Does the principle of Non-Doing in Shiatsu Mean That We Do Not Have Any Intention in Our Work (Paul Lundberg)

Introduction – not Zen Shiatsu

The short answer to the title question must surely be “No”, but let us look at the reasons for this and perhaps evolve some more satisfying answers. Firstly though, we need to be clear as to what we mean by “non-doing”. A lot of lip service is paid to this idea in the name of Zen, along with certain other favourite themes such as spontaneity and naturalness. The linking of the idea of non-doing with shiatsu itself may have something to do with the term “Zen Shiatsu” adopted by Masunaga as the title of his book (suggested to him by W. Ohashi as advantageous for sales in America, so I have heard), or it might simply be that shiatsu and Zen spring from the same culture and nothing more.

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In fact, although considerable attention is paid in his book to Hara, and to the natural, simple and direct qualities of touch that spring from hara training, and there are occasional references to meditation, Masunaga’s work is hardly concerned with non-doing or the non-attachment with which this is linked. On the contrary, it is full of theories concerning Ki – derived from Chinese Medicine, psychology and biology; also many treatment techniques, diagnostic interpretations and intended outcomes.

So it is not really from Zen Shiatsu that the idea of non-doing reaches us, though perhaps it is from Zen itself. Most of us will be aware of this principle, and to some extent its practical application, in relation to Buddhist or Taoist philosophies, or a mixture of the two. Indeed, Chinese Ch’ang Buddhism absorbed much Taoist influence and was the for-runner of Japanese Zen.

Some personal background

Actually, the classic account, “Zen and the Art of Archery”, that set the Zen trend back in the mid-twentieth century does bring alive the mental and physical discipline that is intrinsic to Zen training – and the concept of effortless effort! For me at least, this little book gave an early insight into the way Buddhism in general and Zen in particular tackle the paradoxical nature of existence, self-realisation and action in the world, From authors such as D.T. Suzuki, Arthur Waley and Alan Watts, I learned more about Buddhist meditation, emptying the mind of conceptual thoughts, the problem of “Wu Wei” (non-action) and its translation into pure spontaneity, “wei-wu-wei” (action – no action). A little later on I learned Buddhist meditation practises myself and so began a more serious inside journey.

Among my many guides on this winding path, that included the study and practise of shiatsu, has been my long-term mentor and friend, Akinobu Kishi. An initiated Shinto priest, Kishi also studied Rinzai Zen and is a master of this approach to life and the art of healing. He had worked with Masunaga for ten years, and was his leading assistant before going his own way. He is outside of the mainstream yet the development of Shiatsu in the last twenty years has undoubtedly been swayed by the crosscurrents of his influence.

I met Kishi and went to Japan to train with him in 1981. Since then I have spent many hours in his company, in formal training and in the enjoyment of everyday affairs. Through his influence I have most concretely developed my own feeling for, and practise of, a way of spontaneous treatment, which is at once formal though with no set form, filled with intention but without specific aims; a ceremony of life and movement full of possibilities, yet essentially empty.

My interest in the Daoyin tradition also led me to study with another master in the field of Qigong and healing, Dr. Shen Hongxun, who’s teaching confirmed Daoyin for me as a practice fundamentally concerned with “effortless effort”. Well, I took this on as a lifetime discipline, so I feel able to contribute something to the present discussion.

Returning to the Question(s)

“Sitting quietly doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself”. This eloquent Zen saying epitomises something essential about meditation and the principle of non-intervention, which is also very Taoist. Lao Tsu wrote, “Do you want to improve the world? I do not think it can be done. The world is sacred and cannot be improved. If you tamper with it you’ll ruin it.” etc. So Taoists are inclined to simply go with the flow. But that means studying the flow. In relation to treatment the question arises, “what is the function of this illness and its symptoms for the person we have with us?” Then we must align ourselves with that function, or our actions will be running counter to the flow.

Back to meditation and “just sitting”, or Zazen

One of the first things that becomes apparent is that doing nothing is impossible. Apart from the obvious things like breathing and thinking the occasional thought, one realises that just sitting is doing something quite definite and actually quite difficult if one intends to persevere. Is this not the idea of the training? If so, then our intention is to train and the practice consists of doing less externally and rather more internally – we are concerned to train the mind and body in a certain way. This means becoming more aware; developing our consciousness principally through the practice of observation, of the self and of the world; perhaps to check out the sensory realms and realise the impermanence or illusory nature of existence, to get free of ego based attachment which brings nothing but suffering, and all the rest of that Buddhist hype.

Once you get into it, meditation quickly reveals the impossible madness of non-doing, non-intervention, just sitting, the whole package. Deciding not to do something can be as radical and influential in the world as doing it. Perhaps we should act, but if so, when? (Timing is everything – Lao Tsu again). And we cannot even escape from this responsibility by deciding not to decide, or ignoring the whole spectrum, or spectre, of new questions and hoping they will all go away. Meditation wakes you up, and it can be a bit frightening. But it settles the matter of having no intention fair and square. If we have no intention we are sleeping. The problem is that many of us are sleeping, or dreaming, even though we do have some intentions. What is our real intention, actually?

And, the sixty-four euro question – What has the whole business or non-business got to do with Shiatsu? What is Shiatsu anyway? Perhaps we should meditate on this before going any further.

Perhaps shiatsu treatment is a meditation in itself and that’s the implication of our topic question? But why involve our clients in our personal practise? They are seeking something particular from us aren’t they, like medicine or healing, diagnosis or advice? Of course they are. We suggested it. So what’s all this non-doing stuff?

Ah, I know! It must mean observing our impulses to act, to treat, to carry out the form, to follow the Ki, to give recommendations, etc. and not just going right on ahead with the whole agenda. “To cure the essence of disease, don’t take even a single dose of medicine or chant one syllable of a healing ceremony. Don’t regard illness as a hindrance or consider it a virtue. Leave your mind unfabricated and free – cutting through the flow of conceptual thoughts ………etc.” (Padmasambhava).

Make some space, that’s it! Ease up, simmer down, relax a bit – sit with it; sit with the client. Do we really need to go on chasing the Ki all day? Won’t the mountain come to Mohammed?

“Non-doing”, nothing, its the questioning that counts – the practice; the vulnerability of not knowing, the sensitivity, and the feeling for life that comes.


© Paul Lundberg began his studies of Shiatsu in 1974, and of Acupuncture in the following year, graduating from The International College of Oriental Medicine in 1978. His interest in Taiji and Qigong dates from this same period. During more than twenty five years of practising and teaching these subjects he has studied continually both Chinese and Japanese healing systems and related contemporary Western psycho-physical dynamic therapies, working with many internationally respected masters. In particular, he has long been associated as a student and collaborator with Akinobu Kishi. Since 1981, when he first went to Japan to study Shinto healing and Seiki with Kishi, he has been concerned with integrating the vision and practice of Seiki into his own work. Co-founder of The Shiatsu College, UK (London, 1986), he later established a branch of the College in Brighton of which he was the director for five years. He is the author of The Book of Shiatsu (I992/2003), now published in twelve languages. He currently lives most of the year in Tenerife where he spends much of his time writing. He continues to teach courses and seminars in the UK., Spain and other European countries. This article is part of the congress volume “European Shiatsu Congress Kiental 2004” (, +41 (33) 6762676).