This post was originally offered in June of 2008 as part of the book, Awake in This Life.
The Chinese Master Yunmen referred to the most profound Buddhist teachings as simply being “an appropriate response” to the circumstances of our lives. Any time we see egolessness in action, we are looking at an appropriate response. Whenever we can watch someone act without wanting anything in return for his or her action, we are seeing an appropriate response in action. Essentially, an appropriate response is participation that arises from a space of non-resistance. Unlike the reactions of resistance offered by an ego that thinks it’s enlightened, an appropriate response is unimpeded, open and unattached to any outcome or agenda, just like any of us might return a heartfelt smile or help someone who is struggling with his grocery bags and car keys. Since any of us can meet our circumstances like this as long as we show up to what is really going on in our lives, each of us can express the Awakened capacity that has always been available underneath all of the interests of our small selves. This is what is meant when the sages of today as well as those of old say that we are already enlightened.
One of my teachers would point out that his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, used to say, “Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people; there is only enlightened action.” This understanding makes all of us vessels of Enlightenment, whether we are conscious of it or not. Whether we are beginning our climb along the spiritual Path, we are at the summit, or we are returning down from the Mountain, all of us can commit to offering helpful responses that won’t generate suffering. When we live in this way, whatever another’s action (or reaction) might be, the egos needs are taken out of our intention, and we take care of our vow to not harm.
To be sure, I don’t know if any of us, regardless of our commitments and good intentions, can avoid harm on a technical level. Even taking medicine, for example, harms the bacteria that we’re hosting. Eating harms whatever our meal happens to be, and even in compassion we can harm another’s sense of what’s right. But what helps guide our decisions is our answer to the question that we’re exploring here. A practitioner who is integrating the depth of Spirit into his life will always ask himself, “What is an appropriate response to what is arising in this situation?” This question and its answer cannot reveal themselves unless we’re clear about our egoless intention and our commitment not to harm. A great litmus test here is to consider if we, for example, are acting from a place of generosity for the whole or in a way that either indulges our greed or our aversion. Acting from a place of generosity puts us into a space where intimacy with our experience continually supports deeper levels of non-resistance and, in turn, deeper levels of conscious behavior for all of us.