Nyoho practice is looking for opportunities to act in accord with the Dharma in the midst of our daily lives, in very practical, physical ways. We view no act as too mundane or insignificant to perform with care, and no object or being we encounter as beneath our respect or attention. In this episode I hope to convey the significance and beauty of Nyoho practice, and the wonderful opportunity it presents in terms of how we can incorporate it in into our everyday lives.
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Quicklinks to Content:
The Deeper Truths Manifested in Nyoho Practice
Naturally Treating Each Thing as Buddha
Establishing Forms for Nyoho Practice
Nyoho Practice Makes Us More Sensitive (In a Good Way)
Taking Nyoho into Your Everyday Life
A Final Note: What About Taking Care of People?
In the last episode I introduced what Nyoho practice is – namely, looking for opportunities to act in accord with the Dharma in the midst of our daily lives, in very practical, physical ways. When practicing Nyoho, we view no act as too mundane or insignificant to perform with care, and no object or being we encounter as beneath us in terms of being worth our respect or attention. Everything matters.
In the last episode I also gave a brief overview of the origin and evolution of Nyoho practice in Buddhism and Zen, and gave you a sense of some of the forms it takes in Zen monasteries and practice centers.
In this episode I hope to convey the significance and beauty of Nyoho practice, and the wonderful opportunity it presents in terms of how we can incorporate it in into our everyday lives outside formal practice venues like Zen centers or monasteries. After all, the whole idea is that nothing is too mundane or insignificant to do with care, and nothing we encounter is beneath our attention or respect.
The Deeper Truths Manifested in Nyoho Practice
At the Aichi Senmon Nisodo, a very traditional Soto Zen women’s training monastery in Nagoya, Japan, the practice of Nyoho has been developed, in my estimation, into an art form. The daily life of the nuns there is regulated by an intricate set of forms (that is, established ways of doing things). As a nun you have to pay careful attention to how you fold your bedding in the morning, where you put your shoes after taking them off and before entering a room (leaving space closer to the door for shoes belonging to more senior nuns), how you hold your chopsticks when you eat, how you handle a carrot in the kitchen – pretty much everything. Scholar and author Paula Arai spent a training period at the Nisodo, practicing right along with the nuns, and writes beautifully about why there is such an emphasis on Nyoho at the monastery. This is from Arai’s book, Women Living Zen, and a section she labeled “The Aesthetics of Discipline:”
“According to the Vinayapitaka [monastic regulations from the Buddha’s time], monastic discipline is an expression of the Dharma. In Zen parlance, disciplined activity is ‘Buddha activity.’ Dogen used the phrase ‘practice is enlightenment.’ In other words, undisciplined activity is activity that expresses one’s ignorance of the reality that all is interrelated and impermanent. Senior nun teachers frequently allude to this teaching and remind novices that delusion about reality leads to acting as if the self is the center. This delusion results in acts of passion and hatred of mind and body. ‘Ugliness’ is manifested in such acts as waste, disrespect, laziness, and selfishness. Ugliness appears when the Dharma is not manifest in action. On the contrary, beauty appears when the Dharma is manifest in action. In activities from cutting carrots to making offerings on an altar, the nuns’ monastic training inculcates the notion that discipline is action of the mind and body that is not centered on the self… Each activity is designed to prove that the wisdom of interrelatedness and impermanence results in acts of compassion. Such fancy words are not heard around the monastery as often as their concrete expressions like ‘do not be wasteful’ and ‘treat all things with respect.’”[i]
In other words, all those rules, regulations, and forms aren’t meaningful and important in and of themselves. What’s important is what’s enacted or conveyed through the forms; traditional forms are designed to help you act in accord with Dharma, regardless of whether you’re feeling particularly in accord with the Dharma – the truth – at any given moment.
And what is that “Dharma” we’re acting in accord with? Arai says “interrelatedness and impermanence,” which is a positive way of stating the emptiness of self and all things. Rather than trying to explain these Dharmic truths here, I refer you to Episode 34 – Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 1: Non-Duality, Intimacy, and Enlightenment. In that episode I talk about the Mahayana teachings of emptiness and how they make you realize your “self” doesn’t exist the way you think it does. In reality you are a flow of causes and conditions without any clear boundaries – so, while “the emptiness of self” may sound kind of negative, it actually leads to a profound sense of intimacy with all things. There is no “you” separate from the universe, and in a sense all things and beings you encounter are you. Everything is a flow of constant change, so you can’t hold on to anything; eventually, sooner than later, everything and everyone you encounter will be gone.
