July 11, 2019

What Lao Tzu Means by Nonaction (and Dzogchen Trechod Nonthought, While We're at It)

The meta-geniuses of philosophy and religion use special words, and sometimes normal words, in ways different from the usual. If we wish to receive the teachings, we will need a new way of using language.

For example: Lao Tzu's ‘nonaction.’

The nonaction of which Lao Tzu speaks is the humble action that we can perform in order to return to the bliss of God/Tao, the correct way of life.

We need to have dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of experiences of nonaction, finally becoming stabilized in nonaction, in order to make our return.

Since we're human and in action, it will take an action to accomplish nonaction, esoteric stillness.

If we are walking, we will have to do the act of stopping walking in order to be "not acting," purely in terms of walking. But stopping of walking is an action, too: Lao Tzu is making us try to understand something very different when he says ‘nonaction.’

In the famous words, "The sage practices nonaction," the key word missed by the novice is “practices.” Sounds like an action—such as walking. The doorway to harmony with Tao (God, buddha, dharmakaya) is opened by—hear ye, hear ye—nonaction.

What the sage does is this nonaction. In other words, what he does is not do. It takes an act of will for the sage to let go like that.

The sage is comfortable in transcending activity. The transcendent activity of nonactivity is the sage's practice. We have our many worldly activities, but the sage is the one who doesn't cling or become frantic about them.

The sage knows that it is in his not-knowing that he is blessed and made his big comeback to wholeness, which is Tao. Not-knowing is the mental aspect of nonaction. When we say the sage doesn't know, it doesn't mean the sage doesn't know anything. It means he doesn't cling to any concepts or situations as having an ultimate import in themselves. The sage engages fully in life, at ease with its flux and flow, successes and disappointments.

The sage is not upset by all the things that he has to do. A sage might have a family and need to earn a significant living to support them. The sage may have a complicated, challenging job with problematic situations. Whether life is simple or complex, the sage does his best, then proceeds to not worry about it. He simply acts and does what needs be done and not a bit more. He knows when enough is enough. For the sage, neuroses can be said to have been put to rest. Not by avoiding, but by properly engaging life: the practice of nonaction.

When the sage doesn’t have much to do, it doesn't really bother him: he isn't compulsive to self-proving. This is the security of his wisdom. Nonetheless, if does have a lot to do, he just does it; there’s no difference to him either way.

If we want to know Tao, we will need to stop practicing the pseudo-Tao of being against complexity or an active life. To know Tao, we handle matters as best we can without overthinking them. Overdoing fills our lives with the fuzz of confusion and makes it difficult for inborn harmony to arise.

If we worked all day and didn't take a break for lunch, that would mean we don't know Tao very well. Overdoing is damaging, for obvious reasons. Doing too many things or working excessively is hard on the chi. That's why we take breaks, weekends and vacations. Everybody understands Tao a bit.

Do the things that need to be done. Get them done, and then they are done. Remember, though, that superstitious underdoing is also harmful.

And what does the sage say when his work is done? Great, but it's not a big deal one way or the other: work to be done or work complete—either way he is in the continual practice of nonaction. Because the sage practices nonaction and its mental aspect, not-knowing, it doesn't matter whether there's a lot to do or a little to do. The sage just handles what needs be done, when possible, then stops. The sage could make up something to do in the joy of Tao. Or the sage may be very busy and have a lot to do.

But the sage goes much further. He performs everything he does with firm nonaction.

Life is action. Saying the sage practices nonaction could sound anti-life. However, since the essence of life isn't merely the function of getting things accomplished, the sage knows the bliss of the big picture that the rest of us may be missing.

Action means movement, so when we take creative action, that's a movement of some sort. There's nothing wrong with taking action. Without action a singer couldn't sing a note, a drummer couldn't pound a drum. A driver couldn't drive a car. A factory worker couldn't build a product. A farmer couldn't sow a field. People wouldn't procreate. Nothing would occur. Nothing would come into being from Tao.

Creativity is intrinsically good, which is a way of saying there's nothing wrong with getting something done. God/Tao is correct in saying He created the world and said it was good. There is nothing essentially bad about creativity in itself.

Dzogchen practitioners should note that Lao Tzu's ‘nonaction’ is very similar to the Dzogchen trechod term ‘nonthought.’ For both the practice is perfect peace, and one is complete in God with no need for action/thought. This nonaction/nonthought "arises," accompanied by bliss and lucidity. The sage reaches the point where he can create thoughts and take actions without any clinging to them. The actions he is taking are the nonactions of Tao, his thinking is the nonthought of Dzogchen.

Nonaction is rare to understand. If there is one useful tip we can take from Tao Teh Ching, a beneficial action we might say, it's that when we overdo, we suffer. Start with that premise. But the test of really understanding Lao Tzu's "don't overdo" lies in knowing that nonaction has nothing to do with "doing nothing." Not comprehending this, Tao remains beyond our understanding.

(Originally published at the Dog Zen Koans on March 25, 2013).