Neither Disturb Nor Be Disturbed

I was out at Sanshinji earlier this month for another sesshin. I usually end up missing the orientation periods due to the travel time involved between St. Louis and Bloomington. This time, however, I was able to be there from the beginning. For the most part it was a “nuts and bolts” sort of meeting during which one of the monks touched on such things as who we should approach about any issues that might arise, when we should be in position for the first period of zazen, how we would be taking our meals, etc. After a round of questions and comments, Reverend Okumura spoke very briefly, closing with a comment that I’ve been savoring on and off ever since: “Please, do not disturb others, and, please, do not be disturbed by others.” We can orient our entire spiritual practice around such an intention, can’t we? Especially if we allow it to encompass acts of charity, i.e., not disturbing others with our indifference.

Please, do not disturb others. When we’re engaged in communal practice – living together in close quarters for a period of time – we endeavor to give each other the supportive gift of our presence and our practice, even as we endeavor to stay out of everyone’s way so that their practice can be as deep as it can possibly be. But even with a rigorous schedule like the one at Sanshinji during the Antaiji-style sesshins, there is still plenty of opportunity for individual idiosyncrasies to arise. Some need regular stretching or bathroom breaks in between sittings, some don’t; some need to adjust their posture frequently during sittings, while some sit stoically from bell to bell; some sleep solidly and snore as they do, even as their bunkmates sleep lightly and hear every snort and sputter. The simple fact is, no matter how much we might intend to honor and support others with our comportment, we will still disturb them in some way, large or small, by the very fact that we exist in the unique form in which we exist. And that brings us to the other part of Okumura’s closing comment…

Please, do not be disturbed by others. This seems to be the primary focus of a great many spiritual books, Buddhist and other. Quite often the goal of beginning practitioners is that of surviving in a world that is too loud, too fast, too violent, too shallow, too meaningless, etc. The world is a disturbing place, in large part because others are disturbing to us. However, there is a well-known truism that is pertinent to this discussion: it is easier to wear shoes than to carpet the whole world. And so it is that a good part of spiritual practice relates to learning to put on shoes. Can we exist in a world, no, can we thrive in a world in which our neighbor fidgets, our bunkmate snores, and that dude is blocking the hallway yet again stretching out his tight quadriceps? Can we thrive in a world in which mass culture berates us at every turn, those wacked out religious fundamentalists are at it again, and yet another special interest group is squawking about a pet issue that we simply don’t find deserving?

It was the last day of sesshin and even though I’d fairly settled into its routine I was still being worn down by its rigor. I settled into the library to take a nap after breakfast, taking care to set the alarm on my watch to wake me up just before the next scheduled sitting. It was unseasonably cool and the breeze wafting in through the windows began to feel a little bit chilly. I reached for a spare zabuton (sitting mattress) and pulled it over me like a blanket, then to settle into corpselike repose. Unfortunately, the thick zabuton muffled the sound of my beeping wristwatch and I ended up sleeping right through its alarm, and the beginning of zazen. “Oh, well,” my mind thought after waking up and realizing what had transpired, “I’ll use the rest of the time to take a nice shower.”

It was in between sittings an hour or so later that I ran into the monk who’d presided over the orientation period as we were passing in the hallway.

“FYI,” he said quietly, “there’s no showering during zazen.”

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed in a hushed voice. “I did not know that. Was it that loud?”

“It’s okay,” he replied with a smile, conveying at once that indeed it was, but that I should just let it go. Yes, disturbing others comes easily enough, even when we are very much trying to refrain from doing so.

A couple of hours after that a wave of people needing to use the restroom swept out of the zendo at the beginning of kinhin (walking meditation) – leaving the door wide open in their wake. “Surely someone’s going to realize that they left the door open,” my mind thought as the thunderous sound of urine streaming into a toilet bowl filtered into where the rest of us were watching our breath, and our minds, half-step by half-step. Momentarily, the doan bowed and made his way to the door. “He’s going to close it,” my mind thought, but he kept on walking, and the sound of urine kept on streaming. “Gosh, I hope my showering wasn’t this loud,” my mind thought, and then it settled back into simply watching what was happening, and not being disturbed by others.

Please, do not disturb others, and, please, do not be disturbed by others. When that “jerk” cuts us off on the highway and our mind rushes in to label it a selfish or disrespectful or inconsiderate act, perhaps we can leave open the possibility that they didn’t even realize we were there. And when we accidentally steer our car into the path of another and have to listen to them lean on their horn for far longer than it actually takes to simply remind us that we should take greater care, perhaps we can leave open the possibility that we scared the bejesus out of them and their anger is really an expression of that fear. Please, do not disturb others, and, please, do not be disturbed by others. If we pay attention we can find myriad moments each day in which the honoring of this intention allows the interconnectedness of our lives to unfold with much greater ease and peace and calm. I’m working on it, anyway!

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. Hi Maku, great post! I like your new breezy approach (not that there was anything the matter with your earlier posts). The "do not disturb, do not be disturbed" dictum is like the Golden Rule but I want to suggest that (in keeping with my conversion sermon) that to disturb others and to be disturbed can also have their valuable uses. For example, we should be disturbed by Paula Deen's, or anyone else's racist language. We should seek to disturb those among us who would engage in harmful behavior towards others at least sufficiently that they will cease that behavior. So, I argue that maybe it's not so much the disturbance as it is the attachment to it that brings us all to grief. You can be disturbed and be disturbing if the situation warrants but it's holding on to this that is the source of neurosis, bad vibes, etc. What do you think?

  2. Good to hear from you, Bob! Thanks for reading. I totally agree with you. Although I was generalizing advice given prior to a meditation retreat, I do think it is a valid generalization - to a point. Perhaps an extreme adherance to "neither disturb nor be disturbed" would be an attempt at quietism - something that I would not find in keeping with the bodhsattva vow to save all beings. I agree that we should be willing to disturb people if that is the only way that protecting innocent lives might be accomplished. Certainly the Civil Rights campaign could not (and cannot) be furthered without a willingness to disturb those in power. Some Buddhists do tend to veer toward quietism, and that is why Socially Engaged Buddhism has come to the fore as an alternative approach. In other words, there may be some who disagree with both of us!

    I think that for the vast majority of social interactions the "do not disturb..." approach is the right one. I also think that it is always at least a fruitful starting point. One could argue that without some attempt at regulating our level of disturbance we cannot be certain that we are not simply acting in accord with our karmic conditioning. However, if we reflect upon our possible courses of action and ultimately cannot find another way to protect those deserving of protection, then perhaps becoming a disturbance is the right course of action. We can't count on others NOT being attached to the fact that they were disturbed by us, however. That is their karma, and it becomes ours as well! My understanding of the bodhisattva ideal is that we must be willing to accept the karmic consequences that arise from our actions on behalf of all beings. That is actually very much in keeping with the responsibilities of those who engage in acts of civil disobediance.

    To summarize my rambling reply: I think it is the practice of not being disturbed that helps us to clarify precisely when being a disturbance is the right course of action. I hope that makes sense! Thanks again, Bob!

  3. Hi Mark! Still reading your blog and still enjoying your writing! Hope this finds you well.


  4. Thank you, Stacey! All is well here. I hope you and family are enjoying a very pleasant summer of activity... as well as passivity! Hope to see you soon. Mark


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