Just a Person with Nothing To Do

“Followers of the Way, as I see it we are no different from Śhakyamuni. What do we lack for our manifold activities today? The six-rayed divine light never ceases to shine. See it this way, and you’ll just be a person who has nothing to do their whole life long.
The Record of Linji, Discourses X

I remember hearing a story a few years ago where an ardent, hard-working Zen student ran into the dokusan room to see the teacher. The teacher said, “I can see you are working very hard. Now try working only half as hard.” These were not exactly the words I would hear as a kid from my father on Saturday mornings: “Yes son, just mow half the lawn.” Or when I worked as an apprentice carpenter some summers: “Nail just half the board!” And when I was a financial analyst: “Add up just half the numbers!” Yet, here it is in Zen. Linji, one of the most dynamic and hard-charging of the ancient teachers, exhorting us: “just be a person with nothing to do your whole life.”

So, I thought I would look at the original Chinese text for “a person with nothing to do”, to see how bad my sins of commission really were, at least in Linji’s eyes. The characters are simple ones:

無 No, or Not. When a monk asked Zhao Zhou, Does a dog have Buddha Nature, or not? this is the No he responded with.

事 Thing, or matter. This is a non-physical thing, it is like an occurrence, circumstance, or situation.

人 Person, Human Being. This character has a broader meaning than “male”, it means people in general.

So when we combine the ideographic bits, the basic meaning in English of “just a person with nothing to do” is a “no-circumstance person,” a “no-thing person.” I was greatly relieved to read that, because, of course, that translation makes perfect sense. In Zen, with some guidance from a teacher, we don’t require interpreters to tell us what the Buddha Dharma means. “I am like someone who drinks water,” says the monk Ming in The Gateless Barrier, “and knows personally whether it is warm or cold.” We come to self-knowledge by ourselves.

I had a dream several months ago about the person with nothing to do. In the dream, I was sitting in a vast cathedral-like hallway, dimly lit by candles. In the gothic hallway, there was a very long, heavy wooden table, with Zen folk sitting on both sides. We were in sesshin, and silently eating our meal.

There was also a side hallway, perpendicular to the one we were sitting in. I knew that hallway led to the dokusan room of a Japanese teacher I had known many years ago, now deceased. I was to go in and see the current abbot, also Japanese, who I had not yet met. In my mind, I was going over various responses to my koan that I might give him. I thought perhaps I will run into the dokusan room and give a great shout, HAAA! Or I might run clockwise in three circles around him. But then, at that point, still in the dream, I realized that the correct, and in fact only response necessary was utterly simple. In fact, it was so simple, that I glanced to the left and right of me, knowing that if I tried to explain it to those sitting next to me, they would think me an utter fool.

All I had to do was go. I was just a person with nothing to show, nothing to think up, nothing to do.

When Yunmen says, “I would rather have nothing than something good, ” he is talking about the world of no-thing, of no-circumstance, of emptiness, which is the life we now lead. In that life, there is not one thing out of place. Linji’s exhortation to “just be a person with nothing to do their whole life long”, is an invitation to realize that, and live not in opposition to our circumstances, but at ease with them. That is not doing half of it, but doing the all of it.