According to Zen Master Dogen, there are three aspects to functioning in the Buddhist community we call the sangha. We practice (1) to benefit others, (2) to develop the sangha, and (3) to follow the ways of the Buddhas and ancestors.
The sangha is not a place to practice Buddhism just for ourselves; we practice to do something for others. Our practice is not to enhance our personality or deepen our character but to express our deepest gratitude for all beings, by which our lives are already supported and helped. If we don't practice in this way, our practice is consciously or unconsciously based on egoism.
A short time ago, I received a journal from Eiheiji Monastery. In it, a professor of education wrote of his impressions when he visited Eiheiji. From observing the monks, he felt very deeply how focused their life was. But he also found arrogance. A monk showed him all the buildings, explained their functions, and described the strictness of daily life, but this monk never expressed his gratitude for all beings.
Monks cannot practice at Eiheiji without the help of all beings. Many people work in order to support the monastery and the monks, growing vegetables, working at jobs, and serving society. To create just one grain of rice takes a lot of effort. Without expressing our deepest gratitude for these people and these things, we cannot practice. This is why the professor said he found a sense of arrogance. This is really egoism. Though we practice very hard, if we don't express our deepest gratitude for our lives, we cannot practice as Buddha taught. Practice must go on very quietly, not showing off, with humility, gracefulness, even shyness sometimes, with nothing to say, quietly, with no comment.
So remember the real meaning of practice. Particularly in the Buddhist sangha, we have to practice not for ourselves, but for others first. Otherwise, egoism and self-centered ideas will always come up. "For others" means not only for human beings but for all living beings, for a piece of toilet paper, our clothes, our cushions, vegetables, pans, for everything. Help all living beings. This does not mean to give them something material or psychological. Giving lots of material things to others isn't necessarily helpful. To help all living beings means to deal with them wholeheartedly whenever we encounter them, with compassionate, kind attention. This is the way to help others and all things around our lives, vegetable, books, tables, floors, lights, water — all things, visible or invisible.
Wherever we live, our lives are supported by all beings. We should express our deepest gratitude for this support, but at home and at work, we often are too busy, and we don't pay attention to things and express our gratitude. This is why sangha life is very important and why we have places to gather and practice. In them, we try to take care of everything with compassionate, kind attention, and with gratitude.
This is an important aspect of our practice. The sangha is not a place to build ego or promote self-centered ideas. Instead, we should do something for all beings, not only humans but all beings. For this, we have to give life to a vegetable as it is, to water as it is, to our clothes as they are, whenever we encounter them.
Secondly, to practice in the sangha we have to develop the Buddhist community. How can we do this? To help all living beings is to develop the sangha. This is not a matter for discussion. Day after day, from moment to moment, when we encounter a piece of paper, we should deal with it with kind, compassionate attention and with gratitude. This is a great way to develop the sangha.
The third aspect of practicing in the sangha is to try to follow the way of the Buddhas and ancestors. After hearing about the practice of the Buddhas and ancestors in ancient times, you probably complain, saying that their circumstances were completely different from ours, that we can't live that way. But sometimes, we need to read about the lives of great people — spiritual leaders, politicians, or philosophers. It is important for us to read about and study their lives. Then, if we really want to create our lives and reach what they reached, consciously or unconsciously, we have to follow their examples. I don't mean that we should follow them exactly but that we should live according to their spirit. There are many ways to give life to these great people of the past right now, right here. We shouldn't forget to follow the example of these people; we should try to approach their lives as much as possible.
Day-by-day, as we live our lives, we practice with the sangha. As we do, we should always remember to follow Zen Master Dogen's way of functioning: benefitting others, developing the sangha, and following the ways of the buddhas and ancestors.
Reprinted from The Nebraska Monkey