Thursday, October 06, 2011

Pai-Chang and Watching Paint Dry

Thanks to one famous anecdote, Pai-Chang may be one of the most famous Zen Masters ever. It is a story that has traveled far and wide beyond the Zen community at large, perhaps because it suggests to some a work ethic worthy of the toughest Protestants.

This is of course the story of Pai Chang, elderly yet still participating fully in the monastery's work period day after day until the younger monks hid his tools. Unable to labor, Pai-Chang declined his meals until the tools were returned. He said by way of explanation, "A day without working is a day without eating."

On his blog Last Sunday, Nathan Thompson wondered "how notions of productivity impact how you are in the world." Stubborn old Pai Chang came to mind, of course, but there is another story, less well known, that we'll offer to this discussion.

On a different occasion, a monk asked hard-working Pai-Chang why he always said there is hard work to do. If everything is complete and nothing is to be done, why was Pai-Chang always doing things? Pai-Chang said, "There is one who requires it." The younger monk said, "Why doesn't he do it himself, then??" Pai Chang answered, "He has no tools."

There is something here about fulfillment, as opposed to simple productivity.

Here at the Burning House, we've been painting our physical house: turning a pink house into a yellow house with white trim and slate-blue shutters. My wife and I both work on it when we have time. There is a good deal of scraping and caulking and all the prep work to do before we even get to painting. The materials and tools need to be cared for, brushes cleaned, slop water disposed of, and so on. Our progress is slow, for all the work going on.

Sarah has an uncle named Bo who is a preacher over in Amarillo, Texas. He came to visit his family in Deming recently and to us he offered some good advice from his experience in the house painting trade. He said you know this will go a lot faster if you get yourself a deep bucket, pour the paint in there, get yourself a roller, and just slap that paint up there and roll it around. Fix it up on the second coat. Another thing is, you really don't need two coats of prime, one'll do it, just get it up there.

Well there's nothing wrong with that. I've painted houses myself for money, and have done it that way (albeit usually on sections higher up where no one is apt to look closely). To say nothing of sprayers. It's certainly a way to be more productive: the house would get painted much faster that way. Yet I'm still using brushes, and I'm still putting up two coats of prime.

Work is an opportunity for awakening. It is not meditation in a formal sense, although it affords a parallel as I work in silence and pay attention to the task itself. The paint behaves in certain ways. Its behavior changes with different brushes and different weather conditions. The wooden siding of our house looks all the same, but the surface of the clapboards varies widely. I notice details about our house I haven't taken time to notice before. I am also settled in my body, feet on the earth, moving and breathing through every stroke of the brush. On a stepping stool or a ladder, I must pay attention to my weight and balance. There is no radio and no chatter; thoughts pass through my head quickly and cleanly; distractions settle.

This is why I enjoy cutting the grass with a human-powered mower. When mowing the lawn is like vacuuming a rug, there is no relationship between my body and the yard as a living piece of land.

There is no deadline. The house will get painted. There is no employer here and no customer. The house will be two-toned for a little while, but at least the two colors match.

Up in Bayard, our friend Steve is a carpenter. We have a table he designed and built in our kitchen. Steve needs to be conscious of time and productivity, since this is his livelihood; and yet he is not just slapping wood together in order to fill orders, he is fulfilling them. He has an intimate knowledge of how different kinds of wood behave, a mastery of his tools and the engineering that goes into building furniture, and an ability to express his creativity using these materials. It is dignified, creative human work.

This is about something wider than productivity. We might call it fulfillment. It has something to do with the work itself as a process of expressing one's life, interacting with the world of form. "There is one who requires it."

If our focus is on productivity, we are alienated from the process of working itself which means we are alienated from being present in our bodies, alive. When the productivity has some direction, and the work is a living process of fulfilling that direction, there is joy and fulfillment in working.

Pulling back from the individual level to a societal level, we live in a capitalist era that strongly emphasizes being a "good worker," producing goods and services that, when we work for an employer, we do not own ourselves. (Self-employed people, of course, have a different situation.) What employees produce is owned by someone else who is making a profit from our work. The conditions and expectations emphasize speed and productivity, often at the expense of safety and dignity. The description of work as fulfillment literally does not compute in this relationship, and this alienation is an historical human problem. As for the managerial level, it is possible for someone who does no physical labor himself to be praised all the same for his "productivity" (even if all the producing is actually being done by others). This is how investors come to be called "job creators," yet workers are somehow not considered "wealth creators."

Who is this "one who requires it," the one who has no tools, that Pai-Chang spoke of? It's not one person and not one conceptual object. Pai-Chang is hinting at something else.

Look at it from a different angle: If your life and your labor are an instrument, ask not what it produces, but what it fulfills in this instant. Who benefits from the freshly-painted house, a clean yard, a well-made table, a meal prepared with good ingredients and care? Who benefits from a thorough back rub, a well-tuned bicycle, a clean bedpan and fresh bandages?

When Pai-Chang said a day without work was a day without eating, he was not being austere, as so many people believe. At least, it was not austerity in the sense it is commonly understood.

Pai-Chang's austerity was a kind of lushness, a kind of inalienable wealth. Do you see this?

[Photo: our work in progress]


Nathan said...

I think I totally dismissed Pai-Chang's comments when I first saw them in something my zen center was studying years ago. Reflexive angst at what superficially sounds like the Protestant work ethic is probably exactly what happened.

Thank you for this. I'm gonna sit with it now for a bit.

Mandy_Fish said...

This is lovely.

Ji Hyang said...

beautiful. well spoken.