The Tao of doing

by Raymond Parker on November 4, 2011

in Autobiography, Writing

“To be is to do.” ~Socrates
“Do be do be do.” ~Frank Sinatra

The best thing any teacher can impart is the skill to think independently. I don’t mean that you should reject every idea that comes your way. That’s for teenagers. Critical thinking includes the ability to question not just others’ but one’s own assumptions.

At sixteen, I began reading the Zen Classics, a multi-volume compilation of essays and kōans. A Zen kōan is a riddle designed to break through intellect and preconception, to intuition.

Most of the verses I read were as transparent as porridge. However, one night I read, perhaps for the hundredth time, the enigmatic phrase: “You need realization, to realize you don’t need realization.”

The room lit up. “A light bulb went on,” as they say; but this was a thousand-watt strobe.

I’d never gotten anything like that from singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”—a religious piety demanded in the English schools of my childhood—so the experience was enough for me to continue my study of Buddhist literature.

Like a great many of my generation, I preferred a smorgasbord of spiritual ideas, rather than following the established order (though, thanks to my parents, no religiosity marched through my childhood home). In any case, the kōan attributed to Lin Chi, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” is the best warning against idolatry I’ve encountered.

Twenty-years later, I formalized my interest with visits to a Buddhist meditation centre, in Vancouver.

I’ve used the words “synchronicity” and “serendipity” on VeloWebLog (notice the artful use of the blog tag) to describe serial events that arise unexpectedly. A recent conversation on Google+, about building the confidence to write, reminded me of an experience I had, decades ago, during a meditation weekend.

We had been sitting for three days—breathing, watching thoughts go by, or more often recycle—broken only by short periods of walking meditation (kinhin) and two sleep breaks.

Probably all initiates were now anticipating the end of this long zazen—the moment when we would be freed from uncomfortable poses—alone with our thoughts, maintaining a straight back, “head and shoulders,” breathing, observing, practicing the Way of the Warrior.

Not long to go.


I wonder if Barb is enjoying this?


What the hell is going on upstairs?


The scraping of chairs and muffled voices echoed from the floor above. A brief silence. A few of us shuffled, searching for a comfortable position.

The hozensho will sound any minute now.


Instead, a cacophony of trumpets, bassoons, trombones and tympani erupted above. An amateur brass band were practicing. It was the most wonderful music I’d ever heard.

Three days of sitting meditation had taught me to hear. And everyone else in the room seemed to get it as well: we’re all amateurs, with poor timing, imperfect tone, broken instruments, struggling to follow the meter of our breath, and make some music along the Way, or Tao.

We are all practicing.

Everyone fell from their cushions, laughing from their bellies.

Oom-pah, Oom-pah! went the band. Tinkle-tinkle, rang the hozensho bell.

The effect was so profound that some of us wondered if the “lesson” hadn’t been pre-arranged. But it was just synchronicity. A scheduling conflict had turned into a perfect meeting of moments.

I wonder if those self-conscious music students had any idea how well they played that day?

Religion often uses the threat of punishment or promise of reward to influence behaviour. The goal-oriented Christian work ethic promises “pie in the sky when you die”—to which protest singer Joe Hill added: “that’s a lie.” Buddhism encourages good deeds in this life, better to gather sonam credits against the wheel of samsara.

And yet, you may struggle all your life without reward. While frauds make out like bandits, you may lose. Bankers might steal your pension.

I’m not sure meditation or religion can put these things to right. That’s where critical thinking comes in … followed by measured action—Warrior-like.

In the meantime, practice. Put your best works forward and let the chips fall where they may.

Related: Zen and the art of slow cycling | Endurance sport: the temple of pain

Donna November 4, 2011 at 10:46 am

Wonderful post Ray. We don’t always need our eyes to see, we do that with our minds and hearts too.

Raymond Parker November 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Yes, Donna, as a predominantly visual person, I sometimes have to remind myself of that.
Writing–and the “pre-visualization” involved–helps to widen my viewpoint.

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