Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 25, 2014

The doing or not-doing of actions appear in all kinds Buddhist teachings (as well as the Tao), and especially in Zen Buddhism, where there are many slogans and instructions, either hidden or right out front about the "doing of things." "Do Not Do a Thing" is a common one. And in the Tao, we are told to do by not-doing.

The Tibetans tend to phrase this as we are to use "Skillful Means" in our actions. Skillful means are actions without negative consequences that generate awareness. It sounds more complicated than it is.

The way I understand this, at least in general, is that we try through our actions not to complicate what already exists, but rather to help ease things. Instead of adding another 'thing' to this world, better to help remove things like suffering, problems, and what-have-you.

As a personal note, I learned about this from my first dharma teacher who showed me a little string trick he with his fingers. The secret to this trick is that you could not win by adding more string, but only by taking some away. Life teachings can be conveyed with something that simple.

I have always liked the phrase often used in the Bible "This came to pass" and "That came to pass." All things in this life (because every-thing is impermanent) do not come to stay, but only to pass. I see that much of Buddhism is about helping things to pass gently. Another analogy might be that of Judo to Aikido in the martial arts. Judo is aggressive, doing something. Aikido is passive, working with forces already in motion and making the most of them. For me Buddhism is more about helping things to pass rather than adding something more on to the pile of what we already have to deal with.

As mentioned, in Tibetan Buddhism, skillful means is considered very important, especially in relation to karma, the sum result of our actions. In fact, what to me is perhaps the 'sine qua non' of Tibetan Buddhist techniques is what is called the Two Accumulations, one of which is skillful means and the other is awareness, sometimes these two are called merit and wisdom. I have written about this reciprocal and recursive pair many times because they amount to dharma's idea of a perpetual-motion machine. If the concept of the Two Accumulations is understood and realized, I consider this as a one-way ticket to enlightenment, as glamorous as that may sound. At any rate, internalizing this concept is worth any effort you may have to make. It took me a while, but once I saw how it worked, I have been practicing hard to realize it ever since.

Briefly put, skillful actions, actions done perfectly or skillfully, by their very excellence, create space or an aura around themselves, call it awareness. More perfect actions generate an awareness space within which we actually can see more clearly. And by seeing more clearly, we can see to make more skillful actions yet, thus generating even more awareness, and so it goes, each of the two accumulations reinforcing the other, ad infinitum. The Two Accumulations are reciprocal and recursive, This is what I meant by a perpetual-motion machine. Try it; it works!

It is clear that awareness (enlightenment) is the goal of Buddhist meditation, but the question is how can we achieve this? And the answer to that question is by our actions and their intent. I used to search through my life for some way to turn over a new leaf, to find the ground for basing a sustainable effort, but I was akways looking for something beyond myself, something that was missing, that I did not yet have. And I never did find that.

Instead I found, through Buddhist training, that big change is found in small things, things always already within our reach and control. Perhaps the popular slang would be "cleaning up our act," however you want to phrase it. It involves becoming more aware of our every action and its intent. For many of us it means purifying our intent, not allowing ourselves to be jaded or have an attitude. It may be considered "cool" to have an attitude, but attitude has to be purified for this to work and we can do it. This is the skillful means I am pointing out here.

Ever more skillful means (each action), executed ever more purely (perfectly), creates around itself its own aura or space – awareness. That increased awareness allows us to more clearly see what needs to be done in life and just how we might do it better, and we do. These two, skillful means and awareness, work seamlessly and tirelessly together to provide a path or avenue to our eventual full enlightenment. It is that simple.

And we can start right now, just where we are, making small actions, little steps with better intent and done more skillfully, and like a pebble dropped in a still pond, the circles of our reverberations spread equally outward endlessly. This is what is called the Two Accumulations, a precious, precious teaching that if understood, taken to heart, and fully implemented can be life changing.

[Photo of Echinacae taken this morning.]