In the West, there’s a common debate about whether the means justifies the ends or the ends justifies the means. Many heated discussions during my student Asian American activism days focused on that topic. We never reached a conclusion because the group always split pretty much 50-50.
Maybe stalemate was inevitable because we were looking in the wrong direction from the start.
Contrast that means-end approach with the following Chinese saying:
When the right man uses the wrong means, the wrong means work in the right way.
When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.
My first Zen teacher, Tanouye Rotaishi put it more simply: Human being is more important than human doing.
That’s the fundamental difference between the traditional Eastern versus Western ways of weighing what’s more important. In the West, the discussion focuses more the means and ends; in the East, focus tends to fall on the character of the person and less on the act. That is, when the being is correct, actions following will be correct.
Thus, the question becomes: how do you make sure that your being is correct?
In Zen, we talk about the “action of non-action.” This is not the same as doing nothing. Far from it. Rather, it is acting without ego: seeing just as is and hearing just as is. If seeing and hearing just as is, then action is carried out without intervening hesitation. We call this moving on sonomama – “just as you are.”
The danger, of course, is the conceit of thinking you are acting without ego and your actions are correct when in fact your actions are the furthest from that. It could be when you think that very thought, you actually are most likely right in the middle of a deep and murky ego puddle. Egads!
Rather than expending your energy wondering and thinking these thoughts, instead, work on developing your character, your being.
That kind of work takes more time than the all the days and more effort than I and my fellow student activists ever devoted to those debates so long ago about means and ends.
Fortunately, now, after all these years, I have my answer to the debate: it is neither the means nor the ends. Instead of looking outward, look inward: It is human being that is more important than human doing.