86 - Samvega and Pasada: Two Buddhist Emotions Indispensable for Practice
88 – Nyoho: Making Even Our Smallest, Mundane Actions Accord with the Dharma – Part 2

We have a practice in Zen of trying to make even our smallest actions reflect the deep truths of the Dharma, including interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suchness, and Buddha-nature. I’m going to call this practice “Nyoho,” a Japanese term which means doing something “in accord with” (nyo) the Dharma (ho): Treating each and every thing we encounter with respect and care, and performing even the most mundane actions in a considerate, gracious, but efficient manner.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Care Without Calculation: Turning Our Motivation Upside Down
Nyoho Practice as an Ideal or Aspiration
Isn’t This All a Little Anal Retentive?
The History of Caring about Minute Details of Daily Life
Nyoho Today
Conclusion

We have a practice in Zen of trying to make even our smallest actions reflect the deep truths of the Dharma, including interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suchness, and Buddha-nature. I’m going to call this practice “Nyoho,” a Japanese term which means doing something “in accord with” (nyo) the Dharma (ho), even though this term is most commonly associated with a precise tradition of sewing Zen robes in accord with the Dharma (Nyoho-e, where “e” means clothing). There doesn’t seem to be a single term to describe the Zen tradition of treating each and every thing we encounter with respect and care, and performing even the most mundane actions in a considerate, gracious, but efficient manner – so hopefully no one will mind my extending the application of the term Nyoho a bit, in a manner that seems to have been adopted by Zuioji Zen monastery in Japan (I’ll talk more about that later).

Care Without Calculation: Turning Our Motivation Upside Down

I remember being deeply touched and impressed by Nyoho practice when I first encountered Zen at Dharma Rain Zen Center in the mid 90’s. Even though many things there were a bit on the scruffy side in terms of beauty or monetary value, everything – each rug, dishrag, book, candle – was treated and used as if it were a precious resource. People took off their shoes when they came in the door, and lined them up side by side in neat rows on the floor or on shelves. Water was never wasted; non-soapy grey water from vases and wash basins was carried outside and poured on plants. We ate oatmeal for breakfast in reverent silence. Wilted or partially rotten vegetables weren’t thrown away, but were carefully processed in order to salvage what was edible. When an infestation of mice in the larder necessitated kill traps, my teacher dressed in her robes to take dead mice into the garden and bury them respectfully after a short funeral designed just for animals.

Before I got into Zen practice, I was in the habit – as most people are in the modern world – of performing a quick, self-centered calculation before deciding how I was going to treat something, or how much care and attention I was going to devote to a task. Was the thing I was dealing with expensive or valuable? Was it going to bring me pleasure or do something for me? Was the task important in terms of its impact or my reputation? Was it a special activity, or just a mundane job like cleaning? Was I going to enjoy the activity, or was it actually a drag?

Suddenly I was faced with a community of Zen practitioners who made a point of scrupulously brushing off and plumping up their meditation cushions every time they got up from sitting. They diligently stacked clean tea cups as if arranging crystal for a fancy dinner. They aspired not to groan when they were given the job of cleaning the bathrooms, but to instead tried to look on it as an honor and an opportunity to selflessly and energetically serve.

This was a very different way of approaching life! I was deeply moved; Nyoho conveyed the message that everything mattered. It evoked gratitude and mindfulness. Simply enacting the practices of care and respect with physical objects helped me access the sense my life was precious and impermanent, which usually eluded me. I recall once in the middle of a meditation retreat, staring down at my eating bowls laid out in front of me. Suddenly I really saw them, and everything else around me that was supporting and sustaining me, and tears ran down my face. We handle each thing as if it is Buddha – because at some level, it is Buddha.

Nyoho Practice as an Ideal or Aspiration

Nyoho goes beyond moral behavior or even the practice of compassion or generosity for other people, although both of those things are also essential in our practice. When we practice Nyoho, we look for opportunities to act in accord with the Dharma in the midst of our daily lives, and in very practical, physical ways. No act is too mundane or insignificant to perform with care. No object or being we encounter is beneath our respect or attention. We handle things gently, appreciatively, and appropriately – our pillows, toothbrushes, clothing, shoes, coffee mugs, doors, cars, and printers. We engage mundane activities like little sacred rituals, the same way we might offer incense at an altar, even if we’re straightening the kitchen after breakfast, bathing our toddler, or preparing a room for a work meeting.

Just to be clear: The practice of Nyoho is, like all Zen practices, a matter of working toward an ideal, moment after moment – something that provides your life with a direction and context, not something you expect to achieve once and for all. By embracing a practice like Nyoho, we admit our resonance with an aspiration. We don’t claim instant saintliness. (Keep this in mind if someone ever says to you, “Hey, why are you getting impatient? Aren’t you a Buddhist?”)

