To Do Something


“What will you do when you cannot do anything, when all your best intentions and great endeavour are invested to no avail whatsoever, when all you do is doomed to fail?”


We’ve all heard the old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This can most clearly be seen in the various idealistic crusades which humans have embarked upon over the ages (both personally and collectively), only to have them result in even greater and more complex troubles then those that they were intended to fix.

A fitting metaphor of what has been called “idiot compassion” is exemplified in the tale of the monkey who had the grand notion one day that he should “be of help”. Consequently, as he set about on his mission through the forest, he came upon a fish swimming in a pond. Pitying the creature, he lifted it out of the water and placed it in a nook between the branches of a nearby tree, in order to save it from drowning. He then went happily on his way, pleased with himself to have done what he considered a good and helpful deed.

Even with the sophisticated technical diagnostic tools now at our disposal, we are still incapable of predicting the twists and turns that may result from our actions. The Buddha himself once noted that the effort to try and figure out the varied permutations of cause and effect could drive one insane. What’s clear is that this human life is characterized by a kind of paradox: we are here, we are alive in this world, and so we must act. However, our actions invariably result in entangling complications which create more and more strands in a karmic web that in turn binds us.

Moreover, this web-building has an exponential quality that can stymie even the best minds and hearts, since even the most altruistic preference leads to craving, which leads to suffering. Essentially, we are always acting from an ignorance based on attachment and identification, deriving conditional solutions which stem from provisional values and conditioned assumptions that have a habit of turning around and biting us.

This being the case, how can we make our way in the world without becoming trapped in a sticky web of our own action/reactions, of our own selective points of view that are drenched in accepting and rejecting, biased opinion, and limited vision? Upon inspection, it becomes evident that the only way to remain unbound by one’s actions is to perform them with real detachment, without fixating on the anticipated results, or fruits, of our activity, and especially without making it “personal”.

Developing non-attachment in all of our activities and duties does not mean non-action — standing aloof while the suffering world passes us by. Non-action itself has consequences. Non-doing is not the same as non-action. As the Korean Zen Adept Kusan Sunim explains: “When deluded people look inside themselves, they will find there are things to be cultivated and to be gained. Therefore, they make a great effort to practice. But as soon as they have completed what they set out to do, they realize that there was nothing really to have been done. Thus, the true Dharma involves non-doing. All things that are done will finally cease. Thus the Dharma of doing is the false Dharma. But everything that you do – which, in reality, is non-doing – constitutes eternal truth. Such actions will not cease even though you attempt to be finished with them. In this world all people look for the Dharma of doing, that is, for some thing. But the true Dharma is to look for the Dharma of non-doing. This is truly extraordinary.”

Nor does non-doing and non-attachment imply renouncing our work and relations; on the contrary, it simply means acting without leaving a trace. This is the essence of “non-dwelling”. It is refraining from identification with a separate and independent self-idea, a doer. There is only action acting, only doing is doing.  In the profound Buddhist treatise Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa wrote: “There is no doer but the deed. There is no experiencer but the experience. Constituent parts alone roll on. This is the true and correct view.”

Prior to the direct recognition of the emptiness of both self and other, we take it for granted that we are the doer, the actor, the person behind the drama, somehow making it all happen. However, once we awaken to how things really are, we know there is no personal entity at work. Actually, this insight typically provokes a good bit of laughter, and a great sense of relief!

We recognize that the ongoing narrative of “me and mine” is something extra we’ve been adding by habit and conditioning to all experiences — a complex mental fabrication which typically only complicates and obstructs direct action. What happens is that this I-concept, rather than being recognized and utilized as an expedient linguistic tool and navigation aid in the objective world, is instead granted a concrete and enduring reality, thus establishing the grounds for identification and fixation – in other words, “traces”.

Non-dwelling (as a component of clear seeing, or true meditation) is the practice of leaving behind no trace of a fixed self – no lingering thoughts, goals, desires, attraction or aversion – the chains that bind. It is characterized by the relinquishment of any selfish motivation whatsoever in our activities. It transcends all grasping positions spawned by the belief in the “me and mine” story. It consists of simply acting directly with spontaneity and focus, unburdened by conceit, fantasy, hope, or fear, and without clinging to some personal stake in outcomes.

As Shunryu Suzuki notes (in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind): “In order to leave no traces, when you do something, you should just do it with your whole body and mind: you should be concentrated on what you do, You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out.”

