The buddhist path starts with right view, being able to see things clearly (things are impermanent, without a self and unsatisfying), and from a Zen point of view having seen one’s true nature (but that’s another issue). In other words things are fundamentally empty. Out of right view comes right intention, right speech and, for the point of this post, right action.
There’s a lot said about mindfulness at the moment, but not so much about mindfulness of emptiness; staying mindful from moment to moment of the inherent emptiness of things. One of my favourite stories is of a Zen nun who decided to leave the monastery and go up a mountain to meditate as she wanted to make a final push towrds awakening. On the way up she met a famous spiritual teacher (Maitreya, I think) coming down the mountain. On his back he was carrying a large bundle of sticks. She stopped him and asked him what it was like to be awake. He put down his bundle of sticks. Then she asked him: then what? He picked up the bundle of sticks again and carried on his way. To me the sticks represent identity. Maitreya demonstrated the fundamental nature of the emptiness of identity, but also that the identity serves a role in the world.
How does that lead to right action? To me identity is my roles and responsibilities, a mixture of karma and service. I find it interesting that the word “karma” (kamma in Pāli) is related to the kammanta, the Pāli word for ethical action, the very same word used in Right Action. Without the view of emptiness, all actions are attached, but it is action that leaves its resonance through the entire universe.
Roles and responsibilities are how I like to begin my day. There’s nothing wrong with carrying a bunch of sticks as long as you can put them down. In the world’s oldest mantra, called the Gayatri, there’s a line that runs: may we fulfill our whole duty as we journey to thy sacred feet. Right Action.
Right Action belongs to Sīla, or ethics, one of the three legs of buddhism. (The other two legs are wisdom and concentration.) It seems right action is the beginning of the path and the end of the path. Along the path concentration opens up the natural joy in being alive, and wisdom enables us to see things as they are. It seems though that it comes down to this:
Before awakening carrying wood, chopping water; after awakening carrying wood, chopping water.