Cultivating the Way: Taking Up the Tools of Practice

The following talk was given on the first day of the late summer Empty Field retreat on our organic farm. It is a time of year when many of us look forward to a more intensive commitment to practice in the fall during our 100 day Ango period that begins on Sept. 4 and ends on Dec. 13.

Homage to the Buddha. Homage to the Dharma. Homage to the Sangha.

Welcome friends. Sixteen years of this retreat on this land called Cultivating the Zen Way — cultivating a way of life that has meaning and vitality. To “cultivate” means to prepare the land, to break up the soil, in order to bring forth life. An earlier root of this word of cultivate is colere, means, “to inhabit.” So there are a lot of similarities in the way we train to become farmers and the way we train in Zen, and I want to call on the poetry of one of our tradition’s farming masters, Wendell Berry, who shows us what it means to take up practice in the landscape of this very life.

You could say farming is about three simple things: showing up, listening, and having a few good tools. Showing up is not “ho hum” showing up, but showing up completely, ready and willing even if you don’t feel like it. Most plants don’t care about your mood, they would like you to turn the water sprinkler in their direction and move some weeds out of the way so they can freely bask in the sun. Listening means listening on all levels — to all the conditions, the soil, the wind, the slope of the land, the angle of the sun, the needs of beets in June, or celery in July, the hunger of a flea beetle in the heat of August. This includes our own intuition, our body, and most importantly our own heart’s desire.

But what I’d like to take up this first day of sesshin is this piece of becoming intimate with “a few good tools.” In Zen, everyone receives the whole tool kit right from the get go — almost the minute you walk in the door, you’re given the collection. How wonderful is that? And even though the tools given to teachers look a little fancier, in the end, they are simply tools to help others use their tools better. What are the tools? They’re a rather finite set — zazen, kinhin, bowing, chanting, mindful work, the robes, and the bowls. We should take care of these tools — they are marvelous, subtle, and reliable.

On the farm I have a harvest knife that is no longer manufactured that has been with me many many years. The square red-painted handle is worn down to brown wood, and the carbon steel blade is filed down to half its width. It is so sharp you could shave with it. It feels like an extension of my body, so much so that I lose it all the time! I have threatened to quit if I am ever parted from this knife, which is worth $12.99, because I’m not sure I can cut with another. It is a joke around here at the farm. I’ll stop and exclaim “Where’s my knife?” (as if this has never happened before) and the crew, bless their hearts, will start earnestly looking all over for it. Losing it isn’t about carelessness as much as it’s simply that I forget it’s not attached to my body like my feet and head. Of course, I always find it — placed where I have paused to pick up some twist ties or cut the stalks of kale. This is how we should be with our tools of Zen practice — over time, making them an extension of our body. And even when we lose them, if we look with some earnestness, there they are. Across time and space we meet Ryokan in the same condition:

Picking violets
By the roadside
I absent-mindedly
Left my little bowl behind —
O poor little bowl!

On the farm, we have another tool — a special Italian tractor implement called a spader. American tillage tools are rather crude with the land — they whip up or run roughshod over the earth, flashy and fast. Because they never go very deep, they tend to create an untouched packed layer of earth at 12 inches or so called a “hard pan” that holds water and impedes the growth of roots. Sometimes even larger machines with huge subsoiling shanks are used to break up this pan from time to time, requiring a lot of tractor muscle to pulverize the big boulders that come up to the surface. But a spader is different. It’s a very slow machine that mimics human digging, rotating these spades in such a way that they impact and fracture the hard pan just right, reconnecting the deeper layers and letting water pass through.

We can observe zazen working like this at sesshin in our own experience. Such a simple slow tool and yet, moment after moment, returning to the cushion, turning the breath in and out, slowing down, this marvelous tool has a way of breaking up the hard pan, what is blocking life, water, earth. What has separated into unreachable layers in the dark? Zazen is reliable. And slow. Less muscle, more finesse. What are the hard layers around the heart, that defended self that cuts us off from ourselves, one another, our own experience? If we sit earnestly, we will touch that place and soften the barrier.

