Zen Meditation in Activity


Modern psychology has a strange way of categorizing the different aspects of our life.  Many psychologists emphasize that there are different spheres of life, and that we must find a proper balance in each sphere.  Everyone ideally, for instance, should have meaningful work, positive relationships, and soul rejuvenating hobbies.  Each sphere of life has different principals, and if one sphere is neglected our life becomes unbalanced.

There is certainly wisdom in this view, but all-too-often people make their spiritual practice just another category.  They divide enlightenment and the world, and allot spiritual practice only a portion of their time and dedication.  “This is my job, and there is my spiritual practice.”  “This is my prayer time, and there is the time I spend running errands.” “I go to church on Sunday, but during the week engage in ‘worldly activity.’” “I visit a monastery to live ‘the holy life,’ but my ordinary life in the city is mundane.”  Without realizing it, when we think in this way, we are re-enforcing the false view that the Divine and the world are separate, and our spiritual practice becomes just another delusion to garland our ego with.

When I began studying Eastern religions, my understanding of spiritual practice was utterly revolutionized.  In Zen Buddhist teaching, the tradition I have studied with the most depth, this very life is the activity of enlightenment.  There is not a moment of our life that is separate from enlightenment, from the Way, from God.  It naturally follows from this perspective that all of our activities are spiritual practice.

The question then naturally arises, “How can I continue my spiritual practice in activity?” This post will explore different angles of a Zen Buddhist perspective on meditation practice in activity: the aspiration for enlightenment, concentration, inquiry, and practicing with a non-dual perspective.  Although seated meditation is vitally importantly, in this post I will confine myself exclusively to the topic of meditation in activity. I my book (pdf link above) I have a fuller discussion of this profound topic that cannot possibly be contained in a single blog post.

The Aspiration for Enlightenment

The driving inspiration behind meditation in activity, and Zen meditation in general, is the aspiration for enlightenment.  In my opinion, the aspiration for enlightenment is the heart of the Zen tradition, and all the great Zen masters made this aspiration the highest goal of their life.  No teacher manifested this aspiration with greater zeal than the historical Buddha, the source of both Zen and all the other great schools of Buddhism.  In his story we see an archetypal blueprint demonstrating that the desire for enlightenment is the pre-requisite of all serious spiritual work.

Siddhartha Gautama, who later was referred to as the Buddha (the awakened one) lived approximately 2,500 years ago in India.  Tradition tells us that the Buddha was born as a prince blessed with all the material blessings he could desire.  Despite these terrestrial blessings, he felt terrified by the inescapable reality of sickness, old age, and death.  After encountering these facts of life that had been intentionally hidden from him in his youth, the Buddha finally roused the aspiration for enlightenment and dramatically left his palace and his family in the night to begin his spiritual training in the forest that culminated in his enlightenment around 6 years later.

There are obviously many more fascinating details of the Buddha’s life story, and I recommend reading it for yourself (my favorite version is Karen Armstrong’s, The Buddha).  Yet in its bare bones, we can see in the life of the Buddha an archetypal pattern that still speaks to us today.  For the life of the Buddha is our very life.  We all live in a metaphorical palace, a worldview that is dominated by the illusory construct of the ego.  We live for pleasure and selfish desires, and most of us are utterly trapped in the delusion that we are synonymous with the mind and body.

The wise in all times and places take a realistic look at reality, and perceive that our vehicle is heading off a cliff at astounding speed!  All of us will soon die, and suffering in this human world is inescapable.  Furthermore, everything we enjoy is impermanent.  All of our precious victories will be forgotten and our trophies will turn to dust.  All of our loved ones will be taken from us in the snap of a cosmic finger.  The Zen masters do not lament this natural reality, but teach us to seek That which does not change, our True Nature which never dies and, ironically, is ever-present.  Not only Zen, but many great religious traditions, teach that happiness cannot be found in anything impermanent.  It can only be found in the realization of our True Nature (or God) that alone exists and that is Bliss Itself.  In this sense, the Buddha’s exodus to the forest does not need to be literally interpreted as the view that everyone should become celibate monks.  Yet we all must look around us and realize that everything we assumed would make us happy is only a fleeting illusion.  We must all rouse the aspiration for enlightenment, and leave our ego’s “palace” behind to find the Spiritual Palace of awakening that is the birthright of every human being.

