Do Nothing – a talk by Leland Shields – February 13, 2022

Posted by on Feb 13, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Do Nothing – a talk by Leland Shields – February 13, 2022


Master Yunmen mentioned the following anecdote:

When Yunyan was sweeping the floor, Daowu said to him: “What good is so much petty effort?

Yunyan replied: “You ought to know that there is one who doesn’t [make such a useless effort]!”

Daowu said: “Well, that’s already a second moon!”

Yunyan held up his broom and said: “Which moon is this?”

Dauwu shook his sleeves and went out.


Master Yunmen remarked: “When a slave meets his peer, they commiserate each other.”

Yunmen, trans. Urs App, Master Yunmen, p. 195-6

Yunyan was engaged in the task still familiar to us – sweeping the floor. I can sweep my front walk today, and it will need it again by Tuesday, whether I repeat the activity that frequently or not. Wind blows. Slaves to the wind, old pinecones and needles fall all year long. No effort, petty or otherwise is needed. Yunyan sees the walkway and sweeps. Daowu remarks.

What do you think? Has there been effort yet?

Yunyan replied: “You ought to know that there is one who doesn’t [make such a useless effort]!”

If we presume defensiveness on Yunyan’s part, we could interpret him as saying that his effort is not petty; it may be purposeful. But that reading would not have led Yunmen to bring it to our attention and he would not have referred to Yunyan and Daowu as peers. For another perspective, notice Yunyan’s reply including “there is one who doesn’t.”

Rendering this in contemporary language, Daowu asked, “Why are you wasting your time – who cares about a few pine needles?

We don’t need any rendering to translate Yunyan’s response: “…there is one who doesn’t.” The translator finished the sentence with an intended clarification in square brackets – “one who doesn’t make such a useless effort.” Making the full sentence of the translated response, “You ought to know that there is one who doesn’t [make such a useless effort]!”

I prefer the breadth in the response before the translator’s added words. Yunyan tells us there is one who doesn’t, doesn’t expend effort, doesn’t sweep for either purpose or purposelessness, doesn’t concern himself with Daowu’s question at all.

The language also leaves the question, who is this “one” to whom Yunyan refers? The spirit of his response would not be conveyed in saying this one is Yunyan, nor would it be true to say it was other than him. Who does that leave?


Stopping here, picture Daowu approaching you as you are going about your day, working, folding laundry, and saying, “What good is so much petty effort? How would you respond? Or perhaps today, while you’re sitting, what good is so much petty effort?


Yunyan could have responded by sweeping without pause and his point would be made. Beyond petty or not, sweep, sweep, sweep. On this day he chose instead to speak the words, and by doing so we benefit by the continued exchange between these two “slaves.” He also setup Daowu to again challenge that the words were irrelevant , a second moon.

Lifting the broom, Yunyan challenges Daowu in return. With a shake of sleeves, our story ends. Each of these two slaves cuts through goal and no goal, one and not one.

We all know what work is like with a discursive mind- sweeping to finish, rushing to get to the next thing, or wanting to impress the neighbors with my diligence and clean walk. Sweeping in this way there is an “I” pushing a broom to complete a task for my gain, or to serve my intention to benefit another. There is nothing wrong with this work. And it is different than work done for it’s own sake, independent of the time taken, brush, brush, brush of bristles.

In this unpretentious story I find a reminder to carry all through my day. In cooking dinner tonight, it would be petty, mundane, never-ending to cook so that my wife and I could eat. Of course, I am cooking so we can eat – but in the ideal, I would instead say the natural course of hunger leads to cooking, so that we can eat. Once pulling out the cutting board, there is one who doesn’t – allowing the hunger to be like the wind, setting in motion the falling of cones, falling of needles, which set in motion broom on walk. Hunger and kindness to self and other pulls down the cutting board, takes an onion from the pantry, and begins to remove the outer layers.

In the non-ideal, hunger can also foster impatience, leading to stridently chopping with focus on the clock and finished dish. When focusing on the clock, the slight discomfort of leaning over the counter is not noticed. The forcefulness of the goal makes it harder to soften, and harder to recognize the need to soften. Even the impatience arises from hunger like falling pine needles arise from wind. And so we have brooms to sweep away the needles, breath to soften impatience, and return to washing vegetables.

If I were in the dialogue, of this koan, I picture perhaps smiling after Daowu shakes sleeves and departs, then sweeping the needles.

My first sesshin was a Rohatsu with Joshu Sasaki Roshi at his center in New Mexico. I didn’t really know before starting what it would mean to begin the day at 3am, and sit longer each day, ending at midnight of the last night. I didn’t know what it be like to sit some periods of an hour and a half each day. During those long periods my back and legs were so painful I would try and let my back slump backwards to relieve pressure. I slumped so far that after the retreat I heard some participants whispering about how they thought I’d fall over.

Several days into the retreat I moved my legs to change position during that long period. The Jisha yelled at me for all to hear, deriding my inability to follow instructions. I did not move again during a sitting. It took me years to unlearn the lesson of that shaming and to listen to the limits of my body without turning my back on discipline. We practice on the middle way. To this day, when being shamed for revealing my limitations, I relearn recognition that there is one who doesn’t.

