Sho means “way of life,” and “the means of existence.” Right practice of the Way requires a regular, well-ordered, well-considered life and respect of duty…Concentrate on what you have to do with mushotoku mind, generous and altruistic.
-Deshimaru, on the eight fold path
The first job I ever had was cutting grass for an old Italian lady up the hill. I showed up once a week, headphones on, and sometimes I cut the grass and sometimes I cleaned out her basement. I remember cleaning her drainage ditches. At 11 years old, I made more money than I could spend on ice cream and movie rentals, so I spent some on Star Wars’ toys, models, and drawing supplies.
But I knew I only really needed the ice cream and the movie rentals. I bought the other stuff because I had no concept of saving. Save for what? The money was rolling in.
Eventually I quit. Ice cream and movies got boring. I just couldn’t think of anything to do with my money and I couldn’t think why anyone would want a job if they didn’t want money.
Around 15, I wanted money again. I wanted a car, I wanted tattoos, I wanted CDs, a girlfriend, and all of this meant I needed a job. After a 3 month stint in the fast food business, and another in a nursing home, I settled into a laborer position for a mason crew. In the beginning, I hated this job more than the previous two. You had to wake up early, it was an exhausting 12 hour day, and I worked with people who were toxic in a lot of ways. The worst part was how they were also nurturing me with swear words and beer cans, and they seemed impervious to the sun, the heavy concrete blocks, and to the beer. I really mean nurturing, too. There was much written on the wrinkled foreheads and marred hands of masons.
Whenever I failed on the job, I would revert to my resentments. It would start: They’re drunks. They’re red necks. They’re racist republicans. They don’t get me. I’m Buddhist. I’m a writer. I’ll be something. I’m not this fucking pail of mud.
On and on it went, for seven years. And I’d leave for college, swear never to be back. My parents bought me a beautiful Carhart for Christmas, which I took as an insult, and returned for a Navy issued pea coat; I figured that would lend some literary poise. I left this job in the spring of 2007, so I could go help the world and “use” my degree.
They were the crabs in the barrel.
I couldn’t see how laying stone or brick helped anyone. Listening to NPR about the teacher crisis in New Orleans, I reckoned I could really do some good there. I figured that right livelihood meant going into the places no one wanted to go.
As soon as I heard that term, right livelihood, my mind started slicing and dicing. Top three most altruistic choices were: Doctor, teacher, or priest. This was my top three. Therapist, social worker, and peace corps volunteer were next. But a mason? Spending one’s days laying brick in the sun while listening to the Knack’s My Shirona? Drinking beer and prattling on about guns, sex, and trucks? This could never, ever, be right livelihood.
Being a dogsled handler in Alaska couldn’t be it. Nor a writer. And eventually, after a year of teaching, that couldn’t be right livelihood either. Below the surface of everything was corruption, greed, and evil.
So work took a backseat to Zen practice. My relationship took a backseat too, right next to all the other delusions. Eventually, I moved into the temple to dwell in luminosity.
Then those black rakusu started looking so dark. And egos abounded. And everyone was way off, especially my teacher. I used to skip work to do samu at the temple. But where was I going to go when I skipped samu?
Uh, the bar. A girl’s house. My parents’ house.
I know, it all seems so clear, but I had to quit drinking to see anything at all.
A fellow blogger posted a story about Katagiri that really struck a chord. Really told my story. After reading civil disobedience, I wasn’t going to work hard ever again. But reading Dosho’s post really opened up a line of stirrings.
For one, I had actually skipped work on the day he posted. Secondly, I was preparing for my debut as tenzo. Thirdly, I am editing Deshimaru’s book on the Hannya Shingyo, where I found the epigraph to this post. The word “duty” stuck with me. Duty. Like my dad and the marines.
Deshimaru was an advocate of lay practice, and my teacher emphasizes this today. A real bodhisattva should have his feet in the mud of the world at all times. We’re not supposed to seek refuge in a hermitage or a monastery.
But who do I listen to? I still want to stay in a monastery.
I guess I listened to Dosho, and to Dogen, and to myself, when I really feel like I’m taking advantage of the system I work in. It’s real test to work in an indecent environment and remain upright. I have failed many times, and I see the marks of that failure on my students’ faces when they ask me where I’ve been.
Yeah, I have a drinking problem, but when I wasn’t drunk, I was skipping work because I didn’t care. I couldn’t see the point. I wanted to live in the problem, not the solution. Despite my efforts, it still happens.
I am trying to join my extended sangha in the work-a-day world. I drug myself today. I’m done trying to debate whether or not I am an English teacher; I am. I am those lesson plans. I am that chalk board. I am the failed lesson plans. I am the broken chalk board, or the chalk board that says, “Fuck Mr. Flyingpig.”