To practice Nyoho with everything, each and every moment, is very difficult, especially in the midst of a busy life. Still, even though we fall short of fully manifesting it, it’s an aspiration we can return to at any time. Holding the intention to act in accord with the Dharma encourages us to be just a little more thoughtful, careful, and respectful with each thing we encounter, not to mention with the living beings we encounter. When we notice we’re not practicing Nyoho – we’re tossing things around with impatience or anger, or rushing to get through a task because it feels beneath us – it’s like looking in mirror and seeing our self-centeredness and limited perspective. It’s not necessary to judge ourselves at such a moment; if we sincerely aspire to act in accord with the Dharma, we will naturally self-correct.

Isn’t This All a Little Anal Retentive?

Why do we care so much in Zen about making even our smallest, most mundane details of our physical lives accord with the Dharma? Are we just striving to become perfect, or act like we’re perfect, or at least be seen as being a good Buddhist? Are we supposed to keep in mind some ideal of saintly behavior and constantly use it to measure our actions? Isn’t it a little neurotic and obsessive to have to practice every single moment, with every little thing, and never give yourself a break? Isn’t all this precious behavior unrealistic if you actually need to get something done? These aren’t cheeky or irrelevant questions, at least not for anyone being asked to conform with Nyoho practices.

On more than one occasion I’ve heard my emphasis on keeping the altars in the zendo immaculately free of dust, or my insistence that the sitting cushions be kept in an absolutely straight line, as “anal retentive.” In case you’re not familiar with the definition of that term, it’s used to describe someone who’s overly controlling and fussy due to their own psychological issues. The fact that my efforts to encourage Nyoho practice in our zendo might be perceived as anal makes me realize I have failed to convey the significance and beauty of the practice, and the wonderful opportunity Nyoho presents in terms of how we can adopt and adapt it in our everyday lives outside the zendo.

In the interest of making Nyoho practice more accessible, and hopefully also convincing you of its value and beauty, I’m going to start by sharing some of its history in Buddhism. Then I’ll talk about a few ways Nyoho manifests in a modern Zen monastery. In the next episode, I’ll go into more detail about the spirit of Nyoho and the deeper truths it enacts and reflects, and then suggest ways you can create Nyoho practices in the midst of your everyday life.

The History of Caring about Minute Details of Daily Life

First, the history: The tradition of Nyoho goes way, way back in Buddhism. You might say it began with the Vinaya, the monastic regulations created in the time of the Buddha. The Vinaya prescribed the lives of monks down to the smallest detail – what few items they could own and how they could procure and treat them, how they should comport themselves while walking, eating, and sleeping, just to name a few things. The idea was to guide monastics in living in a way that would absolutely minimize their selfishness and negative behaviors, and maximize their ability to calm the mind and progress on the Buddhist path.

In China (as I discussed in Episode 23 – How Buddhists Should Behave: Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts Part 2), the Vinaya persisted but was supplemented by Chan monastic regulations. These incredibly detailed instructions for how to conduct life in Chan monasteries adapted the spirit of the Indian Vinaya to Chinese culture and the different physical circumstances in which Chinese monks found themselves. The oldest extant version of Chan regulations (the Chanyuan Qinggui, dating from 1103) include instructions for how monks should pack their meager belongings when traveling to a new monastery, how to eat using an elaborate ritual Zen practitioners still use today, how to wear their robes, and to how to comport themselves in public:

“…he should not let his arms hand down or swing his body from side to side. He should not have a springy gait, and when resting he should not sit in a squatting position or stand with arms akimbo. His demeanor should not be arrogant or wild, and he should not speak with the use of his hands. When walking, he should step heel first.”[i]

The Chanyuan Qinggui also contains explicit instructions for how to use the toilet. After the monk carefully removes his outer robes and hangs them up carefully where they will not get soiled, the monk:

“…carries the water vessel with his right hand and, entering the latrine, removes his shoes and lays them side by side. He softly pulls the door to close it and lowers the vessel with his hand… He should not be dirty with mucous or spit, scattering it about, and he should not make excessive noise.”[ii]

What’s important about these regulations is not the details (you’re not a bad Buddhist if you gesture with your hands when you talk – at least, I hope not), but the way they would require a monk to pay attention to his movements and actions. Instead of just doing whatever she felt like, or whatever was most expedient, she’d be instructed to act in accordance with the regulations whether she liked them or not. And most of the regulations encourage you to pay attention to the effects of your actions on others, and to take time when handling each thing so you wouldn’t be reckless, sloppy, or wasteful.