Yet the understanding that happiness cannot be found in worldly things is only the beginning.  What follows is the rising of great faith that Enlightenment/God-Realization is possible to experience for yourself.  Like the Buddha before us, we too can realize our own True Nature, and enjoy the indescribable peace of Eternal Life in this very body.  The foundation of the path to this peace, however, is the aspiration to realize It for yourself, an aspiration that must become the foremost goal of life.  On the doorpost of many Zen monasteries it was written, “Great is the matter of birth and death; Impermanence surrounds us; Be awake in every moment; Do not waste your life.”  We have not come to the Earth to enjoy the temporarily pleasant side paths of delusion, but to explore this Great Matter, and realize that the Living God/Buddha is, in reality, our own ever-present True Nature.

Until the aspiration for enlightenment is roused, spiritual practice will remain at a surface level.  When it is roused, every part of our life becomes a means to the end of God-Realization.  The Zen sages realized that seated meditation (or zazen) is an important part of spiritual practice, but far from its totality.  Our daily lives in work, relationships, and leisure must be vivified by meditation, and be seen as the actualization of Enlightenment Itself.  Once you “take the red pill,” as Morpheus advised in the movie The Matrix, there is no more “my life” and “spiritual practice” as opposed to non-spiritual practice. Like a massive tidal wave that engulfs an entire city, so the aspiration for enlightenment drowns lesser goals and the false understanding that God is separate from anything we do.

So, to conclude, the initial step in understanding meditation in activity is understanding that the goal of life is enlightenment.  Then it is naturally understood that everything we do, including both seated meditation and activity, is a means to that end of spiritual awakening.

Practicing Zen Concentration in Everyday Life

Zen teaches that meditation is simply becoming intimate with the present moment as it already isOne of the reasons I love Zen is because it is a practice and not a philosophy.  Essentially, the initial the goal of Zen meditation is simply to be present, and to become one with the present moment that, ironically, is all we can ever experience.  The present moment is where God is found, where life is found, where love is found, where Bliss is found.  Yet to become fully present, we must train our minds in meditation, for our minds mysteriously separate from the present moment with astonishing frequency.

The word for seated meditation in Japanese Zen is “zazen.”  Za means seated and Zen refers to meditation or non-dual awareness of the present moment.  This implies that everything we do can become meditation.  I am practicing Writing-Zen currently; when I eat, that is Eating-Zen.  When I am having coffee with a friend, that is Conversation-Zen.  And so on for everything we do.

To make something meditation simply means to fully experience it without unnecessary thinking.  When I lived at Great Vow Zen Monastery, seated meditation was only 4 hours per day and “work practice” was 6 hours per day.  I was encouraged to bring the principals of meditation into my work, and to see zazen and meditation in activity as two aspects of the same reality.  Meditation in activity simply translates to choosing an object of concentration and being fully present with it.  When weeding, for instance, I would place my awareness fully in my hands, and when my mind would wander, I would bring it back to my hands.  One can also, without choosing such a specific object, simply set the intention to be fully present during an activity without getting lost in thought.

When I left the monastery, I found the principals of “work practice” operating naturally in my daily life.  One summer, for example, I worked as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, and every morning I would chop lemons for the day.  Instead of thinking, “I want to get done with this work and then go enjoy my life,” I realized that my life at work was not only my life, but was the activity of enlightened awareness, and an inseparable part of my aspiration for enlightenment.  I was not merely chopping lemons for wages, but practicing meditation, and approaching the activity as a concentration device.  Everything in our life can be viewed like this.

Simply put, Zen concentration in activity simply means experiencing the present moment instead of thinking about something else.  When eating, we can focus our awareness on the taste of food and thereby make our mouth the object of concentration.  When taking a shower, we can make the sensations on our skin the object of concentration.  When shopping in the grocery store, we can notice the miracle of various colors manifesting the Inexpressible Majesty of the One Enlightened Mind.

