The attainment of ‘non-action’

A slightly technical aspect of Buddhism: Non-Action

One aspect of Zen is the way of ‘non-action’. It is often proposed by Zen masters in opposition to the ‘hinayana’ way of just concentration.

This is an issue in most schools of Buddhism in fact. One set of meditators or masters will say that the usual way of meditation is ‘just concentration’ and that this will never lead to Enlightenment. The idea is that even in concentration of mind you are still creating a particular mind state. And anything that arises will, according to universal law, later cease. So the tranquility of concentrating on a meditation object, is still Samsara, it is still just an activity of the mind.

Hui-neng was the sixth Patriarch of Zen and is famous for segmenting the way of Chinese Zen, and starting a new lineage.  He was speaking from an attainment of ‘Buddha-Nature’ which is known in Theravada as the ‘Unconditioned’ or the mind that is freed of all conditions. We might describe it as pure consciousness, or mind without an object (anarammana – see below).

The story goes the fifth Patriarch told his monks to go write a poem expressing the ultimate truth. The lead student Shen Xiu wrote :

    The body is the bodhi tree,
    The mind is like a clear mirror.
    At all times we must strive to polish it.
    And must not let the dust collect.

Hui-neng,  just a young and uneducated monk from the South of China, responded with this stanza:

    Originally there is no tree of enlightenment,
    Nor is there a stand with a clear mirror.
    From the beginning not one thing exists;
    Where, then, is a grain of dust to cling?

Much of his teaching, as reported by his disciples, revolved around non-action. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. Such teaching is quite common in different forms in Mahayana Buddhism, and juxtaposed with the perennial ‘Straw Man’ of Buddhism, Hinayana (effectively Hinayana and Theravada are the same thing).  While Hinayana monks struggle to purify their mind over countless lifetimes, the Mahayana see that the mind is already pure. No wonder then that a couple of days ago a Tibetan monk in Bangkok was describing Hinayana as like ‘starlight’ while Mahayana was like ‘moonlight’ and Tibetan Vajrayana was like ‘sunlight’.

If the mind is already pure and perfect what is there to do? This is the basis of the teaching of non-action. Letting the mind cease from all activity reveals the inherent Buddha-nature.

Well, instead of buying into the ridiculous ‘Straw Man’ version of Theravada, perhaps it pays to go back to the Theravada suttas. So far as anyone can tell (including Mahayana Buddhists) the Theravada scriptures are the closest to the actual words of the Historical Buddha it is possible to get [in terms of record – of course, a new teacher might come along with something very wise or profound that is close to the historical Buddha’s in terms of essence]. What we find is that practically all of the later ‘improvements’ on Buddhism from the Mahayana schools are found in the Pali canaon.

Take ‘non-action’ as an example. The word ‘action’ in the Pali is ‘Kamma’.

What is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech or with the intellect – this is called new kamma. And what is the cessation of kamma? Whoever touches the release that comes from the cessation of bodily kamma verbal kamma and mental kamma, that is called the cessation of kamma. 

sn 35.145

Here is an explicit statement of the ‘cessation of action’

What we tend to find with some of these great teachers like Hui-neng is that they are teaching from one particular view point. They are teaching one particular way – they way they themselves have progressed and attained in the practise. They set this method up against the ‘common’ method of the day … If you listen too closely with any of these teachers and buy into the superiority over other ‘schools’ then you lose the beauty of the 84 000 teachings we find in the Pali canon. All the later teachings have their equivalent in the Pali Suttas. If they don’t, it probably is not Buddhism.

Hui-neng’s description of Enlightenment:

As long as there is a dualistic way of looking at things there is no liberation…. The Buddha nature knows neither decrease nor increase … When it is [caught up in] the passions it is not defiled; when it is meditated upon, it does not thereby become purer. It is neither annihilated nor abiding; it neither comes nor departs, it is neither in the middle nor at either end; it neither dies not is born; it remains the same all the time, unchanged in all changes. As it is never born, it never dies. it is not that we replace death with life, but that the Buddha-nature is always above birth and death … let the mind move on as it is in itself and perform its inexhaustible functions – This is the way to be in accord with mind essence.

Is this something new? It is a spontaneous teaching and in it we can see the roots of Hui-nengs original inspiration to investigate Buddhism; a verse from the Diamond Sutra — “Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything“. This was his way of practise and his way of teaching.

Compare the above quote with a typical Pali sutta equivalent: 

There is monks that sphere wherein there is neither earth, water, fire, nor air, wherein is neither the sphere of infinity of space, nor the infinity of consciousness, nor that of nothingness, nor that of neither perception nor non-perception. Whereing there is neither this world not a world beyond, nor moon or sun. There monks I declare is no coming, no going, no stopping, no passing away or arising. It is not established [appavattam] it has no object [anārammanam] This indeed is the end of suffering. [Ud 80]


This mind monks is luminous, but it is defiled by extraneous defilements. That the uninstructed ordinary man does not understand as it really is. Therefore there is no mind development for him I declare.

This mind monks is luminous and it is released from extraneous defilements. That the instructed noble disciple understands as it is. Therefore there is mind development for him I declare. [A I , 10]

The Pali sutta method of expression is very formulaic, rather than prosaic. It was systematized from the Buddha’s own teachings, and recited. That makes it harder to read sometimes, but working ones way through the suttas reveals a very complete teaching, where all the parts fit together nicely.

And this is where teachers such as Hui-neng fall slightly short. Profound and enlightened they may be. But to teach that you are already enlightened, that there is nothing you can or need to do …. is that a useful teaching? Well, yes, we can make use of it and develop it into a practise. But that practise then, is not non-action. By definition a ‘pracitse’ [Americans spelling of this verb is ‘practice’] is not ‘non-aciton’.

You may note other teachers such as Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, or even Eckhart Tolle often talk of the Self, which is evident when ‘non-self’ is understood. They say there is nothing that can be done to attain it. Enlightenment after all is without cause/effect. What action can you possibly do, to attain to non-action?

This is where the Buddha was supreme. He said there actually are ways of practise that can take you to enlightenment. There are certain ways to train the mind. There are certain insights that can lead you to enlightenment. There are certain states that should be developed, even if they are still within Samsara. His vision of the path was complete. And he taught different people in suitable ways … all of which became the so-called ’84 000 teachings’.

This is why we Theravada Buddhists revere the Pali suttas. This is the origin of all the teachings, and the place where the full scheme fits together. In this set of suttas, we can find the origins of practically all the later teachings. Even though Tibetan Buddhists and other claim that the Buddha taught ‘secret’ teachings to just a select few, we can in fact find all these secret teachings in the Pali, albeit in some cases, without signal emphasis. According to the Pali, the Buddha said he had laid out all the teachings in plain view, and held nothing back. Before he died he claimed to have done everything a teacher could possibly do for future generations. There need be no ‘secret’ ways, and straw men to beat.

One reply on “The attainment of ‘non-action’”

  1. “The Buddha nature knows neither decrease nor increase … When it is [caught up in] the passions it is not defiled; when it is meditated upon, it does not thereby become purer. It is neither annihilated nor abiding; it neither comes nor departs, it is neither in the middle nor at either end; it neither dies not is born; it remains the same all the time, unchanged in all changes.”

    What a wonderful quote by Hui-neng! Thank you!

    As for non-action being a practice, well, yes, it certainly is! In the Korean Zen tradition it’s a practice of letting go or entrusting to this eternal Buddha-nature, which, paradoxically, does not mean ‘no action’ but, rather, allows action to spring from it.

    Oh dear, I’ve not put that very well. So I’ll turn this into a plug for the Zen Club on the 27th of this month where such stuff is better discussed!

    Thank you for showing how all this is, actually, already there in the Pali texts!


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