The Value of Right Action and Non-attachment to its Outcome


After more than six years living in China, for the first time, I took the Guangzhou to Hong Kong train this afternoon. And I thought I’d do something productive during this marvelous ride. So here goes.

Two days ago, I asked my mentor for a business advice. “I thought you’re still teaching,” he said with a chuckle. “The last time we met you told me that teaching was your calling. I don’t think you need to do anything else.” His response saddened me. Instead of feeding me with ideas, he gave me this advice:

“Read Bhagavad Gita,” he insisted prior to departing. “You may discover something.”

“Bhagavad Gita” literally means “The Song of the Blessed One.” It a series of poem that takes place on the battlefield of Kuru at the beginning of the war. The protagonist Arjuna, ordered his charioteer, Krishna (who turns out to be God incarnate) to drive into the open space between the two armies, where he surveys the combatants. Overwhelmed with dread and pity at the imminent death of so many brave warriors - brothers, cousins, and kinsmen - he drops his weapons and refuses to fight. This is the cue for Krishna to begin his teaching about life and deathlessness, duty, non-attachment, the Self, love, spiritual practice, and the inconceivable depths of reality. The dialogue which fills the seventeen chapters of the Gita is really a monologue, much of it wondrous indeed.

The message of the Gita and why my mentor insisted the understanding of it seemed simple: “You have the right to your actions but never to your actions’ fruits. So you must act for the action’s sake and not be attached to inaction.”

Instead, “Do your allotted work but renounce its fruit - be detached and act - have no desire for reward, and act,” according to the Gita. In other words, he who is wholly equipped and engrossed in the due fulfillment of his task, but without desire for the result, is said to have renounced the fruits of his right action.

Secularly, it is quite difficult to decide which actions should be acted upon versus the ones that shouldn’t. To explain such contradiction, I tuned my attention to yet another great classic, which has numerously guided me through life’s most difficult situations. That is, Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching.”

Lao Tzu is a central figure whose life is in perfect harmony with the way things are. This is not an idea; it is a reality; I have experienced it. The Master has mastered Nature; not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming it. Within his work, Lao Tzu emphasizes the concept of wéi wú wéi (为无为) which literally translates “doing not-doing”.

   Less and less do you need to force things,

   until finally you arrive at non-action.

   When nothing is done,

   nothing is left undone.

A tai-chi master can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action.

When the Gita’s teaching of right action and Lao Tzu’s concept of non-action are tethered together, there is a clear distinction for which action should be chosen. For example, the act of fulfilling your family’s “basic” needs would be considered righteous because you’re fulfilling your task as a father and husband. Similarly, a physician may have acted to cure the sick because he’s fulfilling his duty as a healer. Both would be performing the right action. However, when one acts upon the fulfillment of greed, or out of jealousy, he’d be committing the wrong action.

Still, how can one renounce his or her desire for fruit? While it may seem difficult to avoid grasping the outcome, I’ve had greater success in having a detached or neutral perspective on the matter. Instead of immediately and automatically responding to an impulse, I’d be better off pausing and reflecting it.

Rather than being controlled by the desire to make a lot of money when running your business, for example, you’d better off acknowledging the cue and maybe even letting it pass.

The same idea applies to worries and anxieties. Rather than getting trapped over a stream of thoughts about possible outcomes in the future, when you observe and mentally note your thoughts, you’ll be ensured they do not stay longer than they need to.

The whole idea is to pause, observe, and acknowledge as best you can. That simple.

Looking back from the hilltop, all I ever wanted in life is to have meaningful work. I’ve struggled numerously in the past. I’d always brood over results and often lost my nerve in performing my duties. I was impatient and didn’t realize that impatience gives vent to anger; and then I began doing unworthy things. I was hopping from action to action, never remaining faithful to any.

That said, having gone through the many bitter experiences, now I realized that someone who broods over results is like a man given to objects of the senses: he is always distracted, he says good-bye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation, and he therefore resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end.

With time, and consistently following the right practice, for every emerging thought, there is always space. This empty space is like a cue for me to pause, observe, and acknowledge my thoughts one by one. Doing so will give birth to a reaction - or inaction - that is without any interference of the conscious will. And it must be done for both the action and its outcome.