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).

July 7, 2019

Cooking a Small Fish: the Psychology of Tao (Tao Teh Ching Chapter 60)

The first line of the Tao Teh Ching Chapter 60 is: "Ruling a big kingdom is like cooking a small fish."* This means that when you cook a small fish, you do it carefully and gently. You don't want to overdo it and wreck the fish. It’s not necessary to mash it up and make it fall apart. A big fish takes longer to cook than a little one. A small fish may be only half an inch thick; it only takes a few minutes to cook. A big fish that is three inches thick needs more time. Overcooking a fish ruins it, so it becomes hard and dried out.

In other words, governments shouldn't really be involved much, just a little bit. In the Tao teachings, the analogies about an individual apply to government, and the analogies about government apply to an individual. It's like when Hakuyu talks about the organs in the body functioning in a harmonious manner, and then he talks about how a good leader is humble, lowers himself and helps the people. It's the same physics of Tao in the body, the mind and the culture. Some are subtler and some are denser, but the physics of all three of those are the same.

The second line is: "If one oversees all under heaven in accord with the Way, demons have no impetus."*

Demons are ruined by buddhas. Demons attack all beings except buddhas: they attack each other, obnoxious beings, atheists, agnostics, practitioners of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism—even disciples and bodhisattvas. They can't really attack buddhas, but they attack bodhisattvas. A materialist would think that means a buddha is a kung fu master: the demon approaches but is repelled by a force field; he falls down and can't get his hands on the master. That can happen; some masters play with energy on that level. The main point, however, is that they are not bothered at all by good and evil: demons have no place to hook in. Ordinary beings are disturbed by events and mishaps. A buddha could have an allergy, get sick or have an injury, but he doesn't become distressed by those things.

It takes two to tango. If you were raised in a feminist culture, you may not understand that simple principle. If you don't understand the male-female relationship, you probably won't understand the opposites in general. If you don't understand the parent-child relationship and think the family doesn't really matter, then you probably will never be enlightened with regard to purification of your family karma. Those are opposites: male-female and parent-child.

A buddha is like Teflon: everything slips off. If an animal is in a cage, and you hold out a piece of meat toward it that it can’t reach, eventually it will become frustrated. It will try to squeeze through the bars of the cage a few times; then it will growl, squeal and finally give up. There is no interplay between a buddha and psychological demons anymore because a buddha is sane.

Demons are delusional phenomena in the eyes of sages. Demons, to ordinary people, seem real. Psychologists generally wouldn’t use the word ‘demon,’ but they would use terminologies such as ‘neurosis’ or ‘psychosis.’ Those are just different names for the same thing. Somebody who is unenlightened cannot fully comprehend psychology, but if a psychologist were a buddha or a sage, then he would have complete understanding. And how would he see all the neuroses and psychoses that afflict human beings, and animals for that matter? If an enlightened psychologist were to oversee everything in accordance with the Tao, then neuroses and psychoses would have no power over him.

When Shakyamuni became enlightened, all beings did not become enlightened with him. If a psychologist becomes enlightened, all the patients in his practice don’t necessarily become enlightened. An enlightened psychologist would be an example of a sage. Psychologists are professionals in the psychological field who have studied neuroses and psychoses. They call those ‘mental diseases’ or ‘mental disorders’; in the old days those were called ‘demons.’ All mental disorders are corrected in the sage through the healing of being in accordance with the Tao: the Tao Teh Ching is giving instructions on how to live.

The sage is happy. He is happy indoors, outdoors, at work, at home, alone or with other people. The sage lives in the correct way: because he follows the way of the Tao, he is mentally balanced and without demons. Beings who aren't sages have demonic problems; beings who are sages don't have demonic problems. Demons aren't ultimately real. Lao Tzu is saying that for the sage, demons aren’t really real.

Instead of overdoing, all you have to do is cook a small fillet correctly, rather than as if you were cooking a 20-pound tuna. If you cook the fish properly and with the appropriate seasoning, it is moist, tender and delicious. Every obsession in your life is you overcooking a fish, turning it into a dry piece of leather. If you contemplated the things in your life that you overcook, you would see that they are demonic, that is, not particularly important. If a person overcooks their food, they have an overcooking demon. Everything is burnt and fried. There is a demon of overdoing, and it's called obsessiveness and thinking that you need to do. If you took your obsessions and treated them like cooking a small fish, then all your neurotic tendencies would subside, and you would become a sage. The secret is to follow the way of Tao.

When people hear about cooking a small fish, they often become excited. There is something about the imagery of it that they like. Usually, however, they have no idea what it means. They think it's very exotic and Chinese-sounding or that it’s a Zen koan. It's actually quite simple. Isn't there a wonderful, delicate flavor when a fish is cooked properly? Can that be achieved by overdoing?

*based on Tao Te Ching, Chapter 23(60), tr. Victor H. Mair.