In moments of question, to rest or to act, to discipline or flex, we can have a complex cross current of perspectives and needs. On one side, we may be drawn to the promise of Zazen, to sit diligently. At the same time, we can be aware of a need to rest, to sleep, to socialize, to care for others. In Zazen, releasing ideas of any perspective, we can take the expansive view that contains all. Finding that point of convergence of all that is far and near, the response arises like drifting mist over a running river on a windless, frigid day. The mist arises without one to produce or measure it. We can easily find more disturbing images as well, of flood waters rising when climate and circumstance favors it – and likewise responses arise from an expansive view, like the drifting mist over the running river on a windless, frigid day.

It is true that we return to themes of practice – doing nothing, effortless effort being one theme. We do so to bring “doing nothing” to earth. Zen is not esoteric. It is in the recognition of this one messy world and allowing the response that arises from the one who doesn’t. Each of us has our way to allow that response. There is benefit from this formal practice together. And never a need to wait for another time to take in all, and to recognize one’s own response in accord.

At times we lose the reason we are here and minds wander – too loose. In the story of today’s koan, one was physically sweeping, after all. At times we so strive for the peace of breath, our faces express our effort – too tight. And so we wander back to breath, and to breath.


As we sit today, Daowu is saying to us, “What good is so much petty effort?” He isn’t admonishing us to slump down, but to soften even as we sit up.

In the Taoteching, Lao-tzu wrote:

When people are born
they are soft and weak
when they perish
they are hard and stiff
when plants shoot forth
they are supple and tender
when they die
they are withered and dry
thus is it said
the hard and stiff
are followers of death
the soft and weak
are followers of life

Lao Tzu. Lao-tzu’s Taoteching (p. 152). Copper Canyon Press. Kindle Edition.

When Yunmen shared the story of Yunyan and Daowu about sweeping, Yunmen brought our attention to the heart of practice, both lay and formal. Practice can be lifegiving in the extraordinary times, nurturing in daily ritual, and is ubiquitous in our ordinary lives. Lau-tzu brings different language to the same point.

In formal practice as we share it today, we each have our reasons that drew us to sit quietly between the opening and closing bells. Once sitting, we can return to suppleness, still without sinking to the ground. I’ve intentionally said we “return to suppleness.” I would have perceived it as stiff if I said, “remain supple,” setting too high an expectation to carry. Just as Yunyan raised a broom to settle any question, return to the simplicity of one breath, of this sound. Raising a broom, Yunyan had no quarrel with one moon or two. In the simplicity of breath, there is no quarrel with supple or stiff, nor focused nor distracted.

In another story of Yunmen…

One day the Master said, “When you exert your whole strength, what do you say?”

In place of the monks, Yunmen said,, “Five sesame buns and three bowls of tea.”

(Yunmen, trans. Urs App, Master Yunmen, p. 202)

Yunmen said five sesame buns. At breakfast, I might say, “a cup of coffee and a banana.” When making tea, how would you do so with your whole strength? When doing so, watch out for that word, “whole.”

I was told that when F.M. Alexander used the Alexander Technique with the musicians, actors, dancers, and others he would ask the class participants to go about their activity. An actor would begin a practiced monologue, and Alexander would watch, then gently touch a muscle that was active but unneeded. The actor would release the muscle and continue, until touched again. With beginners, Alexander would gently put a hand on one’s shoulder and say, “Do nothing.” Let your head float of its own on top of neck and shoulders. Do nothing.”

Even as I write these words, my shoulders and neck get a little closer to doing nothing. This advice is given for use during an activity, so there is no mistaking the message to mean one should give up acting, or give up sweeping the walk. Doing nothing instead allowed the intent of the activity to arise, without the forcefulness of one acting. To whom is this advice to “do nothing offered?” And whose head floats on top of the neck?

We are all so reliant on our minds helping us to navigate, we don’t realize the ways mind can dazzle us into being stiff, when instead the whole of our strength can be as responsive as undersea plant life bending with the waves coming in and going out. Seaweed still holds its grip in the sandy bottom, while softly moving.

In the hours of our day, almost all we do can be described as mundane or petty, and yet these actions are required for kind support of ourselves and others, and permits each activity to float up, for its own sake. Even as you sit now, can you find that one who doesn’t? To find this one, don’t do anything, anything you do is not that one. Let the whole of effort be in hearing. Understanding can arise on its own, or not.

I know my words leave plenty of room for any of us to parse language and to questions, such as whether following curiosity fosters understanding or is it part of the effort we should not do. It is enough to watch for those times in which it’s clear. For myself, the vast majority of the time I know what worry is unnecessary. When taking a day to sit in Zazen, breath breathes, ears hear, mu mus. When sweeping a floor, what is next to occur will occur in its time. The pine needles will be swept sufficiently well without my concern whether it will be good enough. Broom to ground. Hands to broom, arms swing – swinging softly is the way of ease. Sweeping, there is one who doesn’t.

It isn’t necessary to look for the one who doesn’t – doesn’t sweep while sweeping, and doesn’t eat while eating. That one shows up on the end of your fork and chews with your teeth. The one who just turned left in front of you, and put on your brakes. The one is eating seeds from the bird feeder.

I will end with a poem of Bodhidharma’s:

Originally I came to this land
To rescue deluded people by transmitting the Dharma.
One flower will open with five petals
And the fruit will ripen by itself.
(Nelson Foster, The Roaring Stream; a New Zen Reader, p. 9)