Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about the fact that, just like zazen is a gate of ease and joy, everything we do can be a gate of ease and joy. So the practice of the precepts is a gate of ease and joy. Liturgy is a gate of ease and joy. The teacher-student relationship is a gate of ease and joy. How could it not be? When Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about an action, an action like Chin Niu bringing a pail of rice, any action has its point already within it. In other words, we don’t wash the dishes to get the dishes clean—we wash the dishes just to wash the dishes. Within that there is the joy of just washing the dishes, the sublime joy of handling an object. The fact is, when we say that we’re washing the dishes to get them clean, that’s not even true. It’s a little bit farther removed for us: we wash the dishes so somebody else notices that we washed them. Never mind about just getting the thing done; we want to be acknowledged. We need to admit that our need for attention prevents us from actually feeling satisfied in our work, in our life.
Zen practice is about locating our ability to rejoice, our ability to feel. What is joyfulness? It’s a mixture of energy, of vitality, of generosity. It’s connected to a sense of transparency, of effortlessness. It is about contentment, about freedom, about the possibility of being completely available to another—and recognizing that this isn’t circumstantial—it’s inherent to life itself.
You don’t need anything other than giving yourself completely to this life, to this practice, to every moment. It’s not addictive; it’s generative—it creates more of itself. This is a joyful koan, explicitly. There are layers within that, but it begins with somebody dancing and laughing, and as Ch’ang Ch’ing says, giving “joyful praise on the occasion of a meal.” We eat—one of the most morally significant actions of our life, a profound event that happens a number of times a day for each one of us. This is about joyful praise on the occasion of that moral event. Our life hinges on taking life, giving life—and every time we take a meal we’re presented with the opportunity to recognize the inherent joyfulness present there.
Chin Niu was a disciple of Matsu, and for twenty years, every single time food was served, he would take the bucket from the cook and bring it to wherever the food was served, and sing and dance and then with laughter say, “Come Bodhisattvas, eat!” I suspect he was doing something similar before he washed the toilets or did the laundry—recognizing these moments also as opportunities for joyful praise. There is the gift of is-ness, of the fact that this life is offered to us. Dogen himself says, “Practice is joyful.” How can we use that on the path? “Practice is joyful” means that as long as you practice, the activity of practice is going to be joyful, not grim. The experience of letting go is joyful. If you don’t know what joyfulness feels like, then practice: what you are feeling while practicing is