In other words, to be truly liberated from attachments and act fluidly, we must be willing and able to let go of everything – all of our most cherished positions, concepts, and self-ideas, and plunge fearlessly into the Unknown, where true freedom alone abides. By practicing true meditation, we can begin to detach and mindfully observe, rather than habitually and impulsively reacting to events and circumstances.

As the Tibetan Master Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche wrote: “Why chase after thoughts, which are superficial ripples of present awareness? Rather look directly into the naked, empty nature of thoughts; then there is no duality, no observer, and nothing observed. Simply rest in this transparent, nondual present awareness. Make yourself at home in the natural state of pure presence, just being, not doing anything in particular.”

Upon sincere and persistent investigation, we can recognize the various temporary and compounded images that we have taken ourselves and others to be, are essentially fictional narratives. In other words, if we are earnest, we have the potential to (re)awaken to our true nature, rather than remaining a slave to borrowed and uninspected beliefs about ourselves and the world, and merely prolonging our sense of stress and dissatisfaction.

Nisargadatta Maharaj spoke to that when he taught: “There are no conditions to fulfill. There is nothing to be done, nothing to be given up. Just look and remember, whatever you perceive is not you, nor yours. It is there in the field of consciousness, but you are not the field and its contents, nor even the knower of the field. It is your idea that you have to do things that entangle you in the results of your efforts — the motive, the desire, the failure to achieve, the sense of frustration — all this holds you back. Simply look at whatever happens and know that you are beyond it.”

Rather than trying to change the world that we perceive through our conditioned filters, the practice of non-dwelling, non-attachment, and non-identification allows us to humbly be changed by our experience of it, to the point where we can joyfully recognize our natural function in the midst of life and relations, without the superimposition of a concrete and enduring self-idea. Indeed, there is a curious assumption that, without holding on to a self-idea, one would become dysfunctional, when in fact, it is the self-idea and its attendant drama that more often than not complicates straightforward and unfettered functioning.

Rather than rendering us dry, contracted, and withdrawn, the process of directly seeing through the fantasy narrative of the “me-story” releases a burden that chronically anchors us. That burden is composed of all the doubt and ambiguity which constricts our ability to freely respond with both wisdom and compassion to whatever circumstances arise. When we are no longer weighed down by past regrets or future expectations, not to mention the excess heaviness of personal self-interest, we can be intensely present and available to “what is”, right here and now, and act accordingly, in harmony with the universal Tao.


“Simply let experience take place very freely, so that your open heart is suffused with the tenderness of true compassion.”
~Tsoknyi Rinpoche

See also:

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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33 Responses to To Do Something

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    “Don’t prolong the past.
    Don’t invite the future.
    Leave the natural mind,
    awareness of the present moment,
    without modification in its open,
    relaxed simplicity.
    There is nothing other than that!
    Apart from the ordinary mind of the present moment,
    open and relaxed,
    there is not a damned thing!”

    ~Terton Sogyal

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    “You harbour such useless doubts and become slaves to Illusion. Actually, there is no question of how to behave, or what to do. Action and non-action are both irrelevant. When the whole of life is One, why ask how to behave? The question is finished.”

    “Truly, one does not act, has not acted, and will not act.

    If we try to become, or be, it always brings in obstacles. Not becoming anything, is key. Don’t even try to remember what Paramatman (The Supreme) is. Have absolutely no thought of ‘becoming’ anything.”

    ~ Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  3. Candace says:

    I am fascinated by how your posts “appear” at the perfect time. I officially resigned from the helping profession yesterday. The story about the monkey and the fish is really a wonderful representation. Thank you for your posts, Brother!

    Love & Blessings!

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “Life is unafraid and free. As long as you have the idea of influencing events, liberation is not for you: the very notion of doership, of being a cause, is bondage.”

    ~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

    “He who expects to change the world will be disappointed, he must change his view. When this is done, then tolerance will come, forgiveness will come, and there will be nothing he cannot bear.”
    ~Hazrat Inayat Khan

    “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    The Practice of Not-Doing

    “Basically there is nothing to do at all in this practice besides training in being stable. Simply allowing our mind to be, without having to do anything, is entirely against our usual habits. Our normal tendency is to think, “I want to do this. I want to do that.” Then we actually go do it. Finally, we feel happy and satisfied when it’s all neat, all completed, accomplished all by ourselves. But that attitude is totally wrong in the context of this type of practice. There is nothing whatsoever to do. We don’t have to construct what is unformed. Anything we try to do becomes an imitation, something made up by our thoughts and concepts.

