Apr 14

How to (Not) Give a F**k Like a Zen Master

how-to-not-give-a-fuckyou must learn to give a fuck and not give a fuck at the same time.

— jordan bates (@_jordan_bates) August 10, 2015

About three months ago, I whimsically typed the above tweet and hurtled it out into the twittersphere for whomever’s wandering eyes might happen upon it.

The tweet was basically a passing thought, a random splash from my ceaseless stream of consciousness.

But I continued to reflect upon it. Masticated it. Digested it.

And I came to see it as a particularly concise, memorable summary of many of the transformative perspectives I’ve gained through studying Zen and Taoism.

Not Giving a Fuck

On one hand, Zen and Taoism are often popularly summarized as Philosophies of Giving Zero Fucks.

No joke: There is actually a great Taoism website called HowToNotGiveAFuck.com.

And one time on the Internet I stumbled upon this quote, which is supposedly from the philosopher and countercultural hero, Robert Anton Wilson:

“After years of vehement and passionate study of the ideograms of the Tao Te Ching, I think I have summarized it all into a couple of words . .

Fuck it.

And if you can’t fuck it, ignore it. It’ll go away.”

Indeed, Taoism (and Zen, its close cousin) encourage us to relinquish expectation, desire, preferences, and attachments. The vast majority of people in the world have endless expectations, desires, preferences, and attachments, but Taoism and Zen are like, “Nah, you should let go of all of that shit. It’s only going to make you suffer a shit-ton.”

The Taoist sage, as illustrated by the Tao Te Ching and other Taoists texts, is something of a feather on a breeze, a bobber atop a wave, drifting along in whatever direction the currents may flow, eternally content with whatever comes because (s)he does not give enough of a fuck to bother with preferring one thing over another. All things and all experiences are viewed as necessary, complete, sufficient, sacred even.


Giving a Fuck

And yet, I’ve always found it slightly problematic to use “not giving a fuck” as a shorthand for the Zen or Taoist approach to life.

I think “not giving a fuck” can too easily be associated with a reckless brand of nihilism that values nothing whatsoever and wouldn’t bat an eyelash at malicious violence.

It might be true that a realized Taoist or Zen Buddhist would see acts of violence as necessary expressions of the Tao, or the Buddha-nature, accepting them with equanimity.

However, based on everything I’ve read, the realized Taoist or Zen Buddhist would not partake of malicious violence, would not deliberately inflict suffering on another being.

Both Taoism and Zen emphasize that gaining true insight into the Tao or the Buddha-nature results in compassion toward other sentient beings. 

Once one realizes that all beings are “cut from the same cloth,” involved in the same predicament-opportunity, experiencing suffering, one gains a deep empathy for the condition of all sentient life. One does not wish to inflict harm upon any living being.

From the Taoist or Zen perspective, the person who “gives zero fucks” and is prone to violence is still consumed by delusion, unable to see the essential sameness of themselves and the being they wish to injure. This person has not recognized that hatred, anger, and ill will poison the vessel which carries them as much as anyone toward which they are directed.

Combining the Two

And so the realized Taoist or Zen Buddhist does give a fuck. And also doesn’t give a fuck.

The sage seems to care on some level about the well-being of all sentient beings, having lost the capacity to maliciously harm any life-form. And yet the sage also, supposedly, has no preferences, attachments, desires or expectations.

These two items seem almost self-contradictory, paradoxical. Possessing compassion would seem to be the same as having a preference, or desire, for good will, peace, non-violence, right? And aren’t those Zen Buddhists and Taoists supposed to, like, have no preferences and desires?!



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