Buddhist practice can permeate every aspect of our lives. To help practitioners appreciate this outside the full-immersion experience of residential training, I’ve defined Nine Fields of Zen Practice: Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Precepts, Opening the Heart, Connecting with the Ineffable, Nyoho, Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity. In this episode I cover Nyoho, Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity.
This is my third episode of three on my Nine Fields of Zen Practice – a framework I’ve created to help convey the way Buddhist practice can permeate every aspect of your life, if you want it to. The Nine Fields I’ve already covered are Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Precepts, Opening the Heart, and Connecting with the Ineffable. In this episode I’ll finish up by talking about Nyoho, Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity.
As I mentioned in the last episode on the Nine Fields, the intention isn’t to give you a huge to-do list and stress you out. I recommend, instead, getting familiar with the Nine Fields and letting them guide your practice in a flexible, organic way. The bare minimum for practice is simply living deliberately – paying attention to your life and trying to act in ways that minimize harm and maximize happiness and wisdom for self and other. You probably also want to act morally (keep the precepts) and do at least some meditation. The other Fields can increase and decrease in relevance for you as the circumstances of your life change, and it’s probably best to focus on 3-5 at a time. That said, you’ll probably find that delving deeply into a particular Field ends up leading to most of the others, so in some ways you’re practicing the whole shebang even when you’re supposedly focusing on just a few Fields.
Nyoho – According with the Dharma in Everyday Activities
The next Field in my list is Nyoho, or acting in accord with the Dharma in your daily activities. I did two full episodes on Nyoho (Episodes 87 and 88), so I’ll be relatively brief here and you can refer to those episodes if you want to explore this Field more deeply.
Nyoho is not a term you’re likely to run into elsewhere in Zen; traditionally it refers to a very specific aspect of Zen monastic practice, namely, rules and standards for making the lives of monks accord with (“nyo”) the Dharma (“ho”). Nyoho is about according with the Dharma particularly with respect to eating, clothing, housing, and other mundane, daily activities. Practices that could be categorized as Nyoho include established procedures for formal meal ceremonies, and the way monks are expected to bathe, shave, or lie down when they sleep. Outside of Japan, the term Nyoho has become associated with a particular tradition of sewing monastic robes and lay rakusus by hand while maintaining a reverential, meditative state of mind – that is, making robes in accord with the Dharma.
I’m taking the liberty of expanding the meaning of the term “Nyoho” beyond the monastic setting, to refer to acting in accord with the Dharma in the midst of our daily lives, even in our smallest, most mundane activities. It may seem strange there appears to be no existing term for this effort, and that even the use of the term Nyoho isn’t all that widespread in Japanese monastic settings. This is largely because the practice of according with the Dharma in mundane activities isn’t something that’s been conveyed in formal, written teachings outside monastic regulations. Instead, Nyoho is something you pick up by participating physically with a Sangha. Over time, you learn your community’s established ways doing things – how you’re supposed to carefully place your shoes, lined up with those of others, before entering the meditation hall. Or how you wipe down the bathroom sink after washing your hands so you leave no trace behind for others. Nyoho is a “body” practice, which is why I’ve categorized it as one of the “Skillful Action” Fields.
Established ways of doing things – according to rules, customs, or standards – can be called “forms.” Sometimes when people encounter forms within Sangha settings, they have a negative reaction because it all seems too formal, ritualistic, or rigid. Some people experience anxiety, afraid they’re going to do things the “wrong” way. If a Sangha is welcoming and skillful, however, they will manage to convey to newcomers that forms aren’t meant to control or intimidate; rather, they’re meant to be opportunities to accord with the Dharma with our body.
Forms generally require us to pay attention to what we’re doing and how we’re moving. They ask us to treat everything we encounter and touch with care and respect, and to notice how our actions are impacting others. For example, in our zendo, when we’re about to sit down for meditation, we first make a small standing bow to our seat, and then turn around and make bow to the rest of the Sangha. With this small gesture, we enact mindfulness of what’s going on in this moment, gratitude for the opportunity and space to meditate, and respect and gratitude for the support of others. We don’t have to be thinking noble thoughts while we practice a Nyoho form, although that’s certainly nice. Just physically enacting the form has an affect on us, and on our environment. It’s an act of generosity; imagine sitting in a zendo where everyone does the bowing practice I just described, compared to one in which everyone comes in and flops down any-which-way without acknowledging one another. Which would feel more supportive to you?
Practice in the Field of Nyoho, then, can include embracing and exploring the forms you encounter in Sangha. Those forms may not be all that ritualistic – even a custom of greeting people and asking how they are might be a “form” within your community.
