Detached Action


Hence, Arjuna, always be mindful of acting with no-attachments. Just do what is required of you without desiring any particular outcomes. Just Recollect that all will unfold as it should in the Unborn.

3.20 By the path of Right Action, King Janaka and others like-minded reached spiritual perfection. In such vein you too should perform right deeds as guidance for others.

Swami Prabhupāda writes:

Kings like Janaka were self-realized souls; consequently they had no obligation to perform the prescribed duties in the Vedas. Nonetheless they performed all the prescribed activities just to set examples for the people in general…Although one who is situated in Kṛṣṇa consciousness may not have any interest in the world, he still works to teach the public how to live and how to act. Experinced persons in Kṛṣṇa consciousness can act in such a way that others will follow…[Swami Prabhupāda, Bhagavad-Gita, As It Is, pg 167]

Paramahansa Yogananda writes:

Idlers, and error-stricken immature yogis, citing the actionless state some illumined yogis have attained, conveniently conclude that the Supreme Goal can be attained without action. The Gita therefore reminds them that King Janaka and similar saints attained perfection by right action (and neither by desire-influenced selfish actions nor by premature assumption of actionlessness). (Yogananda, ibid, pg 376)

*Also the advanced Yogin knows that through detached actionless-action (Wu-hsin) all prescribed duties for the benefit of the many are carried out effortlessly.

3.21 Whatever a Mahayogin does sets a transcendent-standard for others to emulate.

Indeed, just the abiding presence alone of such a Mind is enough to inspire others.

3.22 Arjuna, there is nothing in the cosmos that I haven’t already orchestrated and brought to self-perfection; yet my spirit continues to engage the spiritually disabled.

The very Mind of the Blessed One is spiritually vivifying in its limitless actuosity.

3.23 If I should ever cease my spiritual-activity, the multitudes would simply cease to function.

Without the divine spark to initiate right-action, beings would lack the inner-initiative to aspire beyond their limited conditions.

3.24 If my animating principle should cease to function, the cosmos would unravel into sheer nothingness.

3.25 The spiritually obtuse work exclusively-attached to their own material benefit. The spiritually-mature work tirelessly-unattached to any self-gain and thus guide others to selfless action.

3.26 The spiritually-awakened do not shake the disturbed mind of those still attached from the sleep of their own limited vantage-point; rather they continue to work in detached fashion so as to set-example for the lesser-able. 

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23 Responses to Detached Action

  1. n. yeti says:

    What of 3.26? There seems to be profound insight there, vis – a – vis the bodhisattva vow.

  2. n. yeti says:

    “they continue to work in detached fashion so as to set-example for the lesser-able”

    • Vajragoni says:

      “they continue to work in detached fashion so as to set-example for the lesser-able”

      Let’s break this down. Recollect what the Buddha said to Subhuti in the Diamond Sutra:
      “Subhūti, what do you think? You should not claim that the Tathāgata thinks ‘I will save sentient beings.’ Subhūti, do not think such a thing. Why? There are in fact no sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save. If there were sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save, it would mean that the Tathāgata holds the notions of an ego-self, person, sentient being, and life span. Subhūti, when the Tathāgata says ‘I,’ there is actually no ‘ I.’ Yet immature beings take this to be an I. Subhūti, as far as immature beings are concerned, the Tathāgata says that they are not immature beings.”

      Hui-neng captures this in a snapshot: “Good friends, when I say ‘I vow to save all sentient beings everywhere,’ it is not that I will save you, but that sentient beings, each with their own natures, must save themselves.”

      The Blessed One said, “Be a Light unto yourself”. Remember, there are no purple-hearted Buddhas—no messiah that’s going to save sentient beings. No, rather, sentient beings must awaken [on their own] to their Buddha-nature. The following is from the series on the Platform Sutra:

      The immature, stupefied-foolish ones (puthujjana) are those who embrace ideations of separate-existence and an ego-soul (Individual “I”). Blinded by the Five Skandhas, they are oblivious to the bodhi-seed that is within. Being blinded to their true-essential-Self, the Buddha says that they are immature; yet, in their true-potentiality that lays in recognition of their own hidden Buddha-nature, the Buddha implies that they are really not immature-beings. When recognition of the Absolute-Self dawns, something “drops like scales from eyes-long-blind” and the way is open for the Buddha-seed (gotra) to develop and into a Bodhichild enroute to Bodhisattvahood; hence, an immature sentient being awakens into a mature bodhi-being. In this sense, there truly are no “sentient-beings” to be saved, but only children of the Buddha who are empowered through the salvific grace of the Tathagatas to free their own potential seed of Unborn Light.