    As a matter of fact, it may feel utterly dissatisfying, extremely disappointing, to allow our original nature to be as it naturally is. We might much rather do something, imagine something, create something, and really put ourselves through a lot of hardship. Maybe that is why the Buddha did not teach Dzogchen and Mahamudra openly— because this not-doing is in some ways contrary to human nature…

    …The Buddha realized that different beings had various capacities, so out of great compassion and skillful means he gave teachings that were right for different individuals. Although the essence of all teachings of all enlightened ones is to simply let be in recognition of one’s own nature, the Buddha taught a lot of complex instructions in order to satisfy people on all the different levels…”

    Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As It Is

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    M: The daily life is a life of action. Whether you like it or not, you must function. Whatever you do for your own sake accumulates and becomes explosive; one day it goes off and plays havoc with you and your world. When you deceive yourself that you work for the good of all, it makes matters worse, for you should not be guided by your own ideas of what is good for others. A man who claims to know what is good for others, is dangerous.

    Q: How is one to work then?

    M: Neither for yourself nor for others, but for the work’s own sake. A thing worth doing is its own purpose and meaning, Make nothing a means to something else. Bind not. God does not create one thing to serve another. Each is made for its own sake. Because it is made for itself, it does not interfere. You are using things and people for purposes alien to them and you play havoc with the world and yourself.

    ~I Am That, Nisargadatta Maharaj

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “Think of your death now. It is at arm’s length. It may tap you any moment, so really you have no time for crappy thoughts and moods. None of us have time for that. The only thing that counts is action, acting instead of talking. When a man decides to do something he must go all the way, but he must take responsibility for what he does. No matter what he does, he must know first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed with his actions without having doubts or remorse about them. Look at me, I have no doubts or remorse. Everything I do is my decision and my responsibility. The simplest thing I do, to take you for a walk in the desert for instance, may very well mean my death. Death is stalking me. Therefore, I have no room for doubts or remorse. If I have to die as a result of taking you for a walk, then I must die.
    You on the other hand, feel that you are immortal, and the decisions of an immortal man can be cancelled or regretted or doubted. In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is not time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions. When you get angry you always feel righteous. You have been complaining all your life because you don’t assume responsibility for your decisions. To assume the responsibility of one’s decisions means that one is ready to die for them. It doesn’t matter what the decision is. Nothing could be more or less serious than anything else. In a world where death is the hunter there are no small or big decisions. There are only decisions that we make in the face of our inevitable death.”

    Carlos Castaneda

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    “The man in the train travels from place to place, but the man off the train goes nowhere, for he is not bound for a destination. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to become. Those who make plans will be born to carry them out. Those who make no plans need not be born.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    “If you really want to find the Way, don’t hold on to anything. Once you put an end to karma and nurture your awareness, any attachments that remain will come to an end. Understanding comes naturally. You don’t have to make an effort. But fanatics don’t understand what the Buddha meant. And the harder they try, the farther they get from the Sage’s meaning. All day long they invoke buddhas and read sutras. But they remain blind to their own divine nature, and they don’t escape the Wheel.”

    ~ Bodhidharma

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “We recognize that simultaneously, our essence is empty, our nature is cognizant, and its capacity is unconfined. That is “rigpa”. Now, remain evenly like that. Remain without even an atom of a focus being meditated upon, and without being distracted for even an instant. Undistracted nonmeditation. Your mind is doing nothing, there is nothing you need to do. However it is, leave it like that, without modifying. However mind is right now, leave it be exactly like that. You don’t need to improve it or correct it in any way.”

    ~Tsoknyi Rinpoche

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    “Do you know how to cultivate mind?
    If you don’t know, I’ll tell you:
    Don’t attempt to manipulate mind;
    Don’t try to force control of mind.
    Relax like a young child.
    Be like a waveless ocean.
    Like a self-illuminating lamp,
    And like a lifeless corpse.
    Clear the mind of exaggeration.”


  13. Bob OHearn says:

    “Leave alone whatever arises in the mind.
    Do not seek to change or alter anything.
    It is all perfect as it stands.”

    ~Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche

  14. Bob OHearn says:

    Q: So far I have been following you. Now, what am I expected to do?

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: There is nothing to do. Just be. Do nothing. Be. No climbing mountains and sitting in caves. I do not even say: ‘be yourself’, since you do not know yourself. Just be. Having seen that you are neither the ‘outer’ world of perceivables, nor the ‘inner’ world of thinkables, that you are neither body nor mind — just be.

