Beneficial Action

This is an approximation of a Dharma Talk I gave last night as part of our 2013 ango at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts.

A recording of the real deal is posted here, along with talks by other BoWZ teachers on this and other passages from Dogen’s Four Bodhisattva Methods of Guidance.  


This is the third of Dogen’s Four Bodhisattva Methods of guidance:


3 “Beneficial action” is skillfully to benefit all classes of sentient beings, that is, to care about their distant and near future, and to help them by using skillful means.  In ancient times, someone helped a caged tortoise; another took care of an injured sparrow.  They did not expect a reward; they were moved to do so only for the sake of beneficial action.


Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost; but this is not so.  Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.


To greet petitioners, a lord of old three times stopped in the middle of his bath and arranged his hair, and three times left his dinner table.  He did this solely with the intention of benefiting others.  He did not mind instructing even subjects of other lords.  Thus you should benefit friend and enemy equally.  You should benefit self and others alike.  If you have this mind, even beneficial action for the sake of grasses, trees, wind, and water is spontaneous and unremitting.  This being so, make a wholehearted effort to help the ignorant.



The first time I read this passage a few weeks ago, the phrase “moved to do so” leapt out at me.


For me, being moved to do something is often an important pointer toward beneficial action that is an “act of oneness.”


In my experience, it’s too easy to allow oneself to be “tracked” into a job or another commitment that is not the deepest expression of who we are.


Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, this sometimes can take the form of doing “good works” half-heartedly, when what we really want to do is something that superficially seems less civic oriented, but is something that we genuinely feel more drawn to do at the time.  We can berate ourselves for not doing more of what we think we should do with our talents for the sake of humanity.


One example of the latter experience in my life was the time I left a developing career teaching and practicing in the conflict resolution arena to join a tech startup.


It seemed like such a fork in the road.  Or, to mix metaphors, it was one of those apples and oranges moments.  I like both, and it seemed I had to choose one or the other.  It seemed I couldn’t have a fruit salad.


I sat with this decision problem for months.  I was really excited about the startup. It was doing something pretty cool, and the energy gathering there was palpable.


I thought I should do something more for the world, however, and that the conflict resolution work was it.


In the end, feeling a bit guilty about what I thought was a cop-out and a betrayl of principle, I joined the tech company.


And it was great.  An excellent move on every level at that life-stage.


And there were some big, fantastic surprises.


Shortly after we released our first product – which is a secure, online communication and collaboration tool – in the fall of 2000, this South African guy named Hannes Siebert walked into our office.


He said he was an early adopter of our product, and that he had a few feature requests.


We wouldn’t understand his world, he said, but he was dealing with an enormous, and enormously challenging, collaboration problem, and maybe helping him would produce features that others also would find useful.


Hannes explained that he had just been appointed as the neutral facilitator in the conflict in Sri Lanka, following a major impasse in the peace process.


He hadn’t yet been able to get the parties meeting face-to-face again, but he had revived the process online, using our software.


I nearly fell out of my chair.


“I do understand your world,” I said.  “We can help.”


And we did.


Our software became central to a new phase of the process in Sri Lanka.  It later was used by international election monitors, including Jimmy Carter, to help ensure the integrity of a national election there.


Hannes’s visit to our office marked the beginning of my involvement with the Peace Appeal Foundation, the conflict resolution NGO Hannes co-founded earlier that year with several other people, including five Nobel Peace Laureates.


And it marked the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration with this remarkable peacemaker.


We’ve since worked in Nepal, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, and, most recently, in Myanmar/Burma, where we’re seeing terrible violence among Buddhists and Muslims, but also glimmers of hope, I believe.


Though the war in Sri Lanka ended tragically, the software created by the company I was part of has been a critical tool in every peace process in which the Peace Appeal Foundation has been involved since then.


Not every story like this ends this way, I know.  It was incredibly fortuitous that Hannes walked into our office that day.


The larger point for me is simply that there’s integrity in doing what we genuinely feel moved to do.


We can’t predict – let alone control – the future, so sometimes those inner movements can be our best guide.


Years of sitting, and koan work, and, most of all, just living life have taught me that it’s usually dangerous to try to force answers to the big questions.  The right answers to the big questions often feel right, in my experience.  We feel moved by them, moved to act.  They often arise spontaneously – spontaneous is another word we find in Dogen’s text – but after long periods of sitting with the question.  Perhaps years.  They feel like authentic expressions of who we are.


And then there are the times when this is all wrong.


After we sold that tech company, I had to decide what to do next.


I had several opportunities to run young tech companies, and that’s what I wanted to do.


But the opportunities I was most interested in would have required a move or some other sacrifice by my wife, who had not yet earned tenure at the university where she teaches.  The things I wanted to do would have disrupted her career.


The very least favored option on my list of job prospects was going to work at a big law firm.  I’d left that world long ago, and I wasn’t particularly eager to return to it.


After months of searching for almost any other alternative that I thought would make me happier and would align with my wife’s career, however, that’s exactly what I did.


And it’s been great.  An excellent move on every level.


And there have been some big, fantastic surprises.


My firm has been very supportive of my work with the Peace Appeal Foundation, and has even provided pro bono services in support of some of the processes in which we’re involved.


I have been invited to serve on the boards of some interesting startups, and my firm has allowed me to do this.  I’ve been able to be involved with multiple companies at once, not just one.


Other interesting opportunities that may become deeply meaningful to me and be very beneficial to others are emerging.  Opportunities that never would have come my way – indeed, never would have come into being at all – if I had not joined my firm.


And I’m incredibly happy in my marriage.


The fruit salad that began with an apple and an orange has gotten ever more colorful and delicious.


Fruit salads do happen, it seems.


As I’ve sat with Dogen’s passage over the past several weeks, I’ve also come to see him pointing to the value, at times, of doing what we do not feel most moved to do.


We can’t predict – let alone control – the future, so sometimes the needs and priorities of others can be our best guide.


“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost; but this is not so,” Dogen tells us.  “Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”


The lord of old interrupts his dinner and his bath to make a wholehearted effort to help others.


In a nutshell, I hear Dogen advising us in this passage to do what we’re advised to do in our lovely, shorter version of the precepts:


Making use of all of the ingredients of my life,

I vow to take up the Way of Not Sparing the Dharma assets.


The ingredients of our lives include our opportunities, our likes, our preferences, our off-beat – and even mainstream! – interests.


The ingredients of our lives also include our seeming constraints, our dislikes, others’ preferences, and others’ interests.


It’s not either-or.  It’s not self versus other.


Of course, discerning what to do in a given moment can be tricky.


Like so many Zen practitioners, I have found zazen and koan practice immensely helpful training for sitting with this koan that is my life.


I have found them precisely to be this unfolding koan that is my life.


Sitting – whether on the cushion, where we’re not especially encouraged to engage in discursive thought, or off the cushion, where that can be a useful component of our deliberations – is a form of action, of course.


Eventually, however, in most situations, we must stand up.  Take a step.  Make a move.


We must act, well, more actively.


Dogen provides us with two helpful decision principles, I think:


  • Do what moves us.


  • Act primarily for others’ benefit.


It’s lovely when we feel these principles are served equally well by some choice that is available to us, but that won’t always be so.


When it’s not, I have found it helpful to bear in mind that I just might be surprised by what follows that first step.


We can’t predict – let alone control – the future.


The best we can do is make good use of the ingredients of our lives.


Doing our best to discern what’s right at this particular juncture.


Acting with good intentions.


Knowing, and trusting, that whatever we do from this frame of mind and heart is an act of oneness that benefits self and others alike.