When it was time to step down from my role as the guiding teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple some 10 years ago, I spent a long time fussing about what my final dharma talk would be. I knew it needed to be directed toward Koho Vince Anila, who was about to step into the role. At the same time I wanted to leave something behind for the sangha members—a secret superpower—if I could. So I fussed. I would bolt awake in the middle of the night for weeks with full paragraphs of advice in my head, mostly about all the ways we can pay better attention to what generosity looks like in the new century, until I ended up with about 12 pages of aphorisms that were at best only OK.
On the morning of Koho’s transmission ceremony all this changed. I suddenly realized that two simple words would give him, and them, all the superpowers they needed. The words? Right action. In Buddhism right action is a bit of a tricky concept. It grows out of a faith that—in every moment—there is an exact response that is the correct response to whatever situation we find ourselves in. It moves the moment forward in a way that introduces more peace, openness, and happiness into the lives of everyone involved. This action most often comes in the form of words spoken. Anyone who has been offered an unexpected sincere apology knows how powerful it feels. Right action can also be something that we do without words, like grabbing a little kid right off her tricycle just as she’s about to hurl herself into traffic. Even a look can be right action. Not long ago I watched a vet tech taking a sick dog out of his owner’s arms. Pausing, she looked at the man with such empathy that he broke down and wept in her arms. They both knew the dog was dying.
Right action pops up all the time in the ancient Buddhist teachings, the Pali Canon. In one story, an old female ascetic known for her clever tongue and quick wit shows up at Buddha’s camp to show off. Buddha’s right-hand monk, Sariputtra, takes her up on her challenge to a debate. After answering her first volley he tells her he has only a single question for her.
Okay, she responds. Ask away.
“One—what is that?”
She is so stumped that she asks to become a follower of Buddha’s teachings. He agrees to her request, telling her to remember that a single phrase that brings peace is better than a thousand words of every other kind.
He was describing right action. The thing is, right action sounds too simple for its own good. To really work, two things are needed. The first goes back to Sariputtra’s question. We can’t be outsiders. Whatever situation we’re in, we need to really be in it—mind and body. We can’t be the mom ready to spew advice or the mate ready to pounce with new relationship rules that promise to make this partnership everything the storybooks promise. We can’t be teachers springing a lesson on a student too exhausted to even hear our words or adult children writing up a list of all the reasons why our elderly parents need to move out of their houses without putting ourselves in their shoes. These all have too much “other,” and in right action there is simply no “other” role.
We know this. Letting go of the “other” role takes time and patience. But the superpower can’t work otherwise. So, for example, I have learned, slowly, slowly, to think back to how I felt when my daughter was a toddler and I was running on no sleep before I open my mouth to offer what I think is excellent advice about the raising of her two-year-old. The result: on good days I don’t open my mouth. On not so good days I open my mouth, mea culpa times a gazillion, and then I apologize. Habits die hard.
The second thing that right action needs to work is a pause. At first this feels a little weird because it feels off-rhythm. When we find ourselves in a situation calling for right action (and that’s all situations—I’m just saying) we need to have enough humility to wait for the right action response to surface. For most of us this happens after the flash of an almighty ego needing to be correct, all knowing, or dismissive. If we pause right there, behind that initial response will be the one the situation needs—and it will probably be surprising. For me, “I can’t” comes to mind, and “I don’t know.” In this moment of heartfelt responsiveness something I can only describe as holy happens. A moment of peace. Of love. Of healing. Of a world rejoicing.
Geri Larkin is spending the summer hosting friends from the Midwest tundra still needing to thaw after last winter...