Naturally Treating Each Thing as Buddha
When you gain a personal and poignant sense of the truth of emptiness, interrelatedness, and impermanence, you naturally take care of things and people. You feel connected, intimate, and appreciative; it wouldn’t occur to you to waste something because you can’t be bothered to deal with it, or to act with disrespect, laziness, and selfishness. On the contrary, you naturally manifest compassion, patience, thoughtfulness, and respect.
Another way to frame Nyoho is treating each thing (and, of course, each being) as “Buddha.” Arai writes that the institutional structure of the women’s training monastery strives to:
“cultivate the trainees’ understanding of Dogen’s teachings that diverse forms are all Buddha-nature. Seniors teach their juniors these teachings in sometimes simple, even silly, ways. For example, senior nuns will shriek, ‘Ouch, ouch’ if a junior nun treats a sitting cushion (zafu) harshly, explaining that it is bad to treat ‘Buddha’ poorly.”[ii]
What does it mean that a meditation cushion is Buddha? Obviously, we don’t mean it’s a mystical extension of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, or is somehow animate. Rather, we use the term “Buddha” in a Mahayana sense, to refer to the great, beautiful, life-saving mystery of the universe that we can awaken to, as well as the miracle that human beings can awaken to it.
This may sound a little far-out, but recognizing something like a meditation cushion, tea cup, or sock as Buddha is something you can directly experience. When, for a moment, we drop our self-centered thinking and striving – when we give up expecting life to be anything other than what it is, right here, right now – we may be able to see the manifestation before us as the miracle it is, and our abilities to perceive and act as the miracles they are. Inherent in each manifestation is the Big Bang, the sun, our planet, life, and human ingenuity. The cushion, cup, and sock exist to aid us in our practice and daily life. When we really recognize how short and precious our life is, we’re motivated by gratitude and love.
Establishing Forms for Nyoho Practice
Of course, we don’t always feel connected to the truths of emptiness, interrelatedness, and impermanence. We’re not often wandering around in a bliss state, stopping to appreciate each and every object and being as a manifestation of Buddha. Maybe the deep truths of Buddhism still seem a little vague or intellectual to you – maybe you have an intuition they’re true, or you really hope they are, but your conviction isn’t strong enough to carry into your motivations on regular basis. Or maybe you’ve had deep personal insight into the Dharmic truths we’re talking about, but you still get caught up in the strong habit energy of self-centeredness and just trying to get things done. In the middle of a weeklong silent meditation retreat, it’s fairly easy to practice Nyoho – but in the midst of our busy everyday lives, we can’t count on feeling like acting in accord with the Dharma.
We adopt Nyoho forms – established ways of treating things and doing things – precisely because we don’t always feel consciously in accord with the deepest Dharmic truths. (For more about Zen “forms,” see Episode 18 – Zen Forms (Customs and Rituals) and Why They Matter.) Because of the law of karma (that is, cause and effect as it relates to human behavior), everything we do matters. Acting with annoyance or disrespect in some small thing may not seem important at the moment, but a multitude of such small acts add up over time and may make us a generally irritable or oblivious person. On the other hand, if we’ve adopted of a practice – a form – of handling everyday objects with both hands and setting them down gently, for example, there are many times we may do exactly that even though we’re feeling rushed or careless inside. Even if we’re feeling stressed and miserable when we approach our seat in the meditation hall, before sitting down we make a small standing bow to our seat and then turn around and bow toward the Sangha. Were we to enact our feelings instead, we might come straight in and flop down with an audible sigh, and there would be no break in our self-absorption.
Sure, it’s great to feel sincere as you practice Nyoho – to consciously feel respect, care, appreciation, and compassion as you act. This is lovely, and our actions will certainly be more beautiful and beneficial than merely going through the motions of a Nyoho form. Still, it affects us deeply when we make a habit of acting in ways that reflect reality – emptiness, interrelatedness, impermanence, Buddha-nature – no matter our current feelings or understanding of the Dharma. As I’ve discussed many times on this podcast, our conscious sense of self is not in charge the way we think it is. The common cultural phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” reflects the fact that if we physically enact something for long enough, we will experience real change.
