Archive for Monday, September 12, 2011


Everyday Life: The Zen thing to do

September 12, 2011


A friend called the other night. A mutual friend had collapsed, the people with him didn’t quite know what to do, could we go over?

So we did. And as we were trying to figure out whether to call 911, somebody turned to us and asked: What is the Zen thing to do?

Someone asked the Dalai Lama once what the point of Buddhism was, and he said, “Be kind.” Someone asked Jesus what his teaching was and he said, “Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you.” Someone asked Hillel to give the central teaching of the Torah while standing on one foot, and he said, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.”

That’s really it, people. As Hillel added, “All the rest is commentary.”

But then there’s the question: How do you know what to do? Good question. Our minds are seldom clear, and we are very good at making them even blurrier. That’s why we want someone or some ideology or some belief system to tell us what to do. But this is only another way to make our minds blurry, like putting on somebody else’s glasses. We go for the doctrine, and not for the practice, because it’s a lot easier to repeat what somebody else says than to see what’s actually in front of us. It’s a lot easier to see the thing we think we’re supposed to see instead of the thing that’s actually there.

We go for the doctrine, when the thing that really can help us is sincere and deep spiritual practice. This means a practice that takes us inward and outward at the same time, that goes far deeper than any ideas or understandings or any notion of us and them, a practice that helps us recognize our delusions and not be controlled by them. A practice that we actually do, instead of thinking about doing it. And a practice that we do matter-of-factly, without thinking it’s special

Because another aspect of “the Zen (or [insert name of any religion here]) thing to do” is the idea that this is somehow extraordinary and precious, as opposed to the ordinary stuff that we do every day. If we think that way we are so busy looking for the special stuff that we can’t see the stuff around us. Which is, in fact, what is most precious.

So we went into our friend’s bedroom and talked to him for a while. There were reasons for concern, and yes we did call 911. While we were waiting for the paramedics to arrive, I cleaned the kitchen a little and serendipitously found his medications. The paramedics came and took him and his medications to the hospital. They did a few things here and there, kept him a while for observation, and sent him home. He’s fine.

And that, folks, was exactly the Zen thing to do. What else could it be?

— Judy Roitman can be reached at


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