Issue 13: Spring


Non-Action Man

By Steve Roberts

It seems strange that anybody, not least someone of the stature of Thich Nhat Hanh, should have had to invent the concept of Engaged Buddhism. Many of the cardinal tenets of Buddhism, such as compassion and Dana, would lead any tyro to naturally assume that adherents of the Dharma were to be found in the front ranks of charitable or voluntary works; always heading to where the danger or the greatest need lies.

For those attracted to the path of Chan or Zen this strangeness is compounded if Taoism, that midwife of Zen, is taken into the equation. The Tao Te Ching alludes repeatedly to the principle of ‘non-action’; which is not, of course, a state of persistent inertia, but one of doing what needs to be done (and only what needs to be done) in the present moment and in the place where you find yourself in that present moment.

Given these positions we have to seek reasons why Buddhists may be considered to be ascetic, or withdrawers, or not those particularly famed for charitable endeavour; and why such a concept as ‘Engaged Buddhism’ had to be propagated in the first place. One explanation can surely be seen in the very grounds of Dana and non-action. These twin virtues are insistent that acts carried out in the spirit of compassion are to be done without the most fleeting thought of repayment, massaging the ego or earning merit.

Few of us are so saintly that we could really claim to be achieving such nobility, but it must go some way to providing a rationale as to account for the paradox mentioned in the beginning of this article. Zen Buddhists do not - or should not - act to proselytise their beliefs, shout their tenets from the rooftops or seek to convert others away from their own beliefs to join ours. We go out into the world to do what we can, where we can, with whom we can; to labour the point, and pilfer shamelessly from John Malkin’s interview with Thich in the Shambhala Sun of July 2003, “Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism”.

It could perhaps also be noted that Buddhism has not always done itself great favours when considering the hoary old image of the ascetic monk turning away from the world and choosing instead a life of meditation in some forest glade; not that Zen or Taoism are equally short on sages who wished nothing better than to forego the world and live on Han-Shan’s equivalent of Cold Mountain.

I’m sure few of us would wish to live on Cold Mountain even if we had the opportunity. Like me, many would not wish to bid adieu to central heating, or the electric oven. We find ourselves in the maelstrom of the modern world, having to earn a crust and get by with people of all beliefs and none, and hopefully not upset too many of them along the way. And, similarly, we find ourselves in a world with millions crying out for help, where the gifts of money, time or work can go a long way to alleviating distress.

Twenty years ago I spent several months travelling through West Africa, which had one effect of taking colossal poverty and ramming it in my face in a way that a thousand TV documentaries or news reports could never have done (another effect, which never left me, was to teach me how precious a jewel water is). Although I was wise enough to realise that I could not save Africa single-handed it didn’t prevent me from continuing my quarter-century career of industrial drug-taking, a career that calls for some superhuman measures of selfishness.

The few pieces of voluntary work or charitable endeavour that I did manage to carry out in those years could be safely banked away in my mind to puff up the ego in especially low moments. Replay those wonderful acts and be assured of what a fantastic chap you really are!

I got off that particular bus six years ago now, and embarked on some intense volunteering as though to play catch up on all the years lost to narcissism (not being Andrew Carnegie, I can only throw out a few pounds at any one time in the way of financial help). My interest in Buddhism and Taoism had been blossoming for some time, and thus the concepts of Dana, non-action and Engaged Buddhism were ones I was happy to try and apply to these new efforts.

Why was I doing what I was now doing? I hoped, in true Taoistic fashion, that I was doing these voluntary works merely because they were there. They had great spin-offs, to be sure; prison work saw me on the ramparts of Strangeways Gaol; conservation work took me to the sand dunes of North Wales and the mountains of Cumbria; library work had me dissecting the late lives of local socialists and trade unionists; and, above all, child care work had me facilitating the thorny reunions of children with their estranged parents.

This latter example I have done for five years now, and I have always hoped that I did it for no element of reward, be it mental, financial or spiritual. However, I spotted early that our clients seemed to assume that we were paid staff, and I had my mantra, should any customer complaints come our way, all too ready to rattle off: “we’re volunteers, and if we’re not giving up our own time freely then no child is meeting any parent anywhere”. Ah, here was the ego making itself triumphantly known!

But then, perhaps, the reason is secondary to the act – the important thing is it gets done, and let the motives fall where they may. We can sort out those fine details later; talking of which, our three chickens in the back garden need feeding and watering right now. Now, is that selfless compassion, or am I just interested in the eggs?

Steve Roberts

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