Faking-it-til-you-make-it reminds me of a comic strip called “Zits” I read many years ago (here’s a link to the comic): Zits is about a teenage boy named Jeremy and his parents, and one day Jeremy, as usual, is slumped over his breakfast in a bad mood. His mom says he might feel better if he looked on the bright side for a change. Jeremy reacts by sarcastically smiling and dancing around, saying things like, “I see the sun rose on schedule again,” and “Don’t you love how paint sticks to walls all by itself?” Shortly after he steps out the front door on the way to school, out of sight of his mom, Jeremy hangs his head and says, “Crud. I do feel better.”
Body, mind, and heart are not separate; Nyoho can train us even when we’re not particularly enthused about the practice. As Arai writes about the Nisodo:
“The Zen nuns follow Dogen’s mode of Buddhist monasticism that stresses somatic knowledge, which is consonant with his nondualistic worldview. Intellectual knowledge requires establishing a subject and object dichotomy. The nuns are keenly aware that intellectual forms of knowledge do not necessarily change one’s actions in accordance with the cognition of the intellect. (This seems to be the reason behind their suspicion of scholars.) They believe that training the body is an expedient method for dissolving a bifurcation of mind and body, for in teaching the body how to act, one is less prone to dichotomize between subject and object. The nuns’ practice of Dogen’s teachings and regulations illustrates their belief that perfecting the form of an action is an effective way to experience the nondualistic world where practice is enlightenment.”[iii]
Nyoho Practice Makes Us More Sensitive (In a Good Way)
Finally, incorporating Nyoho forms into our lives helps us do less harm. It probably seems pretty obvious that acting ethically – abiding by moral precepts in Buddhism – helps us do less harm: Not killing, stealing, lying, etc. The precepts are against behaviors that are clearly negative, selfish, and harmful – and that often have serious repercussions in our lives. How is failing to practice Nyoho in any given moment doing harm? It’s subtler than morality, but there’s a way in which we injure ourselves and the universe when we act with dismissiveness, disrespect, or carelessness. Remember all the stuff about not actually being separate from anything or anyone else? At a deep and profound level, when toss aside a cooking pot because it’s inexpensive or because we resent having to deal with it, we are tossing aside part of ourselves. Remember the stuff about intimacy and interrelatedness? When we can’t be bothered to pay attention to something or someone, we harden our own hearts and make it even less likely we’ll feel in accord with the Dharma.
On the other hand, when we develop our practice of Nyoho over the course of many years, we become more and more sensitive. We feel it when a book is handled roughly so its spine gets cracked. We notice when an altar hasn’t been dusted, and automatically look for a cloth so we can clean it. We joyfully arrange utensils for a meal, anticipating how people will approach the table and how they will easily be able to reach everything they need. Opportunities to practice Nyoho appear everywhere, and you can tell a person of deep practice by their awareness of their actions and everything around them as they move. Now you have the context for this well-known Zen story, which I believe is from one of the classic koan collections (I found it in D.T. Suzuki’s The Training of the Zen Monk):
“When Hsueh-feng (Seppo), Yen-t’ou (Ganto) and Chin-shan (Kenzan) were traveling together on their Zen pilgrimage they lost their way in the mountains. It was growing dark and there was no monastery to ask for the night’s lodging. At the time they happened to notice a green vegetable lead flowing down along the stream. By this they naturally inferred that there was somebody living further up in the mountains. But one of the monk-pilgrims argued; ‘That is quite probable, but a man who does not mind letting go the precious vegetable leaf is not worth our consideration.’ Before he finished saying this, they saw a man with a long-handed hook, running down after the lost leaf.”[iv]
Presumably, the wandering monks decided to make a visit upstream after all.
Taking Nyoho into Your Everyday Life
Hopefully, I’ve managed to convey a little of the value and beauty of Nyoho practice. If you find yourself at a Zen center or monastery, perhaps it will let you better appreciate the Nyoho forms you encounter – perhaps you can see them as gentle invitations to a sweet, somatic practice as opposed to a whole bunch of rules you need to worry about keeping.
