For thirty years the wise Ananda ministered to the Buddha’s personal needs;
but, because he was too fond of acquiring knowledge, the Buddha admonished him,
saying: ‘If you pursue knowledge for a thousand days that will avail you less than one day’s proper study of the Way.
If you do not study it, you will be unable to digest even a single drop of water!’
-Master Huangbo Xiyun (Hsi Yun), 9th c. China
“The universal mind is no mind and is completely detached from form. Only study how to avoid seeking for or clinging to anything. If nothing is sought, the mind will remain in its unborn state. If nothing is clung to, the mind will not go through the process of destruction. That which is neither born nor destroyed is the Buddha.”
-Master Huangbo Xiyun (Hsi Yun), 9th c. China
The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.
It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything.
The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
Not because he wills to be quiet.
Still water is like glass.
You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.
It is a perfect level;
A carpenter could use it.
If water is so clear, so level,
How much more the spirit of man?
The heart of the wise man is tranquil.
It is the mirror of heaven and earth
The glass of everything.
Emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.
This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here
Their resting place.
Resting, they are empty.
From emptiness comes the unconditioned.
From this, the conditioned, the individual things.
So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises:
From stillness, action. From action, attainment.
From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action
And is, therefore, their attainment.
For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care
Fruitful in long years.
Joy does all things without concern:
For emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, and non-action
Are the root of all things.
Chuang Tzu, 300 BCE China
Thomas James Merton, trans.
At evening I make it down the mountain.
Keeping company with the moon.
Looking back I see the paths I’ve taken
Blue now, blue beneath the skyline.
You greet me, show the hidden track,
Where children pull back hawthorn curtains,
Reveal green bamboo, the secret path,
Vines that touch the traveller’s clothes.
I love finding space to rest,
Clear wine to enjoy with you.
Wind in the pines till voices stop,
Songs till the Ocean of Heaven pales.
I get drunk and you are happy,
Both of us pleased to forget the world.
When the mind is at peace,
the world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.
Not holding on to reality,
not getting stuck in the void,
you are neither holy nor wise, just
an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.
-Hõ Un (aka P’ang Yun, or Layman Pang); 8th century China
A useful synopsis of the Taoist principle of wu-wei:
A key principle in realizing our oneness with the Tao is that of wu-wei, or “non-doing.” Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one’s environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, “going with the flow,” is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao. The principle of wu-wei contains certain implications. Foremost among these is the need to consciously experience ourselves as part of the unity of life that is the Tao. Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience. All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao functions in a manner to promote harmony and balance, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wu-wei, produce the same result. Wu-wei also implies action that is spontaneous, natural, and effortless. As with the Tao, this behavior simply flows through us because it is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and serving the purpose of greater harmony and balance. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically (and provocatively), as “purposeless wandering!” How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is unthinkable and even frightening, certainly anti-social and perhaps pathological in the context of modern day living. And yet it would be difficult to maintain that our current values have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level. To allow oneself to “wander without purpose” can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs – that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations, and that our role is to conquer our environment – that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, “the Tao nourishes everything,” Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action,” then nothing remains undone. This means trusting our own bodies, our thoughts and emotions, and also believing that the environment will provide support and guidance. Thus the need to develop watchfulness and quietness of mind.
This method of observation is central to my existence, though it took a long time to accept in my daily practice. Everything we are taught seems to run counter to the principality of stillness. Our culture teaches us acquisition, but as Alan Wilson Watts suggested the transformation required by Taoism and Zen practice “is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions.” Co-comprehending the complex of belief represented by the Four Noble Truths/Noble Eightfold Path and this principle of wu wei explained above I was directed out of a cloud of attachments, not into enlightenment so much as out of confusion. Blessed with a poet’s observational eye and denuded of delusions I sought, and ever-seek, only to exist in harmony with the moment, whatever that moment happens to be. That I came to equate the Noble Eightfold Path with the Taoist concept of ‘right action’ seemed characteristically burdensome except in its liberating effect. Absent desire, conceptions, preferences the acceptance of this key nugget of the Dharma was like putting on a cloak woven especially for me, only thousands of years ago in the shade of the Bodhi tree.
Consider as you may the idea of judicious non-action in your own life. From as simple an act of restraint as keeping your lip buttoned when the moment renders any comment counterproductive to forbearance from certain material pursuits and behaviors that violate your personal code of ethics, how have you benefitted from non-action in the past? How might you benefit from non-action in the future?
Why do I live among the green mountains?
I laugh and answer not, my soul is serene:
It dwells in another heaven and earth, belonging to no man.
The peach trees are in flower, and the water flows on…
-Li Bai (701-762)