Japanese Zen monk Dogen traveled to China in 1223, and when he returned to Japan, he championed monastic training conducted according to the ancient regulations like the Chanyuan Qinggui. He wrote his own instructions to his monks about appropriate conduct in the most minute details of their everyday activities, including how to use the toilet (once again), wash one’s face, and conduct oneself in the monk’s study hall. One of Dogen’s most famous writings dealing with Nyoho practice is the Tenzokyokun, or Instructions to the Head Cook. In it, he tells a tenzo that after she has received the ingredients and materials for cooking, “take care of them as your own eyes.” Dogen writes:

“Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another. Do not give away your opportunity even if it is merely a drop in the ocean of merit… As tenzo you should not be away from the sink when the rice for the noon meal is being washed. Watch closely with clear eyes; do not waste even one grain. Wash it in the proper way, put it in pots, make a fire, and boil it. An ancient master said, ‘When you boil rice, know that the water is your own life.’”[iii]

Nyoho Today

The forms and spirit of Nyoho practice as recommended by Dogen are alive and well in modern Soto Zen monasteries in Japan, as well as some traditional monasteries outside of Japan. A sweet, short book by Tsugen Narasaki, Practices at Zen Monastery describes the way the original teachings are manifested in clothing, eating, and housing at a modern Soto monastery. (The book was originally published in 1970 and re-released in 2011.) The book specifically uses the term “nyoho” to refer to being in accord with the Dharma in these practical and physical aspects of a monk’s life.

At least for the first part of a monk’s training in the traditional Soto system, he or she lives in the meditation hall along with other monastics (a residential meditation hall is called a sodo). Each monk occupies the space of one tatami mat, and keeps all personal belongings in a little cupboard at the end of the mat. Here are the instructions for going to sleep after evening meditation:

“Practitioners take out their bedding from the kanki [cupboard] and make their own beds quietly. After they have made their beds, they changing into the tamin-e (sleepwear), sit at the head of their beds and face Manjushri [the Buddhist image on the main altar in the sodo]. Then they bow and chant the ‘Verse of Sleep’ – sometimes in silence, sometimes together:

 

As we go to sleep this night,
may all sentient beings
calm all things,
making the mind clear and untainted.

 

The formal sleeping posture is the same as Shakyamuni Buddha’s nirvana posture, shown in painting of his nirvana [final passage into nirvana upon death]. He lies on his right side with his head pointing north and his face to the west.”[iv]

Later in the book, Practices at a Zen Monastery offers short verses, or gathas, to be recited (quietly or silently) before doing all kinds of mundane daily activities, including bathing, shaving the head, eating, using the toilet, and washing your face. Here’s the verse for brushing your teeth:

“Holding the toothbrush,
may all living beings
attain the true dharma,
and be naturally pure and clean.”[v]

Not every monastic regulation or detail of Nyoho practice is going to be followed at every monastery, and only a portion of the Nyoho practices will be relevant in the more common Western setting of a non-residential Zen center with largely non-monastic practitioners. However, unless a Zen center is deliberately trying to be informal, it will usually incorporate numerous practices intended to make even our smallest, most mundane actions accord with the Dharma: Carefully lining up our shoes, leaving no trace behind us in the bathroom or kitchen, and diligently straightening sitting cushions into neat rows after zazen.

Conclusion

As mentioned earlier, in the next episode I’ll continue with Part 2 of Nyoho: Making Even Our Smallest, Mundane Actions Accord with the Dharma. I’ll go into more detail about the spirit of Nyoho at the Aichi Senmon Nisodo, a women’s training monastery in Japan where the practice has been developed, in my estimation, into an art form. I’ll talk about the deeper truths enacted by, and reflected in, Nyoho, and suggest ways you can practice Nyoho in the midst of your everyday life.

As a teaser, I’ll leave you some words by Zen priest and teacher Koun Franz, posted on his blog, Nyoho Zen:

“In traditional monastic terms, nyohō is discussed in terms of color, materials, and size as they relate to food (how it is prepared, how it is served, how it is received), clothing (robes), and shelter (the relational dimensions of the monastery itself). But the idea of nyohō extends into every aspect of our lives, and invites the larger question, ‘What does it mean, in this moment, to express the Dharma?’ What informs such a practice? And what are the ingredients of creating an atmosphere of practice for others?”[vi]

Read/listen to Nyoho Part 2

 


Endnotes

[i] Page 139 (Fascicle 2) – Yifa, Venerable. Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China (Classics in East Asian Buddhism): an annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
[ii] Page 205 (Fascicle 7) – Yifa, Venerable. Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China (Classics in East Asian Buddhism): an annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
[iii] Page 54-55 of “Instructions to the Tenzo” by Eihei Dogen, in Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985
[iv] Page 35 in Narasaki, Tsugen. Practices at a Zen Monastery – Clothing, Eating, Housing: Being in Harmony with the Dharma. Zuioji Senmon Sodo, Japan, 2011.
[v] Ibid, page 43.
[vi] https://nyoho.com/what-is-nyoho/

 

86 - Samvega and Pasada: Two Buddhist Emotions Indispensable for Practice
88 – Nyoho: Making Even Our Smallest, Mundane Actions Accord with the Dharma – Part 2
Share
Share