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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Human Being or Human Doing?


Derek, last week I heard a spiritual guru say: "Remember, you are a human being, not a human doing. This is the highest wisdom of the Tao."

I thought this was good advice, but I did not know it was a Tao expression. I did some research, but was unable to find any references to it in Tao literature. Can you help me get more information?


The expression itself does not come from Tao teachings or Chinese culture. The wordplay on "human being" is specific to the English language. It is one of the many lines in the repertoire of motivational speakers, similar to "Luck means Living Under Correct Knowledge" and "the best way to handle procrastination is to put it off."

The meaning of the expression, of course, is that we are often too stressed out by the many things we think we have to do. We need to take a step back from all the frantic doing and spend a moment just being. We can simply be in many different ways: meditation, prayer, or just a quiet moment alone.

The closest match to this idea in Tao teachings is wu wei, which some have translated as "non-action" but is actually closer to "minimal action" or "unattached action." The concept is not that we should not do anything at all, but that we can often achieve more by doing less when our actions are in alignment with the Tao.

Does this match with wu wei mean that the idea behind "human being, not human doing" is indeed the highest wisdom of the Tao, as the guru claims? No, not quite. It is good advice (as you have noted) that can get people to realize that they are rushing around unnecessarily. As such, it is an excellent tonic for our busy modern lives, but it is only a basic concept from the Tao perspective.

What, then, would be the highest wisdom of the Tao? In order to explore this question, we should realize that either-or choices are often illusory. That is certainly the case here, because it is much more accurate to say you are both a human being and a human doing. You embody not only the states of being but also the dynamics of action. There is no need to deny either.

Consider these two aspects as a manifestation of yin and yang within you. They are complements that support one another. The "being" part of life - relaxing, resting, recuperating - is the yin that recharges your batteries for yang, the "doing" part. Conversely, after an honest day's work, the good job you have done gives you the satisfaction and peace of mind to fully enjoy being together with friends and loved ones. The two give rise to one another and need to be kept in balance.

In this respect, the sages follow nature. They see the patterns of nature where activities such as wind and rain are invariably followed by calmness. They also see that calmness, just like activities, cannot last forever either. The two alternate back and forth. In emulation of this, the sages see both "being" and "doing" in themselves. They are capable of stillness and silence, but just as the ocean cannot always be at peace and the lake cannot always be placid, they are also capable of diligent work and meaningful actions.

Just as the sages emulate nature, we can emulate their wisdom. Next time you hear someone say "human being, not human doing," give yourself a little smile. You understand the basic level of the Tao is that one should slow down and take a pause that refreshes. At the same time, you also understand the higher level where you can embrace being and doing. When it comes to life, both are essential!


Bao Pu said...

Hi Derek,

I like this blog post. At first I was tempted to argue that we are Human doings, according to the ancient Chinese view. We are always in relations with other people and with our environment and this relationship involves alot of "doing" (including lack of doing/interfering). And, when it comes to things like love, can we really say we love someone if we never show it? If we never act lovingly or treat another with love?

In the movie Batman Begins, there is a line said to Bruce Wayne, which seems to have got a lot of people talking. Bruce's childhood friend Rachel sees him living a life of debauchery and excess but he defends himself by saying that inside he's truly a good person. She replies, "It is not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you." And I think in this context, this is a true aphorism.

But, the way you've explained it - that both are necessary - makes alot of sense too. And of course, you are absolutely correct, imo, that the ancients advise us to slow down and to realize that some things don't need to be "done" or interfered with.

Regarding "we can often achieve more by doing less when our actions are in alignment with the Tao."

You may be aware that there has been numerous discussions online about this "alignment with Tao," specifically, can we be out of alignment with Tao? Have you written about this before? If not, I would love to hear/read your thoughts about it.

Good health and happiness,
Bao Pu

Derek said...

Hi Scott! It is wonderful to hear from you.

It did not occur to me to associate that memorable line from Batman Begins to this topic, but you are absolutely right. My actions define me more so than my words or my conviction of who I am inside.

Can we ever be out of alignment with the Tao? That depends on the definition of alignment. I follow the Chinese thinking on this subject, where the Tao is compared a river, where one can move along with, or against, its currents.

In this context, living a healthy, happy and effortless fashion would be to flow with the Tao and be in alignment with it, while suffering and strife would be the usual result of fighting the flow and being out of alignment with its direction.

Great health and happiness to you as well. Thank you!