“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.”