What we cultivate in Zen is the same as what we cultivate as a farmer (which, by the way, isn’t vegetables, it’s the earth). What the human eye sees as dirt is actually a teaming panoply of bacteria, fungi, mites, earthworms, vertebrates, water, clay, sand, silt and humus held together by sticky exudates. No two teaspoons are alike. What we cultivate in Zen is the same way — it is constant flux, ungraspable, alive and giving. When we align with this, we call it wisdom. It is mostly dark to our eyes but it is known in its functioning. It is being in all its practical mystery.

If we want to plant this fertile Zen garden to cultivate a way of being, we have to clear a space and choose to root where we are. Here, now, and nowhere else. It takes a lot of determination and resolve, but luckily, there are other wild folks around with the same wild idea. My own farming lineage comes through a celebrated gardener called Alan Chadwick, who also had a lot of wild ideas. He was an iconoclastic teacher known to break into Shakespeare amidst the dahlias. He inspired many disciples to take up an intensive style of handwork creating extraordinary gardens all over the country.

The story goes that in order to prove that it could be done, he began creating this one garden on a steep rocky hillside at UC Santa Cruz. People thought he was crazy. It looked like the last place you’d want to put a garden. But his vision was more compelling than the obstacles, and year after year, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, this became a gorgeous productive beauty full of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees called the “Up Garden” that is still going 40 years later. You should visit there if you want to see how the causes and conditions of the landscape of our lives is not an obstacle to taking up the tools of practice.

During this retreat, I call on our roshi of the farm world, Wendell Berry, to teach us something about the spirit of how we take up the tools of practice cultivating the Zen way:

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,

for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

Sesshin isn’t easy, particularly the first day. It’s why we practice turning everything back into the ground. Plowing it back under, all of the wandering distracting thoughts, obsessions, the aches and pains, the doubts, the resistance, all back into the receptive earth. Only in this way can something begin to move and shift.

Zazen, breath after breath, all this serves the dark — what happens naturally in the heart beyond our ideas of what is happening. But this cannot be drudgery! This practice should bring new life, giving a wideness and a delight to the air. Listen — what is bringing a wideness and a delight to you at sesshin?


Did you hear the coyotes this morning before the sun rose? Did you taste the plump blackberries in the second bowl? Did you see the turkey vulture raise up effortlessly with the updraft on our field walk? To fail to take up this life, to fail to take up a practice, any practice — life at the expense of life. What does that mean? We live without knowing what it means to be alive. Wendell Berry’s poem is written by a man who knows what it means to be alive in the face of death — to give over to a larger tapestry and take his place in the field.

What is it then that gets in the way of this wholehearted path, taking up the tools of practice in the cultivation of our lives? Sometimes we’re sleepy farmers, drifting off from place to place, not having yet harnessed the will. Sometimes we’re doubtful farmers, I’m not enough, not capable. Sometimes we’re hungry farmers, living from one lack to the next, never satisfied. But what if it’s all simpler than we think! What if we just have to show up, listen, and take up the tools?

Wendell Berry’s second poem on this point:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

What if our job is to be baffled after all! To forget our old self for the moment. To practice “as if.” As if we are completely up to the task. As if we lack nothing. As if everything that arrives before us is actually the way.

Touring the world
tilling a small field
to its limit
  ~ Bassho

For this short sesshin, just stay right here, make a space to clear and plow and drive back into the dark what has already served, is spent and no longer useful. There’s no need to wander far or wish for other lands. Here is the place, here the way unfolds. I’ll end with one last poem, “The Beauty We Love,” from Master Berry:

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass,
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

Beautiful! Don’t move from this spot. Inhabit your seat like an old tree. Become fascinated by the feel of the tools of practice from your own experience. Feel the soles of the feet on the warm wood during kinhin. Notice the body folding together with others in the bow moving with the bells. Smell the scent of incense in the zendo during meditation. Place the chopsticks carefully, just so in oryoki. Let us practice and see what grasses emerge from this deep stillness.

More tomorrow.

~ Seido

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