Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Free from action

One of the quotes that is in my journal, (and now rotating through the Wayside Pulpit) is a quote from Eihei Dogen Zenji, the founding teacher of Zen. He said to “Honor the man who is through with learning and free from action”.

Now, I know what he meant at the time he said it. He meant to honor the man, or person, who had dedicated themselves fully to the life of meditation and enlightenment. He also did not say that this was the only kind of man to be honored.

But as I thought about that quote, I thought of how easily it could be interpreted literally. How easy it would be to extrapolate many meanings from that simple phrase that were never intended by the teacher.

For example, it would be easy to interpret from that quote that the founder of Zen thought we should all be “through with learning” and “free from action”. I could see a whole school of Buddhism develop which banned educational books, and which required that the priests and students to disengage completely from the world. Funny, I think I visited a school like that a few years ago. When I was touring, one of the monks at the school told me they had a library once, but had gotten rid of it because “Zen was not about reading”.


It is easier to take the teachings of the great masters literally, and completely out of any kind of cultural context. It brings to mind Christian Churches who handle snakes (because of one bible verse) or who interpret Paul’s words in Romans about pedophilia as if it applies to the modern cultural understanding of homosexuality. The teachings of Jesus are like those of any other teachers, including Dogen Zenji… they have to be understood through our modern cultural contexts (just as they were understood through the cultural contexts of their own time).

The world is too interconnected now for Buddhism (or even Christianity) to pretend there is ultimate value in being through with learning and free from action. If you stop learning, the world moves past you, and if you disengage from action, then you cease to be relevant in a world of increasing inequality, strife, and injustice.

But, the words of Dogen Zenji still point at a truth… that without the kind and compassionate awareness that arises from a practice of meditation, we are without the foundational connection to what is real to be able to change the world.

 Yours in Faith,


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