Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.James 1: 22-25
In our time we often speak of an overemphasis on “doing” over “being.” And there is no question, that we, at least in American culture, live in a highly functional society. The problem that we have identified, however, is not a problem with doing, or being active, but rather a problem of doing that is dissociated from reality. It is acting based on our own limited vision and agenda, our own project, and a project that is largely unconscious to us. That is, in overly functional culture we act from a rational-functional dimension of our personality that is cut off from the vital on the one hand and the transcendent on the other. The result is action that is dissociated from connection with ourselves and the communion we are with all that is.
The letter of James gives us an insight into this in the analogy it offers of a person who looks at his or her own face in a mirror and then promptly goes off and forgets what he or she looks like. The “doing” of such a person is not the fulfilling of the call or task that is truly and in reality his or hers. It is a doing more in service of a flight from self than an incarnation of self in action. On the other hand, the author of James tells us that when we peer “into the perfect law of freedom” and persevere in that contemplation, our acts are blessed.
So we contemporaries live a very paradoxical existence. While we frantically overdo and overwork on one side, we often experience paralysis and futility on another. The prevailing sense of many of us is that of impotence against all the “forces” that seem to control us. So much of what we go through emotionally and in our thoughts is unrelated to the call of the present moment, the actual reality. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing tells us that there is “one impulse of grace for each atom of time.” This is the contemplative stance. It is a way of being that requires us to act, to do the one thing necessary at the moment.
To have lived as long as I have is to realize how often we choose not to act. We avoid the reality of the moment and we allow things to “take their course.” Today, however, the word calls us to realize that our life is a part of that course, and that our choices and actions are meant to influence it.
Yesterday I was listening to a podcast which was a recording of a conversation between Andrew Bacevich and Christopher Lydon at the First Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The last question of the question and answer period was what could we as individuals and together as a nation do to repent the violence and disorder we have caused on our planet. Bacevich’s response was at first mysterious to me. He spoke of how the Sisters who taught him as a young Catholic boy would speak often of vocation. He then said that for much of his life he had not been faithful to his true vocation, which he had come, relatively recently, to see as that of a writer. He pointed out that for others it would be to clothe the naked or to feed the hungry and that, as the Sisters taught him, to live out and be faithful to one’s vocation was the true significance of life.
Slowly my confusion at his response began to clarify. I realized that he was answering the question in an act of himself repenting for his denying and refusing of his own vocation for so long. He was saying that we’ll do what we have to do when we are each faithful to our vocations, to what Adrian van Kaam describes as our “assignment, task, and mysterious call.” Our vocation, which we discover by peering “into the perfect law of freedom” and persevering in that contemplation, is a call to action, to do the one thing that this present moment calls on each of us uniquely to do. The action will take place out of the consciousness that our life is not separate from the world of the present moment but includes it.
Very often we are so busy taking into account the phantasms of our own thoughts and feelings and attempting to manipulate them into a comfortable and gratifying state that we are unable to see things as they are, “things” meaning everything including ourselves. It is our feelings and thoughts that paralyze us. What Andrew Bacevich, it seems to me, is saying is that we repent and we repair the world by waking up to reality and then living out our vocation in that reality of the present moment.
Earlier in the conversation, Christopher Lydon kept pushing Bacevich to state whose fault it was that the United States found itself in these endless wars and colonial adventures that had resulted in so many deaths and in such global chaos. But Bacevich constantly refused to do so. For him, it was not significant about who to blame but, rather, it was more important to see clearly what had happened and so to act differently in light of that knowledge. So too with ourselves. When we rage in blame or wallow in guilt and shame, we are only still avoiding acting, that is, being faithful to our vocation. We look at the past in order to learn and understand. And we learn and understand not to brandish our knowledge and intelligence, let alone our rectitude, but rather to act aright.
Kosho Uchiyama puts the truth of our vocation and call succinctly: “. . . it means to put our energy into settling everything in our world here and now, where we really live.” Our vocation is to do what the moment asks of us uniquely. We are not separate from the world in which we act. Our own life does not take form separately from the rest of its formation field. My vocation is my place and participation in the life of the world, a creation that is a gift to us and not a possession. Our responsibility for ourselves is not separate from our responsibility to and for all. It is only in the call of the present moment that I can live out that responsibility by acting in accord with my call.
Shakyamuni Buddha said it this way: “All worlds are my world and all sentient beings—people, things, and situations—are my children.” Dōgen Zenji’s expression rōshin, nurturing mind or attitude, came out of this. My way of expressing this is “everything I encounter is my life”—deau tokoro waga seimei.
That is why our most fundamental attitude must be “just doing,” or “doing nothing but this” (shikan). It’s not a matter of thinking correctly about life. Thinking about life simply isn’t enough. Our life is whatever we are encountering right now, and our practice is shikantaza, which is literally “just sitting.” More broadly it means to put our energy into settling everything in our world here and now, where we really live.Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice