After so much suffering in Nirvanic castles, what a joy to sink into this world!
—Zen Master Seung Sahn
Some time ago, Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Bobby Rhodes), the guiding teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen, gave a talk to a group of students. Afterward, during questions and answers, one of her students began to ask about all the problems in her life and how sad and perturbed she was. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
When the student had finished, Zen Master Soeng Hyang looked at her kindly and simply asked, “Well, can you just trust all that?” In other words, instead of deciding that this experience is good or bad, can you just be with it and see where it wants to guide you? Can you ask what the experience and thoughts are telling you instead of trying to make them all stop?
What would happen if we didn’t try to push painful experiences away? What if we didn’t try to cling to pleasant experiences? What if, instead, we looked for our correct relationship to those experiences and our correct function in the face of them?
When considering the world’s gigantic crises—the rising global temperature, the mass extinctions, the wars, the teetering economic system—the planet can seem like a terrible place; it can seem a lot like that sad student’s life. For me and maybe for you, waves of great sadness swell when thinking about the state of the world. Feelings of deep confusion and worry and despair arise, along with lots of fear.
When faced with these feelings, our first temptation is often to react like that student in Zen Master Soeng Hyang’s group: “Zen Master, there are terrible feelings inside me. I don’t like them. Please, tell me how to make this fear and worry about our unstable world go away. I can’t stand these feelings.”
Maybe the Zen master would look at us kindly and say, “Can you just trust all that?”
What would happen if we did not try to push our deep concerns about the war and the economy and the environment away from us? What if we didn’t cling to thoughts and feelings that distract us from the world situation? What if, instead, we trusted those feelings and examined them without opinions of good or bad—with a not-knowing mind—and tried to see what they were telling us? What if we simply tried to understand our life-functions in relation to these feelings?
This is not complicated. It is very simple. When you see a hungry man, what do you do? The first thing that occurs to you: feed him. When a thirsty man comes to you, what do you do? The first thing that occurs to you: give him water. This is intuitive action, acting without desire or attachment. So when you see the whole world suffering, what do you do? The first thing that occurs to you within the context of your own life situation: intuitive action.
In the face of the world’s suffering, the desire to help and the intuitive impulse toward a helping action arise spontaneously. But the sad news is that if I’m not paying attention, I might try to push that impulse away. I don’t trust it. I trust my thinking instead. What good can my little action do?
Rather than doing the first thing that occurs to us, as we would do for the hungry man, many of us begin to think about the scale of the problems and our tiny size in relation to them. We become attached to our analyzing thoughts instead of acting on our intuitive wisdom. This is what Zen Master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School, called “checking.” He would always say, “Don’t check. Just do it!” When a compassionate intention arises, don’t evaluate it. Trust it. Just do it.
Many years ago, Zen Master Seung Sahn decided that world peace would be achieved if the great religious leaders got together to hash things out—in a hot tub. He didn’t check. Instead, he flew all the way to Rome to try to convince the Pope to convene a meeting of religious leaders in, yes, a hot tub. In 1992, Maha Gosananda, one of Cambodia’s most respected Buddhist monks, decided that walking across his country’s battlefields with a group of refugees, monks, and nuns might bring peace and reconciliation. He didn’t check. He walked.
In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, have made art as part of a political campaign, organized by 350.org, to bring attention to climate change across the planet. They didn’t check. Meanwhile, in the last year, some 30,000 people have participated in No Impact Week, organized by my nonprofit No Impact Project, attempting to live for seven days without causing environmental degradation. They didn’t check.
Hot tubs, walks across battlefields, political art, No Impact Weeks: do any of these things really help? Don’t check! Just do it. Let’s try not to push our feelings of despair and confusion away. Instead, let’s trust them. Let’s trust what these feelings are telling us. Let’s trust our wonderful desire to help. Maybe you want to sing for climate. Maybe you want to lead a march. Trust that. Maybe you simply want to plant a local garden or lead an effort to reuse discarded goods. Trust that.
So here’s my advice (to myself as much as to you): Don’t ask yourself what good our intuitive action will do. Don’t ask if acting will take away our feelings of despair. That’s only thinking. Analysis is not required. When we let go of attachments, the wisdom of intuitive action arises by itself. Hungry man—food. Thirsty man—water. Suffering world— help. It’s so simple. Don’t check. Just do it!
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.