The greatest opportunities for Nyoho practice are through forms you establish for yourself, in the context of your daily life. This practice is highly adaptable. You might choose to eat your breakfast or drive to work in silence instead of reading or listening to the radio, in order to practice mindful presence and appreciation. You might say a traditional verse, or gatha, before meals, or before brushing your teeth or turning on your computer (there are collections of gathas available, or you can make up your own). In Episode 88 I suggested four traditional areas within which you can create Nyoho practices: Cleanliness; mindfulness of the space you are taking up, or resources you are using; handling objects with care regardless of their “value;” and being diligent in tasks even if they’re menial or unpleasant.
We accord with the Dharma when we act as if there is no inherent, enduring, independent self-nature within us. As if there’s no fixed self to benefit from our efforts to hurry, get ahead, take advantage, defend, compete, or judge. As if we’re interdependent with all things and all beings, and that ultimately there is no separation between us and everything we encounter. As if our life is a miracle we feel grateful for, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. When we feel these truths, Nyoho practice is an opportunity to express what we feel. When – as is often the case – we don’t feel these truths, Nyoho practice is a way to accord with the Dharma anyway. This appeals to our deeper aspirations and benefits self and other.
Karma Work – Taking Care of Our Lives
The next Field is Karma Work. In Buddhism we use the “karma” to refer to the law of moral cause-and-effect itself, or to the effects generated by willful actions (as in “there’s negative karma from indulging anger”). Karma as the law of moral, or behavioral, cause-and-effect basically states that your experience, and the experience of those around you, depends largely on your deliberate actions of body, speech, and mind. (Note: It may seem strange to talk about thoughts as an “action,” but they are in the sense that they can be willful, and they generate karma, or have effects; for example, dwelling on a particular thought may make it more likely you’ll speak about it, or act on it.)
According to the Buddhist view, even if you’re suffering from the effects of causes beyond your control (societal or genetic causes, for example, or the actions of other individuals), you still have a lot of say in how your experience is right now, and from here on out. You can choose to act in ways that generate positive karma (positive results), or that lead to spiritual liberation. The good results are probably not going to be easily or quickly achieved, but no matter how hopeless a situation appears, the law of karma says that you can make a difference because everything you do has a consequence, however small. For a detailed treatment of Karma, see Episode 53 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 5: Karma, the Law of Moral Cause-and-Effect.
There are two common delusions that arise in Buddhist practitioners regarding karma work. Although they may sound kind of silly, I suspect most of us succumb to these delusions to some extent, from time to time. The first delusion is that, because the “self” as we usually conceive of it is an illusion, the tendencies, habits, conditioning, and concerns associated with this “self” are also illusions, as is the negative karma it generates through ignorant or selfish actions. In other words, if we just concentrate on the practice of anatta, or not-self, or on realizing the emptiness of self, we’ll be able to bypass the messiness of our karma somehow. We’ll recognize how our shortcomings, mistakes, problems, and real-life difficulties don’t really matter – which seems a whole lot easier an approach to take that actually trying to fix or improve our issues!
To deny the reality of karma – of cause-and-effect in the real, tangible world – is a dangerous delusion. To find out whether or not you’re not caught in it, ask yourself whether your family and friends would agree that your practice has made you easier to get along with!
Of course, spiritual practice, particularly Cultivating Insight, can awaken us to how we’re ultimately not defiled or defined by our flaws or mistakes. Buddhism can help free us from a sense of self-loathing, guilt, and inadequacy. This makes Karma Work much less of a drag, but it’s still something we have to do in order to actually manifest whatever insight we have. What’s the good of a Buddha who doesn’t act like one? The whole point of the Buddhist path is to minimize the suffering we cause to self and other, and maximize happiness, wisdom, and liberation.
The second common delusion we tend to have about Karma Work is that, if we achieve some measure of Buddhist awakening or realization (or whatever you want to call it), we will magically transform into a saint. We’ll no longer be bothered by worldly things, or be motivated by selfish concerns. Through awakening we will have simply bypassed the need for Karma Work – and who wouldn’t rather meditate than struggle to break mundane negative habits like gossiping, wallowing in self-hatred, or seeking relief through an addiction? Who wouldn’t rather study a Dharma text (or listen to a podcast episode!) than contemplate why our intimate relationship is fraught with tension, or the root causes of our anxiety or depression?
Unfortunately, insight into anatta or emptiness or buddha-nature or any lofty truth elucidated by Buddhism doesn’t magically transform the way we act. Maybe for a little bit, but our insight is just one input into our karmic situation. We have bodies and minds formed by natural selection, genetics, culture, past experiences, conditioning, as well as decades worth of our own past willful actions; it takes time and effort to integrate our insights and learn to act in accord with them. As I explained in Episode 91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?, the process of fully integrating the absolute and relative aspects of our existence lasts a lifetime.