    It is not what you do, but what you stop doing that matters. The people who begin their sadhana are so feverish and restless, that they have to be very busy to keep themselves on the track. An absorbing routine is good for them. After some time they quieten down and turn away from effort. In peace and silence the skin of the ‘I’ dissolves and the inner and the outer become one. The real sadhana is effortless.

  15. Bob OHearn says:

    “What is knowing this exact moment? Not as an observer but rather as that which enlivens, pervades and embodies the moment, without which the moment would never arise to be known.
    What’s all this nonsense about paths and practice when what is being sought is what’s already functioning perfectly? You can’t see it, because it is always what’s seeing.”
    ~Jackson Peterson

    “How vast! How all inclusive! May all beings come to know the light of their own knowing awareness that is never absent and requires no meditation to discover, and no practice to maintain!”
    ~Yeshe Zangthal

  16. Bob OHearn says:

    “I confess that there is nothing to teach: no religion, no science, no body of information which will lead your mind back to the Tao.

    Today I speak in this fashion, tomorrow in another, but always the Integral Way is beyond words and beyond mind.

    Simply be aware of the Oneness of things”

    Verse 8 Hua Hu Ching
    (The unknown teachings of Lao-tzu)

  17. Bob OHearn says:

    Question: You practiced sadhana before Realization. Doesn’t this mean that you must practice some sadhana to purify the mind?

    Papaji: How can you purify the mind by practice? Look at the water in this glass, what is the impurity in it? Impurity is something foreign. Water is pure itself and some dust has entered it. So if you sieve it, water will come out and the dust will stay. This is what I tell you to do. Originally you are pure like water and you have not to do anything to be Pure. Some foreign element has entered the water and this is attachment. Just sieve the attachment out of the Self which is already free.

    You cannot become what you originally Are.

    So you can’t return to your original state by practice. You are the original state. Just don’t touch what is foreign to it. The foreign entity is attached to something which is not eternal and permanent. Remove this and see what is left. It is what you have been always, even before death.

    “This is mine,” “I belong to him,” are attachments. These thoughts should not come in your way. Freedom is already Here. If you win anything it means that it wasn’t there before you got it and after getting it you will lose it, because anything you get you will lose.

    So you have to be as you are always. Don’t touch anything which is not eternal including your own mind, body, senses which do not belong to you.

    If you don’t touch things you will see that you have always been free. Freedom cannot be won by any practice. Practice only brings the transient, the material, not the eternal freedom. What was not there will not be there.

    What is Here is always Here. A firm belief in this is realization

    ~ Papaji

  18. Bob OHearn says:

    The great Dzogchen master Nubchen Sangye Yeshe states:

    “Being free from effort, the conduct in which there is no intent to pursue is as follows: unlike in Mahayoga, nothing is intentionally done in order to effect some [particular result], for example, in accordance with contemplation alone; thus, there is nothing to be undertaken. In fact, if one were to undertake nonaction, it would become conduct involving action.

    Therefore, here, in a natural way, there is nothing to do and nothing to undertake.

    Well then, if there is nothing to do, does one sit without doing anything? [To this objection] I reply that one does not even fixate on sitting: if sitting exists, there will also be nonsitting; but since one does not fixate on the four types of conduct that are never interrupted, whatever one does, nothing is done. There is nothing to do. There is not even any leaving aside of what one has [to do]. When one has deep confidence in this conduct, there is nothing to do intentionally, such as the offering, ritual recitation, and so forth, of the inferior [vehicles].”

  19. Bob OHearn says:

    Every behavior is the mind, the manifestation of the Buddha-nature. There is no need to perform any special act in order to achieve the Tao. To be natural is the Way. Let the mind be free: do not purposely do evil; nor purposely do good. Maintain a free mind and cling to nothing: that is the Way.

    ~ Ma-tsu

  20. Bob OHearn says:

    “We should cast aside all childish games that fetter and exhaust body, speech and mind; and stretching out in inconceivable nonaction, in the unstructured matrix, the actuality of emptiness, where the natural perfection of reality lies, we should gaze at the uncontrived sameness of every experience, all conditioning and ambition resolved with finality.”


  21. Bob OHearn says:

    “You should know by now that a man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he is finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows because he sees that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfils his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is no way part of his concern.”

    ~A Separate Reality, Carlos Castaneda

  22. Tom Das says:

    Beautiful article Bob ❤ Well written and delicately put ❤

  23. Pingback: Self and Other – Brewminate

  24. Judy says:

    Bob, been reading your posts today, related to this this one, after mulling over an issue yesterday. Yes, the story of the monkey & the fish pulled me totally back to sanity. Been there, done that. Your writings are profound.

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