Action and Non-Action

By Chuang Tzu Chuang Tzu

Translated By Thomas James Merton

The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.
It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything.
The sage is quiet because he is not moved,   
Not because he wills to be quiet.   
Still water is like glass.
You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.
It is a perfect level;
A carpenter could use it.
If water is so clear, so level,
How much more the spirit of man?   
The heart of the wise man is tranquil.   
It is the mirror of heaven and earth   
The glass of everything.
Emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.   
This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here   
Their resting place.
Resting, they are empty.

From emptiness comes the unconditioned.
From this, the conditioned, the individual things.   
So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises:
From stillness, action. From action, attainment.
From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action
And is, therefore, their attainment.
For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care
Fruitful in long years.
Joy does all things without concern:
For emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,   
Silence, and non-action
Are the root of all things.

Thomas Merton, “Action and Non-Action” from The Way of Chuang Tzu. Copyright © 1965 by The Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (1977)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Chuang Tzu


Subjects Buddhism, Religion

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Buddhism, Religion


Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.