What is cultivation? Cultivation is to advance simultaneously in one’s understanding and practice.
It is the integration of one’s knowledge and practice.
Reciting Sutras and bowing to the Buddhas is cultivation.
Speaking Dharma and observing the precepts is cultivation.
Sweeping and cooking is also cultivation.
Even wearing clothes, eating, and sleeping are all cultivation.
What is meant by knowledge? Whether the Buddhist scriptures were transmitted by mouth, as in ancient times, or written in words on paper, as today, people have always learned them through hearing or seeing them. This is what is commonly thought of as “knowledge.” Actually, these are only teachings that rely on language and speech. There is also the wordless teaching of “teaching by doing,” and the soundless teaching of experience. These are known as “practice.” Through the teaching afforded by the conduct of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Patriarchs, we may extend our knowledge. Then, through our own practice and experience, we can go a step further and verify our (theoretical) knowledge. Hence while knowledge and practice appear to be different, they are actually inseparable. If you know but don't practice, it becomes empty theory. If you practice without knowing, you are acting in blind confusion. The function of knowledge is to enable one's to practice, and the function of practice is to verify one's knowlege. As to the external appearance, it is because of knowledge that we can practice, and because of practice that our knowledge can expand. In terms of the essence, knowledge is just practice, and practice is just knowledge. The two are one and the same, indivisible.
For this reason, reciting Sutras and bowing to the Buddhas is cultivation; speaking Dharma and observing the precepts is cultivation; and sweeping and cooking is also cultivation. Even wearing clothes, eating, and sleeping are all cultivation. Some people worry that because of their work, they won't have time to cultivate. Others fear that teaching in school will hinder their cultivation. Such people have distorted and misunderstood the true meaning of cultivation. As it's said, “Purify your own mind. This is the teaching of all Buddhas.” In our daily life, from the external to the internal aspects, from the general to the particular, from the small to large--whetherwe are eating, drinking, relieving ourselves, sleeping, studying, working, or doing public service--as long as our mind is completely focused on what we are doing right at that moment, we can be said to have achieved “skill.” If we can be that way every day, practicing it over a long period of time, that is “progress.” “Skillful progress” or vigorous effort is what we need in cultivation. The “skill” is our knowledge, and the “progress” is what we have to achieve in practice. The “progress” comes from what we already know, and the “skill” is what we must practice. For example, when we are getting dressed or eating, we should not be greedy or scattered, but should vow that we and all living beings obtain the clothing of gentleness and patience, and take the bliss of Dhyana as food. That is cultivation. When we are studying or teaching, if we avoid thoughts of anger and laxness, and vow that we and all living beings will develop great wisdom and derive great benefit from the Dharma, that is also cultivation. In making friends and doing business, if we avoid foolish and deluded thoughts, and vow that we and living beings will meet good teachers who can apply skillful means, we are also cultivating. When sweeping floors or paving a road, we vow that living beings will attain the Ground of Leaving Filth and reach the Ground of Not Moving. When patching leaks and repairing a house, we vow that living beings will attain the Three Kinds of Non-Outflow and sit in the Thus Come One's seat. We avoid making all sorts of calculations on our own behalf, and we don't hold any grudges against others. These are all ways in which we can cultivate.
If we say that “cultivation comes first, and work comes second,” it's to be feared that some people will misunderstand and think, “Do you mean we should set aside our jobs and bury ourselves in the Sutras, Shastras, and Vinaya? Or that we should hide ourselves in the crowd at the Buddha hall and pay no attention to the affairs of the world?” No. As we said before, work itself is cultivation. But many people start out working for the sake of cultivation or for the sake of making a contribution. But once they begin working, their intrinsic attachments and old habits and faults reappear, and the farther they go the deeper they get. Thinking they are fulfilling their responsibilities, they are anxious to make a good impression. But eventually they end up working just for the sake of working,just for the sake of impressing others, or just for the sake of fame and profit. On a small scale they indulge in personal prejudices and gossip; on a more serious scale they contend and form factions based on jealousy and obstructiveness. Not only do they neglect their daily ceremonies and their personal practices, they forget completely the inner cultivation of the mind. Although they are Buddhists, they are more impolite and have less understanding of matters and principles than non-Buddhists. They are supposed to be spiritual, but they act more worldly than ordinary people. Cultivation becomes a mere slogan, and they use their work as an excuse not to cultivate. Their actions and gestures are no different from those of worldly people. Their thoughts are filled with worldly ideas and views. Not only can they not purify and concentrate their minds, they don't even bother to do small good deeds, but carelessly do small evil deeds as they please. The Six Principles of “no contending, no greed, no seeking, no selfishness, no pursuit of personal advantage, and no lying” have long since been forgotten. This style of working cannot be considered cultivation. On the contrary, it should be called “falling.”
Therefore, in the statement “cultivation comes first, and work comes second,” we should interpret cultivation broadly as including work within its scope, as being the continuous integration of knowledge and practice. This is the essential meaning of cultivation, and it should not be mixed up with the narrow sense of work not being cultivation.