From the beginning to the end of practice, then, we make every effort we can to be good people – to minimize the harm we cause self and other. To keep the precepts, and be generous, humble, and kind. We try to be good partners, parents, friends, co-workers, employees, and citizens. Through mindfulness, Precept work, self-reflection, and interactions with Sangha, we get more and more familiar with our own particular negative tendencies, habits, and delusions. We learn to gently hold an aspiration to liberate ourselves from them, and yet refrain from beating ourselves up or striving after unattainable ideals. This is a tricky process, because personal change is hard and slow and it’s tempting to conclude it’s impossible and just give up. And as I discussed in Episode 81 – Five Steps for Positive Change without Waging War on the Self, as we look for ways to change, we need to avail ourselves of all kinds of practical and social support instead of just relying on willpower.
The good thing is that Karma Work supports the rest of our practice at many different levels, so even if we don’t achieve much radical change in terms of our personalities or behavior, the work we do in this Field is beneficial. To some extent, it’s the “thought that counts:” our desire to change is associated with humility, compassion, and generosity. Facing, understanding, and working to resolve our karmic obstacles and issues can deepen our zazen and pave the way for insight. As I discussed in Episode 38 – The Two Sides of Practice: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship, karma work and samadhi power (learning to abide in non-dual awareness through meditation) are two sides of practice, but there’s only one reality. Work on one side supports and facilitates the other side.
(For more on Karma Work, also see Taking Care of Our Lives: More About the Karma Relationship Side of Practice)
Bodhisattva Activity – Acting to Free All Beings
The last Field is Bodhisattva Activity. (Note: just because it’s last in this list doesn’t mean we should put it off!) In Mahayana Buddhism, we’re asked to walk the path of the bodhisattva – a being who seeks to awaken not just for her own welfare, but for the welfare of all. A bodhisattva aims to achieve insight and liberation from the cycle of suffering, not just so he can be at peace but so he can better help others. Even once the bodhisattva is at peace, she risks slipping back into suffering or delusion by actively engaging in the world – because that’s where the suffering beings are.
Bodhisattva activity isn’t something we only do once we’re enlightened. Seeing ourselves as interdependent with all things and beings is a result of personal insight, but acting as if we’re interdependent with all things and beings leads to insight. If we’re ultimately seeking to transcend the self, there’s no substitute for getting off our meditation cushion and really trying to put our deepest aspirations into action.
The other Nine Fields of Zen Practice could easily be interpreted as being primarily internal or personal. Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Opening the Heart, and Connecting with the Ineffable you could, pretty much, just do by yourself. These Fields could be seen as being about practice you do within your own body, heart, and mind – practice that may positively affect others, but largely indirectly. Precepts are about your relationships with others, and certainly the positive phrasings of the precepts – such as cultivate and encourage life, or share understanding, give freely of self – suggest an active and engaged interaction with the world. However, even in the case of Precepts it’s possible to see our spiritual role in the world as largely passive: responding to what comes our way as best we can, trying not to cause harm, and occasionally taking the opportunity to do something generous or kind.
The Bodhisattva vow to free all beings invites us to a loftier aspiration. It asks us to imagine a world where every last being is liberated from suffering, and then encourages us to see ourselves as being a vital part of making that happen. The irony is that, according to Buddhism, the task we set ourselves to is impossible. Beings are numberless (that is, infinite), and from the beginning of time greed, anger, and ignorance have manifested in beings and led to suffering. There’s no reason to think this vicious cycle will end; Buddhism doesn’t have a prediction of heaven on earth. However, that doesn’t matter to the bodhisattva vow. We wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to freeing ourselves together with every last being. What else are we going to do? Besides, doesn’t that selfless act of service bring about heaven on earth, at least in a limited sense?
Just think about what the world would be like if everyone really felt as if their contribution mattered – if the prospect of much better world was right on the horizon, and whatever each of us could possibly muster toward the cause in terms of time, resources, and energy might mean the difference between success and failure?
Bodhisattva activity as a Field of Practice doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go out in the world and engage in something easily identified from the outside as “selfless service.” It can mean such a thing, and if we have the capacity to serve, we should. If each of us does something it adds up to a great force for change. What is ours to do in the world? How can we serve? What are our skills, or who or what are we uniquely positioned to care for? Sometimes we’re already pretty much at capacity in terms of our activities. Then we practice with the Field of Bodhisattva Activity by looking at our lives and asking ourselves how we are already serving, and how we can more consciously recognize that service as part of our Bodhisattva Activity.
A bodhisattva doesn’t compare himself to others. He just does what he can. Even someone who’s activities are severely limited can be a bodhisattva. I know a woman who has been more or less bedridden with extreme pain for many years, and her bodhisattva practice is to be cheerful and loving to her friends when they visit her. If she can manage to stay awake, she asks about how her friends are doing and expresses interest and joy in their lives. I find her bodhisattva activity every bit as inspiring as that of someone who has the time and energy to do something like volunteer with Doctors without Borders. In an example of how the Nine Fields of Practice interpenetrate, I’ll share again a teaching by Zen master Dogen I mentioned in association with the Field of Opening the Heart:
“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[i]
[i] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010. For an online translation see https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Bodaisatta.html