- Alex Chong Do Thompson
July 15, 2017
Intoku: The Perfect Response To Suffering
Intoku is a Japanese word that translates to, “Good done in secret”. In Zen Buddhism, it’s often used to describe the act of doing unpopular jobs without expecting praise or reward. For example, the guy who cleans the Zen center’s toilets every day without being asked is practicing intoku. By performing acts such as this it’s believed that the practitioner will gain merit and realize enlightenment more quickly.
That being said, intoku didn’t appeal to me early in my practice. In the face of layoffs, rowdy neighbors, and political unrest it seemed like the Zen equivalent of standing around a campfire and singing kumbaya. It sounded good on paper, but did it really fix anything? My opinion changed, however, when I noticed how house plants cope with suffering.
Case in point, there’s a money tree (Pachira Aquatica) sitting peacefully on my desk as I write this. Sadly, it doesn’t drop dollar bills from its branches, but my tree has a remarkable talent for turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. And it does that all day, every day without fail.
My money tree is completely unperturbed when I have a bad day at work, when my neighbors shoot off fireworks at 2 am, or when disturbing news stories pop up on my social media feed. It just keeps pulling nutrients from the soil, sprouting new leaves, and purifying the air I breathe without missing a beat. This is the essence of intoku; to keep doing good works no matter how much suffering occurs around us.
However, the story doesn’t end there. The second part of practicing intoku requires us to do good works IN SECRET. In other words, we must do them without the expectation of getting something in return. Of course, that’s not to say that receiving validation from others is a bad thing. But if we’re being honest, most kind acts go unrewarded. People don’t always say, “Thank you,” when we hold the door for them, children aren’t always respectful to their parents, and sometimes bosses don’t appreciate our hard work.
But that’s where we find the true marrow of intoku. Because once we learn to do good works without desiring praise, we liberate ourselves. We stop looking to others for validation, and our acts of kindness become their own reward. When toilets are dirty, we clean them. When people are hungry, we feed them. And we go to bed at night happy in the knowledge that in a world filled with suffering, we made things a little better.
This is something all of us can do. Each of us has a role to play in the world, and we make life better for everyone when we fulfill that role in a kind and loving way. Intoku provides a method for doing that. We just need to be willing to try.
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