The real power of Nyoho, though – for those of us who spend the bulk of our lives outside Zen centers and monasteries – is how it can be incorporated into our ordinary, daily lives. There are no rules about how this is done. Basically, just form an intention or a vow to follow the spirit of Nyoho whenever performing a particular task, or handling particular objects. Remember, Nyoho is about our somatic experience and actions, so even if part of your intention is to feel appreciative or attentive, for example, a Nyoho form also needs to incorporate a concrete action or procedure – something you can do even if you aren’t “feeling it.”
Here is a list of four categories of Nyoho forms for everyday life, a few of which I’ve already mentioned:
Keeping our living and work spaces clean and uncluttered is a wonderful way to practice Nyoho. It’s not that dirt or clutter is somehow sinful, but we all know how nice it is to have things clean – and therefore when we’re preparing for guests we clean up. When we put forth an extra effort to do this not because we have to but because we’re making it a practice, we’re enacting care and gratitude for our spaces as well as respect for the other people who occupy them (including ourselves). It’s beautiful, for example, when people at my Zen center get in the habit of taking loving responsibility for our practice place, casting their eye over it before they leave in order to see if there’s anything out of place.
Of course, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to keep every area in your life tidy. Rather than get stressed about cleanliness everywhere, you can choose at least a few places where you try never to leave a mess: The kitchen counter, the bathroom, or your home altar. In addition, simply thinking of cleaning up as a spiritual practice instead of a chore can transform the task.
Mindfulness of The Space You Are Taking Up, Or Resources You Are Using
The way you move, where you hang you coat, which chair you choose to sit in, which slice of cake you choose from the platter, how much noise you make while moving – all of these things affect the people around you and present opportunities for Nyoho practice. For example, the front door of our Zen center slams closed very loudly and violently unless you stop it from doing so… so a great Nyoho practice is remembering to pause as soon as you enter or leave in order to catch the door and make sure it closes quietly. In another example, when I ride on mass transit, I take up as little space as possible. Only if the bus or train is essentially empty will I put my bag on the seat next to me. This often invites strangers to come sit next me, because many people spread out and claim more space than they need – but I imagine a person boarding and looking around, hoping for a place to sit but not wanting a confrontation with someone taking up more than one seat. Out of respect I make a small sacrifice and refrain from spreading out to begin with.
People with Nyoho in their bones will always be conscious of the people around them, and the consequences of their actions. It goes without saying they don’t litter. (Speaking of littering, picking up litter when you see it can be a Nyoho practice.) One valuable Nyoho practice we call, in my Zen lineage, “leave no trace:” We take care of splashes of water, stray hairs, or globs of toothpaste we’ve left on/in the sink; we clean up projects and put away tools as soon as we’re done for the day; we take careful note of how a room is laid out before we hold an activity there, and then, when we’re done, put it back just the way we found it.
Handling Objects with Care Regardless of Their “Value”
In his Instructions to the Cook, Zen master Dogen wrote:
“Never change your attitude according to the materials. If you do, it is like varying your truth when speaking with different people; then you are not a practitioner of the way… When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind. Take up a blade of grass and construct a treasure king’s land, enter into a particle of dust and turn the great dharma wheel… Taking up a green vegetable, turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body [of Buddha]; take a sixteen-foot golden body and turn it into a green vegetable. This is a miraculous transformation – a work of buddha that benefits sentient beings.”
In the world of discrimination there are valuable things and worthless things, new things and shabby things, beautiful things and ugly things, attractive things and disgusting things. When this is the only way we can see, eventually there will come a time when our life circumstances, on balance, seem bleak and dismal. On the other hand, if we handle even the most mundane items with care and appreciation, our whole system of valuation is turned on its head. The way we perceive our lives can be profoundly transformed by engaging Nyoho practice.
I remember a nun watching me wring out a rag when I was cleaning. She came over and gently and enthusiastically showed me the Nyoho way to treat the rag: You fold it neatly, then hold it in your fists with your elbows out to the side. Your fists are stacked on top of each other, the palm-side facing you. Then, when you twist the rag by turning your fists inwards, and you a have a large range of motion for the twist – as opposed to the way most of us habitually do it, with fists side by side, the backs of our hands toward us. Try it and see the difference! When we’re done with the rag and it’s still useable, we rinse it and hang it up to dry rather than throwing it in a bin to get moldy. Again, not because that’s the “right” thing to do, but because it expresses appreciation and respect for the rag, which is a manifestation of Buddha whether we see it or not.
