Do the Work
(Sarah Webb)

Some years ago, when I was first beginning to study Zen, I used to practice at a center in Portland, Oregon. I soon learned the teacher of that lineage was not to be my teacher. For one thing, she would only accept students who came to live at the monastery, and my husband was not interested in Zen. For another, she was not pleased with the existence of our Center and only visited it every couple of years. The students in it were welcome to visit the monastery, however; and I went down to California twice for sesshins.

The teacher was British and of High Anglican origin, and chanting was important in the practice. One time a priest who had come to teach us in Portland complained about the prosaic, ragged quality of our chanting. When I first attended sesshin at the monastery, I learned why he might make that comment. The chants at the monastery were like a fine choir with voices taking different parts--like Gregorian chant, someone told me. I wasn’t familiar enough with music to make that connection myself, but I responded to the sound. It was a big monastery, and the many voices seemed like ocean water, rushing and ebbing, soaring and falling. I don’t remember the words of those chants, whether they were similar to ones I heard later, except for one line, which comes to me sometimes when I sit: “Do the work within my heart.”

That phrase helps me step back when I’ve tied myself in a knot trying to do the work from the outside, trying to control it, to master my recalcitrant self. Ah, I think, I am not doing this work. I just need to let it happen.

The meaning of the phrase has changed a bit for me over the years. At first, with my Christian background, I thought of a spirit like the Holy Ghost, later something more nebulous but still an essence of a kind, the same voice that would speak my poems to me. Now I hold back from thinking of a being or a form. Who am I addressing? I wonder. Not a Buddha, not the Patriarchs, or even an inner guru, but more a growing. I grow like a tree, not by willing myself to grow but just naturally by manifesting roots and leaves--or in my case, body and mind. All I need to do is soften to it. And maybe not even that.

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