      Remaining “detached” is to refrain from embracing what Tozen calls one’s “biological-suit”; Awakening to the Light of the Unborn is to fully Recollect one’s own Primordial-Nature—Buddha-suit in the Spirit. The Bodhisattvic Resolve is to remain rooted in this Noble Truth, and by example, point the way for the lesser-able to follow.

  3. n. yeti says:

    That is very helpful, good Vajragoni.

    I like to joke with myself that the only way to offend a Buddhist is to pay them a compliment, but I really must commend the suppleness of your mind and ability to draw patterns and connections among diverse doctrines and teachings.

    • Vajragoni says:

      Your question was an excellent one; it is always my hope that we can exchange insights in this fashion–it helps to add greater-depth to the verses in question.

  4. n. yeti says:

    Well the original scripture (and entire vedic tradition) is an excellent one, and I hope the flexibility and openness with which we have approached it thus far helps to tame the doubts of those who might be genuinely concerned that we are straying into separate teachings.

  5. Methexis says:

    In Lotus Buddhism there’s a curious idea of an “unconscious Bodhisattvahood”. Basically, the Tiantai folk claimed someone might be performing Bodhisattvic activity without realizing it. So not only does (a potential) Bodhisattva lack the idea “I am saving someone”; he may even lack the knowledge of “I am a Bodhisattva performing Bodhisattvic activity!” – and the ignorance of himself is itself is (a form of) upaya.

    This is based on the previous lives of Devadatta from the Lotus Sutra. In the previous lives Devadatta who ploys to murder Shakyamuni, not only was a good man, but he was a teacher of Shakyamuni himself! Devadatta, the murderer, the scoundrel, who ploys to kill Buddha, is given the prophecy of definite future Buddhahood.

    This “Bodhisattvahood without realizing it” is verily the most marvelous upaya. Even forgetfulness of [one’s own] Buddha-Nature can be seen as a skillful strategy (of that very Buddha-Nature). This is a teaching unknown to the Separate Teaching Buddhists.

    The “Separate Teaching” isn’t a wrong teaching. All teachings, all upayas, are right teachings, without exception. Even witchcraft practices such as Tarot reading, or even Hinduism, is ultimately “real” – no Dharma-gate is false. (And, in a way, all are false.)

    It is only that the Integrated Teaching is that vantage point from which that is revealed to be the case (ie. Lotus Sutra). This is the deep meaning of interpenetration.

    For instance, Tozen claims I am a lost case, that I am only full of arrogance. That I fail to pay respect to great Bodhisattvas such as him and Ardent (Zennist), and that this will is my bane. He says he saw in his meditation (visions) that I am a thrall to demonic forces. That he, as a great Bodhisattva, really tried his best to save me, but I am truly a goner.

    While I do not ojbect to his visions, since he is probably located somewhere around the 8th Bhumi while I’m not even a stream-entrer, the Tiantai twist here would be that I am also a Bodhisattva (even without realizing it) – and that with my own stubborn delusion I am training Tozen in the patience-paramita.

    So it is no coincidence that I am here.

    To add to what Vajragoni already expounded as the Common teaching of Mahayana, the Integrated teaching goes even further in saying that not only there is no conception of a sentient being to be saved; but that the very distinction between “saviour” and “saved” is co-dependent. Both are empty, both are identical to each other.

    In this sense, “enlightenment” means not becoming something else. Methexis will stay Methexis; he will not become a Buddha. Nothing becomes anything else. But Methexis as a deluded being MAY realize his own dharma-position in the great mandala. Realizing your own delusion is a form of enlightenment. The future Buddhahood is everyone’s future destiny. But it doesn’t mean one will transform into the other. A dog does not become a Buddha. A dog has Buddha-Nature without becoming a Buddha. Precisely by being a dog, it has Buddha-Nature. The more it is “only a dog”, the more its doggy dharma-position reveals Buddha-Nature.