Many people develop ego satisfaction about being a “spiritual person,” yet their view demonstrates that they do not understand what meditation truly is.  Once a student went to a Zen master and said, “What is the Buddha?” The Master then said, “Have you eaten?”  “Yes,” said the student. “Then wash your bowl,” uttered the master with a calm confidence.

In this case, the master was not merely giving a mundane command in order to keep the kitchen clean.  Rather, he was demonstrating a vital spiritual principal. He perceived that the student was separating “The Buddha” from his own life and practicing through the filter of a lifeless ideal.  His practice had become an idea instead of the lived experience of each moment.  The master knew that “The Buddha” is the simple awareness that is present when we are washing a bowl, the very same awareness present in zazen.

Even if you do not believe in the potential of enlightenment, being present is also a good strategy for basic worldly happiness.  If we live our whole life trapped in thoughts – worries about the future, regrets about the past, and fruitless fantasies of an “other” reality – how will we ever truly appreciate the miracle of our life as it is?  Where can we experience the beauty of life but in the present moment where already we are?  As my teacher used to say, like a thumb tack gluing a piece of paper to a wall, we should use concentration to glue our mind to the present moment and stop allowing it to uselessly distract itself.

Many well intentioned people spend their whole lives waiting for the bliss of of a heaven “out there” after death. But until we realize that there is absolutely no separation between the Divine and our daily life, an unsurpassable barrier will separate us from God-Consciousness, the real Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus spoke of.  My teacher at the monastery used to say, “Stop asking ‘when will I get time to meditate,’ and start asking yourself, ‘when am I not meditating?’”  The wondrous truth is that our very life is the One Mind enjoying Itself and pretending to the universe.  Yet to see this truth we must free ourselves from the view that spiritual practice and mundane activities are two distinct spheres, and utilize each moment as an opportunity to practice meditation.


Another aspect of Zen meditation is inquiry, or simply being curious about who you really are.  Every moment there is Something aware that does not change as our lives undergo endless transformations on a moment by moment basis. There are countless Zen teachings, yet all those rivers lead back to the Ocean of this very moment.  Inquiry can thus be boiled down to this one question: “What is aware?” “Who am I?”

This question is not something to be thought about intellectually.  Rather, it is merely a way of experiencing things with deep curiosity.  Practically speaking, carrying around the question of “Who am I” or “What is It” throughout the day is a very powerful practice because it constantly points to us back to our own Awareness.  Never be deceived by spiritual charlatans who claim that they alone have access to God-Consciousness, or by religious traditions dominated by dualistic dogmas.  The great secret that all sages awaken to is this simple truth: your own True Nature is God/Buddha Itself! Yet even to describe it in this way is a defilement, for it is an experience beyond words.  May all genuine sages forgive me for abominating the priceless treasure of the truth with the worthless dust of human speech!

Even if you believe this idea, what actually is It?  When you are eating, what is tasting your food?  When you are speaking, what is hearing the words? When you are taking a walk, what is seeing the trees?  If you carry this question with you like a shadow that never leaves, you will begin to cut through the notion that enlightenment and your own life are separate.  Then, at some point – by God’s Grace – you will stop trying to experience It, and simply allow It to experience you.  What a wondrous reality, closer than our very bones!

Practicing Non-Duality and Transcending Attainment

Although all authentic Zen masters are in unanimous agreement that effortful meditation practice is required to actually experience enlightenment, enlightenment is nevertheless never separate from this very moment.  If, therefore, we practice with the idea that we are “gaining” something, or “attaining” enlightenment, we have a false view.  In this illusory state, spiritual practice becomes simply another delusion of the ego.  The great sages tell us to simply practice without the idea that we are gaining anything.  They tell us to abide in non-duality, and not seek the truth outside of us.  They advise us to simply practice as practice without ideas of loss or gain.

