Wu Wei, You Can’t do it Wrong by John Aske

Wu Wei, You Can’t do it Wrong:
Meditation is not what you do, it’s what you are.

Zhang Lu (Chinese, ca. 1490–ca. 1563)

When we walk, we just walk. When we breathe, we just breathe. But when we start to do or learn something new, things change. Suddenly there is something to learn and there is a Me to learn it, and a gap opens up between the two. Our discriminating mind likes to create categories when it can. It sets up standards: ‘That is bad,’ ‘This is good,’ and too often, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’

If we are taking an exam, it’s necessary to get things right in order to pass, but when we are learning something – meditation, t’ai-chi, the piano – it’s the learning and the practice that are important, rather than the matter of doing it right or wrong. ‘You will never get it right until you stop worrying about getting it wrong,’ as my Spanish teacher used to say. Little children often say, ‘I thinked’, instead of ‘I thought’, because they are learning to apply grammatical rules, and finding out where they apply, which is a crucial part of the language process.

A friend says that when he teaches the viola, he just encourages his students in the practice, but when they have to take an exam, external criteria require accuracy. When external criteria are not required in the learning process, however, why do they cause problems?

The ego loves to set itself up as ‘the able one’, as opposed to ‘the bumbler’ who learns a skill (be it the viola or meditation) bit by bit, little by little, with practice.

But there aren’t two people – one to do it and one to watch – there is only one: you. I complained once to Luang Por Sumedho that I didn’t think I was doing the meditation right, and he just twinkled and said, ‘Well, you can’t do it wrong, John.’ And that was a very important lesson for me. My t’ai-chi teacher’s teacher told Sue the same: ‘You can’t do it wrong.’ We set up non-existent boundaries and somewhere to reach, out there somewhere. But we are not out there, we are here; and the only place to reach is where we are.

‘Everything is right here, right now,’ Maezumi Roshi says. ‘And what blocks this realisation? It is my dualistic functioning.’ There’s nothing wrong with this dualistic functioning, he says, it is how our minds work, dividing everything up into good, bad and indifferent. ‘But we are always living the unsurpassed life, as we are. Just be! Just do! Then we will realise the life that has no division.’ There is no other shore, he tells us; there is only this ‘right here, right now’.

We are condition to see everything as a collection of parts, so when we ‘do’ something, we do one part at a time. Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth the First’s minister, wrote that when an artist makes a sculpture, he carves one part, while the rest remains unworked, whereas nature creates all the parts at the same time.

Spring Morning in the Mountains Xie Shichen (Chinese, 1487–ca. 1567) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Luang Por Sumedho said that when he began to meditate on the body, it was on the parts, and it took him some time to learn to see the body as a whole and meditate on it as a whole. But in wu wei, the whole organism is involved – it’s not about this or that, it’s Te the Creative, being, which does not distinguish this or that. For wu wei, form is emptiness and emptiness form.

But the problem for most of us as least, does not go away. Every time we approach a problem anew, we set up further obstacles to its solution. So, are there any ways round this? And what did people do in the past?

We can’t all be like the great Samurai whom his father threw out as useless, and who was reduced to working in his father’s teacher’s kitchen for three years. Then, one day the teacher came in and hit him with the flat of his sword; and from then on he never knew when he would get another whack. And he also became a great Samurai. He had no option but to be spontaneously aware. But what can a non-Samurai do?

The great Japanese film director, Ozu, had the problem of actors who ‘acted’, and consequently looked artificial (and unspontaneous). So he rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed them until they simply delivered their lines, until they were so tired of them (and the novelty had gone) that they just spoke them, just like the rest of us. The result was a masterpiece of naturalness. And it’s something very like that, that we have to do. In meditation, you just do it and do it, until you stop thinking how wonderful you (and the meditation) are. And then perhaps there is a quiet awareness of how addicted the ego is to being perfect, and having all those wonderful thoughts, like a wasp in a honeypot.

There was once a great calligrapher who was painting a new sign for the monastery. But every time he did it, his pupil – who was always on hand, scrutinising everything minutely – would say, ‘Not good, Master,’ and the poor man would have to begin again. Then, one day, the pupil went out for a break, and the Master had a precious few moments alone. The brush applied itself to the paper, and when the pupil returned and looked at the result, he said: ‘A masterpiece!’

We just have to keep practising and realising that every moment is precious, and so are we. Not wonderful perhaps, but precious, and human, and as Maezumi Roshi said, ‘Living the unsurpassed life.’

And remember, meditation is not what you do, it’s what you are.

Click here to read more articles by John Aske.

Whiling Away the Summer, Wu Li (Chinese, 1632–1718) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Whiling Away the Summer, Wu Li (Chinese, 1632–1718) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Categories: Beginners, Buddhist meditation, John Aske

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3 replies

  1. A great article and helpful with overcoming so much in parenting

  2. Love ‘can’t do it wrong’

  3. Simple Wisdom


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