Four Limbs of Zen Practice

Just as the body has four limbs – two arms and two legs – so too is our Zen practice comprised of 4 limbs.  The four are zazen, service, ritual, and self-care.  Just as our limbs move us around in the physical world, the four limbs of practice move us from delusion to enlightenment.

The two legs are zazen and service.  These set our foundation.  We need both.  Otherwise we are hopping around on one leg.  Zazen without service becomes quite stale.  By zazen I mean a regular daily practice of sitting still and upright with a soft focus of your eyes.  Service without zazen becomes mere toil without meaning.  By service I mean work, whether it’s formal, such as an occupation, or informal, such as responding to the immediate needs of others in our surroundings.

At Mount Equity Zendo there were two very old pear trees.  These were not the kind of pears you found in the grocery store.  They fell off the trees and were quite hard.  Because of the shed, consisting of a tin roof, that was right beneath them, when they fell they made quite a bang.

The two pear trees can be seen here, hovering over the shed with its tin roof.

Every fall, as they ripened, I would go underneath these trees and pick baskets full of the pears that had not been damaged by their descent or claimed by the insects.  Because they were good for cooking, we made compote, pear sauce, and jam.  I loved those two old pear trees.

My teacher, Dai-En Roshi, compared the trees to the two legs of our practice.  It’s only because the two fruit trees are relatively close to each other that they can work together via pollination, and produce any fruit.  One without the other would produce nothing.  The same is true of our practice.  Our practice is about contemplation (zazen), and action (service).  They feed off each other.  Without the other, no fruit comes.

Our arms are equivalent to ritual and self-care.  Ritual refers to both the formal ritual of doing ceremonies including chanting the sutras and bowing.  It also can refer to the less formal rituals of reciting a gatha while brushing your teeth, or while waking up in the morning.  Self-care is what we do to keep our body healthy and our mind clear and rested.  This may refer to exercise, perhaps reading a book, or something else.  Whatever it is for you that feeds your soul in the moment is self-care.  Self-care is absolutely essential when embarking upon a life dedicated to serving others.  It keeps one from burning out.

Our legs – zazen and service – are what move us from place to place.  Our movements are broad and big, perhaps unrefined, perhaps not.  Our legs help us move more quickly in the direction of our goals.  Our legs help us to fulfill our vision.  By being still (through zazen) we experience in our body the dynamism of the Universe.

Our hands – ritual and self-care – more fully develop our sensitivities.  They help us to be more refined in whatever activity we happen to be doing.  Ritual helps us become more sensitive to the external world, and self-care to the internal world.  Ritual keeps us in touch with the rhythms of our heart, and connects us to the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles of life.  Self-care helps us to keep everything in perspective so that we don’t get too stuck in one of these limbs.  Just as with our feet, the hands need to be moved in sync with each other.

Lastly, we need our head to be able to determine and decide where our focus should be.  Sometimes it’s on our legs, as in mountain pose.  Sometimes on our arms, as in crow pose.  Sometimes on all four, with the weight evenly distributed, as in downward dog, and sometimes on one, as in tree pose.  Sometimes the feet become the hands.  At other times, the hands become the feet.  There is fluidity in these limbs.  Where ever we happen to be in our practice, all four need to be considered.  They are always active, it’s the degree to which they are engaged and are made conscious of that differs.  When we feel out of balance in some aspect of practice, it’s good to ask ourselves which of the four limbs we’ve been over emphasizing and which of the four we’ve been under emphasizing.  Then, we can shift our focus off of one and on to another.  Or, we can redistribute our weight.

When the thought of Zen practice comes into your mind, all four limbs ought to be considered with equal importance.

4 Comments

  1. I hadn’t thought of my profession as service, but I do approach it with the spirit of helpfulness and collaboration and can see how that works.
    It makes me curious, are there other forms of ritual that are woven into daily life that I’m not conscious of. I could see some benefit in strengthening this limb in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this comment, Heidi.

    Our professions are what the Buddha referred to as “Right Livelihood.” Right Livelihood is an integral part of our practice, and it definitely has an effect on other aspects of our practice and on our life in general. For monks, that meant being a monk. But for lay people it referred to their form of livelihood. The Buddha recommended we consider Right Livelihood with regards to the precepts. A question we can ask ourselves is, how much in alignment is my work with non-harming, not stealing, etc? If we are honest, there is virtually no kind of work today that does not violate the precepts to some degree. So it’s not a black and white, yes or no question, but a matter of degree. We can always look more closely at our own form of work and question if it’s the best kind of work we can be doing. Perhaps more importantly than anything is that our work gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, that it’s not just something we do to earn money, as important as that is. Moving toward loving our work is essential.

    As for the question on ritual, there are loads of daily rituals within Soto Zen that we can consider. You might want to look into the practice of reciting gathas for certain daily activities. This link will take you to a site that gives the gathas that come from Thich Nhat Hanh’s sangha: https://mindfulgatha.wordpress.com/gathas/. Try out a few of the ones you like and memorize and practice them regularly for a month. I think they can help a lot to broaden our view of practice.

    Or if you want more traditional gathas, there is a chapter in the Avatamsaka Sutra dedicated to bringing presence to everyday life.

    Liked by 1 person

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