  6. Methexis says:

    (PS: What I said above is, I believe, also what Krishna’s message to Arjuna is. Arjuna isn’t asking Arjuna to become more like Krishna. Krishna is giving Arjuna the courage to be completely and utterly Arjuna. Arjuna’s wavering prior to this is his cowardly indecision, his Hamlet-esque neurosis … Krishna displays the ultimate form of reality so that Arjuna would fully and completely become Arjuna. When his worries about things that are impenetrable to him are given up, and he realizes the inconceivability or reality, he fully becomes only Arjuna, and goes into battle as Arjuna, fully assuming his dharma-position, fully identifying with his dharma-position; without wavering and self-questioning. That’s at least how I see it, and the greatness of the Gita, from my limited and uneducated point of view.)

  7. Methexis says:

    (PPS: Some confusion above; I wanted to write “Krishna isn’t telling Arjuna to be anything other than Arjuna.”)

    • Vajragoni says:

      Methexis, Arjuna is being called to go beyond Arjuna. Throughout the Gita, Krishna also addresses him by many other epithets—one being, “O, Bharata”—which means “the cherished one.” And what is cherished within Arjuna? The Primordial Spirit. He’s called to awaken to his own Divine nature—not just this limited individual named Arjuna. To limit Spirit with the individual is paramount to Egoism; as the Sugata proclaimed, there is no ego-self, no person, no “I”.

  8. n. yeti says:

    I think this extends beyond tiantai. The Tibetan tradition is quite explicit on finding tulkus (reincarnated masters) as quickly as possible because the shock of entering the womb erases most or all of traces from previous lives. Some children, being close to the womb can remember, but the urgency is real because the very intense training requires as much remembrance from previous lives as possible. We are born forgetful but depending on karma as time goes on forgetfulness takes over. Meditation and right views can help recover past lives…One technique I found useful is to visualize a door. Very recently, perhaps because of tozen mantra, some glimpses seem to have been recalled. I remember being a bird, and was shocked by how lucid this consciousness was, not conceptual but very vivid (also fear). It was only a split second. I’ve been writing a poem about it. But thank goodness you have struck me from the list of advanced practitioners! I muddle along, have some small insight, have always had psychic faculties and weird (actually horrible) experiences in life. I think i am burning past karma. but i can recognize for example vajragoni as further than me. As to tozen I don’t know, I don’t have enough contact to say. Zen mar probably has some more lifetimes to go, but he too appears to have had some awakening in this life, my guess is more than me by far. But it is not a contest, and frankly anyone (except Tibetan who have the tulku thing down to a science ) who claims bodhisattva status is probably full of shit. I think it is quite possible, even most likely, not to know of one’s own enlightenment. One thing we can do is practice being bodhisattva. If you want to enter the stream, this requires weakening of sexual desire and eradication of anger, this I have read in regard to the “fetters”. Even so the idea of “I” should not enter into the thinking. Even if you spit at buddha graffiti on a wall, the karma is there to eventually reach buddhahood. I feel you are on the path and, i think you should continue. But don’t expect much in the way of ego stroking in the zen world! Then again I am not really someone who is skilled or disciplined in practice, not a full renunciant, so take my words with skepticism. Tozen has a low opinion of my practice, so there it is.

  9. n. yeti says:

    The other thing, to contradict my own words, is not to compare yourself to anyone. That’s pure dualism. If you must compare, compare to your own progress, measure this way how far you have come. I take back what I said about any comparison. And you by the way are likely much further along than me, maybe just haven’t lived as long yet. I get very discouraged, but keep going.

  10. n. yeti says:

    Vajragoni is right. All the teachings, even other traditions, urge losing self grasping. Especially buddhism though. That’s why so many big egos in the zen world tell other people not to have a big ego.

  11. n. yeti says:

    If we’ve reached an impasse, would anyone care to broach the subject of “lesser able”? This seems to be implied in Buddha’s graduated scale of teachings, notions of merit and paramitas and so on.

    And yet there seems to be this compulsive doctrinal impulse within buddhism and particularly zen, to _point out_ ego as a matter of practice (as opposed to _find out_), I.e. differentiate, conceptualize, or reify ego. I see this quite frequently in dharma discussions, and it seems fruitful to explore the dialectic in context both of ungoverned ego consciousness and the hobby of ego denial.

    What of the almost neurotic mental habit many buddhists seem to have of focusing on this as a central feature of practice in exclusion of seeing the whole teachings. Is not avid self denial as pernicious as ego affirmation? Where then fits the notion of progressive practice at all in transcendence of comparison and very thought itself?

  12. Methexis says:

    n. yeti interesting comments. The Tibetan tradition is terra incognita to me, I admit

    The Tibetan framework is truly comprehensive, just like Tiantai. Tiantai was truly Catholic – universal, systematizing

    The posit of a transcendent One is the essence of the Separate teaching.

    from the POV of the Integrated Teaching though, Arjuna becomes even more Arjuna upon this self-transcendence. He doesnt evaporate overhead into a haze.