Like all the masters before us, we must set an aspiration for Awakening, but we should never be deceived that It is somehow outside of this very moment.  A great story from the Zen cannon illustrates this point:

One day Nangaku visited Baso’s hut. Baso stood and greeted him. Nangaku asked, “What have you been doing recently?” Baso replied, “I’ve done nothing but sit in zazen.” Then Nangaku asked, “Why do you continually sit in zazen?” Baso answered “I sit in zazen in order to become a Buddha.” Nangaku picked up a tile he found by the side of Basos hut and started to polish it. Baso watched what he was doing and asked “Master, what are you doing?” Nangaku answered, “I’m polishing this tile.” Baso asked “Why are you polishing the tile?” Nangaku answered, “To make a mirror.” Baso said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” And Nangaku replied, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”

In this story, the teacher is pointing to the fact that the Buddha is our own True Nature that cannot be lost or gained, and that is present this very moment.  How can a tile that is naturally a tile become a mirror?  How can our own Nature be gained through effort? He was not telling the student that zazen is bad, for without practicing meditation we will never experientially realize the truth. Yet if zazen is done with an idea of attainment in the mind, it can become another fetter.  Sages understand that realization, not attainment, is the Way that leads to freedom.

One of the most famous Zen poems, called Affirming Faith in Mind, famously says, “The great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.  When preferences are cast aside, the Way stands clear and undisguised.”  The Way is “clear and undisguised” this very moment as you read this, for It alone is perceiving this sentence!  It is not as if you are climbing a ladder to higher and higher levels of spiritual attainment.  Rather, the Way has chosen to experience “your” human life, but somehow has forgotten that it is the Way.  May the Way practice spiritual disciplines through your mind and body, so that It may remember that It is the Way merely pretending to be “you!” The wise in all times and places understand the meaning of this proverb, and smile mischievously when they hear it: “Fools debate. Sages enjoy.”


I am always fond of saying, “Set your compass due North.”  Make God-Realization the goal of your heart, and everything else will fall into place.  Yet the path to enlightenment is unpredictable, and everyone has a unique path.  Perhaps a common first step in this path is freeing your mind from your false preconceptions about where God can be found.  You do not need to “renounce the world” externally and live in a cave in India to become enlightened. You do not need to act strange and scare your family with cryptic sayings on Thanksgiving.  As Lao-Tzu famously said in the Tao Te Ching, “Without going out of doors one may know the whole world; without looking out of the window, one may see the Way of Heaven.”

Through effort in meditation and the Grace of God you can awaken to It, and know “The Way of Heaven,” wherever you are.  In fact, if you set up an ideal image of what enlightenment is, your spiritual practice will become a hindrance to your experiential understanding.  If you live in a cave in India, but have your mind on worldly things, you will be a worldly person.  But if you realize that everything is the activity of enlightenment, your very life is realized as the life of God.  True renunciation, in its deepest sense, is a state of mind and not an external circumstance.  As Ramakrishna said, just as one may wear a glove and hold poison, so one may lead an active life in the world with their mind completely on God and not have their realization diminished.

If you set the right intention, everything in your life can be viewed as a means to the end of Awakening.  Imagine your life as a tether ball that goes round and round the pole, endlessly unveiling new scenes and challenges.  Though you may do a thousand things, and be tied and then unraveled in a thousand dramas, always keep your mind “tethered” to God-Consciousness, and to the Awareness that is ever-present before thought and form arise.

If you are firm with God-Realization as your goal, practice seated meditation daily, occasionally dedicate time to retreat practice, and view all activities as meditation, you will eventually transcend the need for affiliation in any ritualistic religious system (though you may participate out of enjoyment).  What need will you have to travel to a faraway temple, when you yourself are the Temple of God?  What need will you have to adorn the altar of the Buddha when you yourself are the Buddha?  Then, with all the sages before you, you can cast away, once and for all, the false idea that you and the Divine are separate.  And like an astonished madman, you will only have one mantra left to chant: “This, This, This!”


May all beings awaken to the primordial Truth that every moment expresses with unspeakable beauty!  May all beings know the wondrous peace of enlightenment that transcends body and mind, and does not alter with circumstances.  May all beings be free from delusion and realize the spotless miracle of their True Nature!

Thank you for reading,


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