Quotes about work and Zen (practicing Zen at work)

For many years I struggled with how to combine two of my main interests, Zen and work. I had read that the Zen mind is the mind before thinking, so it seemed like Zen and work must be totally unrelated. But over time I came to understand phrases like, “When working, just work.”

This article contains a collection of quotes that have been helpful to me in understanding the relationship between Zen and work. Please note that I don’t wrap each quote in double quotes, and I also try to attribute each quote to the correct author/speaker. If you’re interested in how to combine Zen and work, I hope you’ll find them helpful.

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He (my teacher) said that I was beginning to experience the first stages of samadhi. He told me that this experience would become deeper and deeper as I continued my practice, but then he said something that really blew my mind: “You must try to be in this state at all times, even as you go about ordinary activity.” I thought to myself, “I can barely get a taste of it after an hour of busting my buns, trying to count my breath. How can I possibly be in this state in day to day life?”

He then said something even more mind-boggling: “As a general principle, any positive state that you experience within the context of silent sitting practice, you must try to attain in the midst of ordinary life.”

Finally, I got it! The menial tasks I had been assigned to around the temple were meant to be an exercise in meditation. Whether washing dishes or cleaning toilets, my job was to try to stay in samadhi.

Suddenly it all made sense. I stopped thinking of my jobs in the temple as a meaningless waste of time and began to see them as fascinating challenges. Everything shifted: “How deep can I get this morning as I wash these dishes? How deep can I stay as I rake the sand?”

~ an abridged version of some text from Shinzen Young in The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works

~ note that in the book Zen Training, Katsuki Sekida refers to samadhi when intentionally sitting on a cushion as absolute samadhi, and samadhi in normal daily life as positive samadhi

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When we choose to perform an activity, we make it a gift by dedicating our entire body-mind to it, by making it the only task we do in that moment. In that way, all activities are included in one, and all activities are unified. This is how our activity fills the universe, and how we express complete understanding in our work.

~ I don’t remember the source of this quote, but it sounds like something Shunryu Suzuki would say

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We can be fully satisfied in our work only when we understand that it is the continuation of something that does not end. (My note: The universe is in a constant state of transformation.)

~ probably from Shunryu Suzuki or Thich Nhat Hanh

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To base our lives on Zen means to emphasize our effort and not worry about attaining satisfaction. Our main emphasis should be on our effort, not its results. The results come and go, but our effort is always here.

~ probably from Shunryu Suzuki or Thich Nhat Hanh

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When we have Zen practice, every activity is satisfying because all activities are beyond discrimination. To base our lives on Zen means to emphasize our effort and not worry about attaining satisfaction.

~ probably from Shunryu Suzuki or Thich Nhat Hanh

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If you understand Zen, all work is the same.

~ i don’t remember the origin of that quote, but Zen mind is before thinking; if already you’re thinking, it’s too late (a quote that I think comes from the book, Zen Training)

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Do every act of your life as though it is the last act of your life.

~ probably Shunryu Suzuki

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Be here now.

~ Ram Dass

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There is only Now.

~ Eckhart Tolle

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When you do something, burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

~ probably Shunryu Suzuki

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Always perform the work that has to be done without attachment.

Do not be concerned with the fruits of your action, just give attention to the action itself.

~ not Zen, but two good quotes from the Bhagavad Gita

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Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.

~ Shunryu Suzuki

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Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.

~ Shunryu Suzuki

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Without any intentional, fancy way of adjusting yourself, to express yourself as you are is the most important thing.

~ Shunryu Suzuki

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Tozan and his disciple Sozan were the founders of the Soto Zen school in China. When it came time for Sozan to leave his teacher, he want to say goodbye.

Tozan asked him, “Where are you going?”

“To an unchanging place,” Sozan answered.

“Is there really any going to that place?”

“The going itself is unchanged.”

In this story Sozan is saying that the activity is the place of unchanging. He is pointing to continuous effort, uninterrupted practice, as the “place” of sanctuary.

~ probably from an old, out of print book titled, Zen at Work

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Accepting the “just this” of a situation does not mean we lose our authority or become carpets for others to walk on. It simply means that we receive the situation as it is and respond accordingly, but with an egoless mind. The action of an egoless mind, whether active or passive, is always right action.

~ Making Zen Your Own

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On meditation (and life): If you’re not putting 100% of your self into it, you’re wasting your time.

~ unknown

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You can meditate while talking to someone, while washing the dishes, while driving. As your experience grows, you eventually come to a point where you are so present that there is a kind of merging of inside and outside ... In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation.

~ Shinzen Young in The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works

Attributions

I tried to properly attribute each quote to the proper author, but I have most of these quotes written on index cards, and I didn’t put the author name on those cards way back when. The quotes are also hard to find through Google. I’ll update the attributions over time, when I find the correct authors.

Summary: Zen and work

If you’re interested in combining Zen and work, I hope these quotes are helpful. Namaste.

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