    A thing transcends itself precisely by fully being/becoming itself. “X” means exactly “transcends X”. Everything is identical with its own self-transcendence. This truth is hidden by identifying things with other things. A dharma-position is thus obscured.

    a businessman in a hurry walks through the park, the grass, the trees, the sky – they are all background noise, unnoticed, a visual annoyance at best. But imagine the same park seen through the eyes of a poet or a painter – he sits there for six hours straight contemplating. the grass starts to speak, so to speak, its green-ness its grass-ness its presence becomes absolute, all embracing. As soon as he activates the concept-forming mind and says “oh, this grass is inspiring” the grass is already something else. It is inspiring. it is beautiful … if he allowed the contemplation to go to the end, the grass to overflow the universe with its grassness, to become the arche of existence, then the grass would interpenetrate with everything and EXACTLY AS GRASS transcend grass, and transcend everything else, transcend mind

    The Separate Teaching says All is Mind. The Integrated teaching agrees. But the Integrated teaching adds: also, All is Grass. All is Cicadas. All is Captchas. All is Tozen.

    This is preposterous and unacceptable to the Separate Teaching. I think the Gitas magnificence is precisely that it goes through all these stages. Arjuna transcends himself (sees Mind) but then transcends transcendence itself and goes “back into the battlefield” as more X than X. More Arjuna than Arjuna. Not non-Arjuna but hyper-Arjuna!

    I liked your comment about comparison. I see myself always as the lowest of all Buddhist practitioners, without comparing myself to others. But this Mahayana Way is very inclusive even of us failures. Look at me, I am not even a stream entrer and I am training a 9th Level Bodhisattva. Next life he can be buddha because of me. That is why I have to remain stubborn, arrogant and unenlightened, for his sake, for his training.

  13. n. yeti says:

    Buddha also advised against false humility. I am not suggesting anything by the way. Just pointing out that I think we should have some awareness of what the spiritual priorities are, and be very honest with ourselves what is our problem. For just one example, for much of my early years it was anger. I walked around an angry man, not because I lacked compassion but because I was totally ignorant of how to tame my own mind. With right understanding, with practice, this anger got weaker and weaker. Now I can say with perfect honesty, anger no longer chains my action and my views. I think this is worth understanding, not through the eyes of pride, but in gratitude to the buddhas who showed the way. One sign of spiritual maturity is feeling joyous at the progress of others. But we may also be honest with ourselves, and find courage from our own progress. One cannot hold to spiritual ambition and still celebrate other’s accomplishments, due to envy or comparisons. So neither being false proud, nor falsely humble, but genuine, authentic, with an open mind, not stuck on either side of pride. We should recognize our difficulties arise from mind and nowhere else. If others succeed before us, this is good, it can raise faith. If we succeed first, this is good, it can raise others’ faith.

  14. Methexis says:

    What is a spiritual accomplishment?

  15. n. yeti says:

    In my opinion, that which leads to, manifests, or creates freedom can be considered an accomplishment. But this is not an accomplishment in the worldly sense of dualistic gain. When we cut the bonds to anger, greed, envy, lust, restlessness, pride, falsehood, and even the very desire to exist or to be anihilated, all negative mental states and bewilderment, the action (karma) which breaks these chains is accomplished, or upaya, most especially when it arises spontaneously through the shedding of centuries of ignorance. I think it is clear there may be such accomplishments in practice, otherwise it would be a nihilistic endeavor fraught with grim sorrow.

  16. Methexis says:

    What about the bonds of love, acceptance, good will, altruism, beatitude, calm, truthfulness, and the desire for Nirvana? These chains are even harder to break ,because they’re invisible, and not recognized as chains.

  17. Methexis says:

    There’s also the bond of freedom … what is freedom after all? How do you understand it? What makes you think you’re not absolutely free already?

  18. n. yeti says:

    Buddhism is a progressive practice. Cultivating perfections is karma yoga that helps uproot the seeds of habit energy. You need to know for yourself what this means. How do I know? Because there are patterns in anyone’s life, we see them occur again and again. When something changes in your mind amid these patterns, this awareness should tell you something. Take your cues from what goes on in your life.

  19. Methexis says:

    Instead of answering, you teach, you instruct. Do you want to have you own ashram some day?

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