one way to enjoy life for them. That is why they don't work so hard - life in Japan does not begin when work is over, but rather work itself is understood as a part of life (or - at times - as life itself). In the West though, the general idea seems to be that work is not part of life. Work is a "necessary evil" to earn us a living, but we feel as if the more we work the less the live. Why should that be?

I think one of the reasons is our religious background. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches us that we were created by God in an ideal setting, the Garden Eden. Originally, we were not meant to work. Adam and Eve had nothing to do but enjoy themselves. If it wasn't for Adam's eating that apple offered to him by Eve, doing nothing but having a good time would have been the fate of all of mankind. Only because of the apple incident were we driven out of paradise and have to work and sweat ever on. In this context, work is not understood as an essential part of the human existence. Quite contrarywise, work is looked down upon as a punishment for man's original sin. And the only relief granted to mankind is the sabbath (being a "holy-day"). Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, so his creature has the right (and at the same time: duty!) to rest every seventh day. This is the only time we human beings can enjoy our original state of existence, or at least what we take for it. And that is why we try to work hard and efficient and enjoy the maximum amount of holidays. The efforts of labourer's organizations have been to reduce weekly working hours from 60 to 50 hours, from 50 to 40, from 40 to 37, from 37 to 35 hours. Even when these efforts had success, does that means that we live "more" now? Are our lifes really more fulfilled when we work less? Or are our lifes just as vacant as they always were, because we have no clue what to do with ourselves on the "holy day"? Jesus opened the eyes of some when he said that man does not exist for the sabbath, but the sabbath exists for man. But does man really know how to live the sabbath, even now, 2000 years after Jesus, with much more leisure and luxury available than then?

In Japan, the idea of the weekend being a "holy day" does not exist. Often people head to "work" even on their days off. I have met school teachers who would spent their sundays at school, only to sit at their desks and chat with their colleagues. This of course isn't quite what we would call work in the West. Because Japanese don't punish themselves with work. Working on a sunday in Japan is just another way to socialize. The idea of having to rest on a sunday because God did so doesn't exist, just as the idea of having to work in exchange for the original sin commited by Adam would never come across a Japanese mind. Work is not a price paid for life, and the holydays are not a reward bestowed on us. Every second of our lifes counts, and can be called "holy". Not only the sundays.

In German we say that "the one who sleeps does not sin". Calling someone between 12 and 2pm on the other hand is an unforgiveable sin - you can't possibly disrupt their siesta. Does that mean that the one who works does sin? Not necessarily, but at least there seems to be some connection between work and sin in the Christian background. In Japan it seems that it is the one who works who does not sin. And even when they don't, Japanese will often pretend to be working. That is why shops never close and it is OK to disturb people's siesta - they wouldn't admit that they were having one in the first place. And only when Japanese can't possibly pretend to be working - for example when sitting in a commuter train or sitting in zazen - they will be fast asleep. This happens to be one of the big problems in Japanese Zen temples.

While I think that the Japanese can learn a lot from the West about the importance of rest, we Westerners first have to learn the meaning of work. It goes without saying that the Japanese themselves have to improve their attitude towards work, and Westerners have to realize that leisure and recreation are more than being just off-duty for the time being.
"What does man work for, what is the meaning of his work? What is the meaning of this life of work? I think work is a way for that person to shine with the light of life. Life itself provides the time and space for us to shine with the light of the universe. Through work, through our life, we shine with our own light and also make the people around us shine with their respective lights. Shining with the light of life - isn't this the meaning of our lives?" (Tassho Mugikura in "Approaches to the mutual understanding of differing cultures")
What is important though, is not intellectual understanding but practice. Rather than talking about work being the light of life, we actually have to work and life in that way. This should be our aim.

Be that as it may - how come we feel so tired, how come we always feel busy? How come we think that work takes away our energy to do zazen? I think that is because we do not understand that work itself is life, and work itself can be a manifestation of our practice of zazen. Sometimes this has to do with the fact that we do not see the results of our work. Marx noticed that we got enstranged from our work. But even in a place like Antaiji, where we literally eat the fruits of our labour, it happens that we feel stresses out by work when we fail to see that work as practice. So when we feel to exhausted to do zazen, often we do not need to reduce the amount of work we do (and often that will not be possible anyway), but rather change our attitude towards that work. Unless we do so, we will never feel refreshed, no matter how many hours we sleep during zazen.

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