Balancing practice, study, and work in the world

Rock balance” by kingzoot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

After you have encountered a guide and teacher, you should cast off the myriad distractions and, without losing a moment, devote yourself energetically to pursuing the way. You should practice, be it by using the mind or by using no-mind, or by using half-mind. Therefore you should learn to practice with the same sense of urgency that would drive you to put out a fire on top of your head or to stand with one leg raised [in order to pay homage to a Buddha].[1]

—From Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui

Okumura Rōshi:

In this quote from Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui, Dōgen says that to find a teacher is most difficult, so first you need to find a teacher. Then he says when you find a teacher you have to practice diligently, following the teacher’s example. After you have encountered a guiding teacher, “you should cast off the myriad distractions.” “Myriad distractions” are all the different kind of objects associated with “me.”     

Of course, this is a teaching for monks. To become a Buddhist monk or home-leaver means to cut off all kinds of worldly relations and focus on studying and practicing Buddhist teachings. Lay people cannot cut off all associations. As you know, I’m a Buddhist priest—yet I’m kind of a lay person. I have a family and a job, so I cannot cut off all those kinds of associations. But another meaning of this “cut off all associations” is not to think those people and things and affairs around me are something separate from me. This is part of me. If I am in this network, these ten thousand associations are part of me. So actually, we cannot cut ourselves off. But traditionally to be a home leaver means to cut off all responsibility or duty in society and become a member of a Buddhist monastery. So if we understand this phrase “cut off myriad distractions” objectively, it’s not possible for us. But at least when we sit in the zendo, and let go, we can “cut them off.” So we need to interpret this in a way that we can practice.

You know, time is really precious. When we waste one moment, we never regain that moment. We have to really focus on this practice. Dōgen says, “Without losing a moment, devote yourself energetically to pursuing the Way.” And yet again, when we have family and work as a member of the society, the time we can use for practice is really limited. People are so busy today, including myself. There are so many things we have to do. But again, if we think these are outside of myself and I want to practice in the zendo, then this is an obstacle. But if we understand that my practice includes all these other things besides what we do in the zendo, then it’s not possible to waste time. That means our family life, our life at work, or our life as a member of society can be a Buddhist practice, if we keep the same attitude. We have to think carefully. If we think all the things happening outside of the zendo are meaningless and that doing such things is waste of time, then there’s no time to practice. But if we think this entire network is the dharma, is myself, then anything we do can be practice.

Then Dōgen says, “You should practice, be it by using the mind or by using no mind or by using half mind.” Usually, when we try to do something, we use our mind. That means I want to do this, I aspire to do this. We practice using our mind. We have to make a plan. In order to find a time to sit in the zendo, we have to reorganize our entire life—using our mind—to find a time to come to the zendo and sit quietly. But from another side, our practice is concerned with not using our mind. As far as we are using our mind it’s not practice, it’s not a dharma practice. But our mind is a part of the dharma. We cannot control dharma but we cannot practice dharma without our planning or our strategy. Yet we have to give up our mind. So there are two sides. We have to make a plan or organize our life to find a time to practice. But from another side, as far as we are doing such a thing, our practice is part of our life, or part of our concern. But even half way between these two, whatever the condition of our mind, we have to use all the minds: u mind, mu mind, and half mind. Whatever the condition of our mentality, somehow, we have to find skillful means to practice. If you don’t have time to come to the zendo, you can sit in a room, or you can even sit in an office. Walking on the street can be a meditation. If you have time, go to a quiet place and take a walk; it can be a meditation.


Can you live a proper lay life, without having spent serious time practicing and studying? If you had to choose, would you study all Buddhism, have a monastic practice, or a practice where everybody has their outside life?

Okumura Rōshi:

I think all of them are necessary. But one person cannot do everything. In my case, because my teacher’s style of practice is to really focus on sitting zazen, and his vow was to create texts about Buddhism and zazen practice for modern people, I took this vow also. I focus on sitting with people and sharing my understanding by working on translation and writing books and giving lectures. Those are the only things I can do. We need many people working in different ways. I think because I have been focusing on just sitting and studying, I could understand what Dōgen is saying to a certain degree. But because of this, I couldn’t do many things in society, of course. In a sense, I have to walk on a very narrow path. But to me this is helpful. In order to understand what Dōgen is saying, I had to really focus on sitting and studying. I didn’t have time to do anything else, and I feel really fortunate that I could. But in order to do so, I had to give up so many things. And sometimes I feel sorry for my family. Much of the time I’m not with my family. You know, at least five days a month I am facing the wall, and I couldn’t do anything else.

To really develop Buddhism and Dōgen’s tradition we need different practice places and different people working in different ways. We need some people who focus on sitting like Sawaki Rōshi and Uchiyama Rōshi. We need some people who focus on studying Dōgen and Buddhism. We need some people who work in society. All of those types of work or practice are necessary to develop Buddhism in this society. One person cannot do everything. To do little bit of everything and focus on one main thing might be the best way of practice. You have to make the choice of one main practice—studying, sitting, or working in the society. And yet it’s helpful to have some experience of monastic practice and studying dharma. So each person needs to do one main thing, and other things as much as possible. That is kind of the ideal condition to create for the future.


[1] Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui, translated by Stanley Weinstein, from Dharma Eye; The newsletter of the Sōtō Zen Buddhism International Center, # 10, 2002.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Rōshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Rōshi about practice and study. These questions and responses are taken from Okumura Rōshi’s recorded lectures, and are edited to provide continuity and context.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2022 Sanshin Zen Community

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.