Ease Amid Activity
Doing and non-doing
in this world often try to study many things at the same
time and, as a result, do nothing well. They should instead
learn one thing so well that they can do it even in front
of a crowd.
In the early stages of practice, one's state of mind
in formal meditation and one's mind-state amid daily activities seem
quite different. In time, attentiveness can be directed inwardly or
outwardly with similar consistency. Even when moving about, it becomes
possible to apply the ideal of voluntary simplicity to awareness in
the present moment—by not allowing the mind to be distracted
by this or that.
For beginners and veterans alike, a fundamental technique
is to take a few mindful breaths. Catch your breath. A moment of mindfulness
can become a moment of calm; a moment of calm can become a moment
of mindfulness. When driving, for example, use red lights as reminders
to take a breath and take a breather.
Ideally, action embodies the fruits of contemplation,
though this kind of action is difficult to describe. Taoists use the
tantalizing term wu-wei, for which no English translation
ever seems adequate. "Non-purposive doing" is one approximation.
A kindred notion is action from a nonaction base. When there is effort,
it is supposed to have an effortless quality, like rowing a boat gently
down a stream.
clouds come and go,
providing a rest for all
the moon viewers
On this path, an adept also knows how to disengage
without being irresponsible. Sometimes the best possible course is
to do nothing. Don't just do
something—sit there! In the realm of expression, this
path suggests an economical use of words, and an appreciation of judicious
silence. A monk once pointed to these qualities when he praised his
former master: "My teacher was great in what he said, but he
was even greater in what he didn't say."
Think of a recurring situation in which
the best thing to do is . . . nothing.
In a spirit of voluntary simplicity, spend
less time multitasking, and more time uni-tasking.
Buddhism has a rich store
of portraits of equanimity, from Shakyamuni in meditation to Feng-kan
sleeping beside a tiger. One of the best known images is the bodhisattva
Kuan-yin in a pose of "royal ease." In this posture, Kuan-yin
sits on a dais, facing forward. One leg touches the ground, but the
other rests comfortably on the dais, bent knee raised. Kuan-yin's
arm is lightly draped over her raised knee. The figure is centered,
still, and alert, poised at a point of balance between an inner focus
and an outer focus.
Hakuin, the versatile Japanese Zen master, liked
to paint pictures of Kuan-yin sitting gracefully in this fashion.
In traditional Zen, it was considered bad form to praise someone directly,
and good form to laud by "slander," so when
Hakuin wanted to extol Kuan-yin verbally, he had to honor this code.
On one of his paintings, he wrote, "She enjoys her spare moments
when there is no connection with human beings. Who says her vow to
awaken sentient beings is deep?"
While Hakuin's comment represents Zen-style praise,
it also hints at another theme: the affinity between the allure of
profound contemplation and
the allure of withdrawal. Many engaged Buddhists treat the potential
link between meditation and withdrawal as a latent but resolvable
In the original Wheel of Life, the highest aim
was to get off the Wheel entirely, to become free of the samsaric
cycle of birth and death. Of the ten paths in the Wheel of Engaged
Buddhism, the present path comes closest to offering a way out.
It sits at the bottom of the Wheel, the resting point of a pendulum,
the place where a ferris wheel stops. However, in this Wheel, as
in Mahayana Buddhism generally, there is no rush for the exits.
Joanna Macy explains why: "How can I get off the wheel? I am