By Philip Jordan ’85
When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. But don’t wobble.
When I first heard these words, I was at Williams College,
busy falling in love with Zen and Taoism, with the help of a beloved
mentor, Professor Eusden. He had us try short sessions of
zazen (meditation) in class, and take Taoist walks in the woods,
and the ache of response I felt toward these practices astonished
me. Little did I know then that these interests would eventually
lead me to a Japanese Zen monastery（Nagaoka Zenjuku）
Zen pleasure does not forsake struggle or pain; that became
clear upon my arrival at the monastery. Buoyed by good health
and advanced Buddhist studies, I still found myself beset by
challenges. In particular it was the monastery’s goal of “continual
meditation” that proved elusive despite my best efforts.
I loved the hours in the meditation hall and savored the silence
until the bell sounded. I could carry this spirit into aesthetic
events, too, such as haiku study and green tea with the old
nun and Zen master. But the Zen life also includes meticulous
cleaning and a good deal of arduous labor. I never minded all the
purposeful tasks such as splitting wood, thinning thick bamboo
groves, and sweeping leaves off the moss and rock gardens.
When I was required to proceed with cleaning when no dust
could be seen, however, I often succumbed to non-spiritual judgments.
One task was to run a wet towel along the labyrinthine
corridors twice a day. I did this athletic task, but reluctantly,
knowing that when I was done, the hallways were no cleaner
than before. Why clean, I wondered, when what I was cleaning
was clean already?
Then there were the times on windy days, when the leaves fell
as fast as we swept them. One day, after watching my handiwork
disappear beneath a fresh, leafy carpet, I exclaimed to the master,
“This is almost hopeless!” to which he replied, “Those are
good Zen words.”
I was frustrated and, because I was frustrated, I couldn’t help
but admire the concentration and energy with which many others
approached “work meditation.” These included not only
more experienced monks, but also artists, professors, and business
people who came Sundays to devote their one day off to
Zen practice at the monastery. I noted a soft and smooth grace to
their work, which made the most mundane tasks appear noble.
Zen Buddhism identifies three human modes, which can help
us home in on Zen happiness. From the dull ache of idle avoidance
routines to our over-aggressive impulses, the Buddha’s first
Noble Truth portrays a steady cycle of dissatisfaction (dukkha).
The fuel for this comes from insecure impulses like enmity, inertia,
and greed. While our happy times (sukkha) may offer a
short reprieve, to the extent that we hoard pleasure and fight
against change, dukkha will remain in the background.
There remains one last concealed field that exists between
these polarities; tathata translates to something like “suchness”
and suggests the unrepeatable wonder and depth at the bottom
of every moment. The same “Buddha-nature” lies hidden within;
and it was this that I, like all Zen practitioners, sought while
sweeping leaves that wouldn’t stop falling.
I did not get so far during my monastic years, but over time
I found my relation to work meditation changing. The more I
repeated the common tasks, the more special and boundless they
became for me. Lying on the tatami at the end of the day, I saw
visions of moss scapes rising before me, with every twig, leaf,
and beetle shining.
I remained at the monastery for four years, until a letter from
my old teacher and then-Dean of Faculty Catherine Boczkowski
H’80 ’11 P’89 ’91 called me back to my alma mater. For 15
years now I have taught religion and philosophy and led meditation
As I left dear Zen friends to “return to the world,” I wondered
if my life as a teacher would support continued tathata seeking.
In the challenges it presents to live a busy life mindfully, Lawrenceville
is not unlike a Zen temple. From the intellectual talents
of the students, whose adult minds have begun to emerge, to
our residential, athletic, and club interactions where their Original
Nature can shine, I have only myself to blame if I should fail
to respond joyfully.
Zen teaches that the Buddha “came down from the mountain”
to model awakened living. The practice of not grasping at fleeting
pleasures or recoiling in fear of pain is something anyone
can embark upon.
Philip Jordan ’85 chairs Lawrenceville’s Religion and Philosophy
Department. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, in addition to
teaching, he leads meditation, maintains a rock garden, and often
visits his monastery in Japan.