27. The literature of Zen is full of praise for samu, that is, work in the service of the sangha. And samu can take many forms. As for manual work, work that is mindless, repetitive, physically demanding and, very often, boring, the literature doesn't seem to have much to say. Here the worker is alone with the physical effort, bodily fatigue, and the endless whirl of thoughts. And yet there is a special dignity in this work in that it can engage the whole body while leaving the mind free to face the great matter of life, the question of one's True Self.
Consider the story of Hsiang-yen (Kyogen), a Chan master who died towards the end of the T'ang Dynasty in China. Hsiang-yen was a man of remarkable intelligence and wide learning. Yet one day when his master Kuei-shan (Isan) asked for his view as to his own being before his parents were born, he found that he was unable to respond. Despairing of his intellectual activities and his knowledge of the scriptures, he burnt his notes and went off to serve as caretaker for the tomb of master Nan-yang (Nanyo) which had fallen into neglect. There he spent his days in simple manual work while focusing on the question of his being before his parents were born. And so it happened while sweeping up some fallen leaves that his broom sent a stone flying through the air. The stone hit some bamboo. Tock! At this Hsiang-yen was suddenly awakened to his True Self.