In everyday life, you can establish little Nyoho rituals – ways you’re going to treat particular objects (such as handling things with both hands) or designated places you’re always going to put them, and ways you’re going to perform regular activities.
Being Diligent in Tasks Even If They’re Menial or Unpleasant
Many people get a big surprise when they first participate for any length of time at a Zen center: Even though you’re essentially a guest, and may even have paid something to attend a retreat, you’re likely to get assigned to clean the bathrooms. Ordinarily this might seem insulting or off-putting, because, in general, few of us relish the thought of cleaning a bathroom, let alone one used by strangers. However, in Zen circles you’re expected to accept your task gracefully and engage it with as much enthusiasm or sincerity as if you were asked to clean the altars, bake cookies for the tea break, or prepare a Dharma talk.
Practicing Nyoho in all of our activities can be challenging. Naturally, like and dislike arise in us. In fact, cleaning bathrooms isn’t the worst job you can be assigned in a Zen monastery. Even more challenging, for some of us, are silly, menial tasks that seem like an utter waste of labor: Raking leaves on a windy day, painstakingly peeling a huge mound of stubborn squash, scrubbing miles of baseboard with a toothbrush… All of our self-centered concerns arise around the value of our labor, our preferences in terms of activities, and comparison with the tasks assigned to others. Which raises the big question: What are we doing, and why are we doing it? Our lives are fleeting; each moment is an opportunity we will never have again.
Dogen comments on our attitude toward our work in Instructions to the Cook:
“…I saw the monk who held the tenzo’s position in Kennin monastery, he did not personally manage all of the preparations for the morning and noon meals. He used an ignorant, insensitive servant, and he had him do everything… He never checked whether the servant’s work was done correctly or not… He stayed in his own room, where he would lie down, chat, read sutras, or chant. For days and months he did not come close to a pan, buy cooking equipment, or think about menus. How could he have known that these are buddha activities? …How regrettable it is that he is a man without way-seeking mind and that he has not met someone who has the virtue of the way. It is just like returning empty-handed after entering a treasure mountain or coming back unadorned after reaching the ocean of jewels.”
Whew! Some criticism, especially seeing as we all have certain tasks we’d rather never do and try to avoid. It’s important to remember, again, that Nyoho is an ideal toward which we orient ourselves; the aspiration helps us notice our behavior and attitudes. It’s not necessary to judge ourselves or beat ourselves up, we just notice what we’re up to and let our sincere aspiration guide us in a positive direction.
Gathas, or short verses, may be helpful in helping you practice Nyoho while doing mundane tasks. You can make a habit of reciting a short aspirational verse before brushing your teeth, washing your face, cooking a meal, washing the dishes, or getting in your car. You make up the verses or see Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living for a whole bunch of gathas you can use.
A Final Note: What About Taking Care of People?
In conclusion, I want to say something about how Nyoho relates to taking care of people. Nyoho practice is centered on our handling of inanimate objects and on simple, mundane tasks that don’t usually involve other people. It’s our precept practice that focuses on our human relationships.
However, the spirit of Nyoho makes us very sensitive to others, and much of it has to do with taking others into consideration. When we’re practicing Nyoho properly, it’s a gift of love for others, not something that excludes them. In fact, if our efforts to practice Nyoho in a given situation makes us feel irritated at others, it’s a sign we may be verging on being anal retentive instead of doing a sincere spiritual practice. On the other hand, if we just practice Nyoho when other people are looking and can see how spiritual we are, that also doesn’t meet the mark.
Zen practice can be brought into every moment of your life; I hope you’ll find Nyoho an inspiring opportunity.
[i] Page 115 – Arai, Paul Kane Robinson. Women Living Zen: Japanese Soto Buddhist Nuns. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
[ii] Page 85 – Ibid
[iii] Page 115 – Ibid
[iv] Page 93 – Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. Boston, MA: Charles E. Tuttle Co, 1994. (Originally published in 1934 by the Eastern Buddhist Society)