At Ease Amid Activity

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Doing and non-doing

People 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.

In the summer of 1970, several students spent a morning moving heavy boulders under the supervision of the late Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who was building a garden at Tassajara, near Carmel, California. Just as the members of the work crew were getting completely caught up in the task, certain that they were impressing the teacher with their diligence, he said softly, "Let's have some tea."


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.

The 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.

Kuan-yin at ease

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.

     Kuan-yin, by Hakuin

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 tension.

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 the wheel."

Just sit.