The Sage Does Nothing

In the summer of 1978 i went to summer school at Stanford.  Unlike the regular program at Stanford, anyone who can afford it can attend their summer school.  I also joined the Stanford Karate club, which was atypical for a marshal arts training club.

The instructor, a guy name George Pegalo, did not believe in the belt system, which was especially at this point in time, all the rage.  ”A black belt means nothing” he said, because so many schools were designed to get people their black belts without the real intensive training which accompanied the original art.  He also spent the second half of the class doing eastern philosophy, especially the Tao Te Ching.

Part of his unusual training for us was to ride the 38 Geary bus in San Francisco, standing int he isle without holding on to anything.  This bus is famous for going fast thru the windy streets of this city.  He also took his students to the Tactile Gallery of the Exploratorium, convinced that we were too dependent on our vision sense and this would help us shift our experiences.

these characters were on my t-shirt


At one point during the semester he offered students in his class $10/hour to work as security at the Herbie Hancock concern which was happening at the greek theatre in Berkeley.  I volunteered.  I showed up on the appointed day and they were handing our t-shirts with these two large Chinese characters on them.  I was skeptical.

“I wont wear the shirt unless you tell me what the t-shirt says” i protested.

“It says ‘the sage does nothing, yet nothing is left undone’” my master replied.

I thought for a moment and then said “I wont wear the t-shirt unless you tell me what it means”

Pegalo laughed and said “It means that you respond instantly and appropriately to the surrounding situation without thinking about it”

Okay, i can wear this i thought.

The Greek Theatre in Berkeley is a big place and there were lots of security around the long back fence.  This was unusual, lot so people had experience that there was insufficient security to police the perimeter and so there was a long history of people being able to climb the fence and get into the event for free.

Thus when there were a number of people walking around the back fencing looking for their opportunity to climb it and get in for free.   And the other security people (who were hired for this one event and would never return) were not especially invested in the job and were spending more time looking at the stage than at the fence.  This caused someone to climb the fence about 20 meters from me, while the security person looked the other way and did not even notice them.

I lept into action, as this person ran thru the amphitheater into the stand, i chased them, at first without them being aware of me.  When they sat down i arrived in front of them and confronted them.  With all the authority my yellow shirt with indecipherable characters on it gave me.

The intruder now stood up and was at least 6’6? tall and had perhaps 50 lbs of muscle more on his body than i did.  And i as he pulled back his fist to punch me i flashed on the fact that i had not consider what might happen in this moment and things were looking pretty bad.

But miraculously, before my assailant could get off a punch, this tiny female cop pulled him backwards over his bench stuck her finger in his face and shouted “Game over mister, you lose.” And they were off.

i went back to my post somewhat shaken and thinking a lot about my t-shirt.  The sage does nothing, immediate and appropriate response, not thinking just doing.

This became my favorite shirt and i wore it all the time.  One day walking down the streets of Ithaca a man stopped me and said.

“Do you know what you shirt says?”

Remember this shirt has only two characters on it.

“I think i do, but what do you think it says?” i asked

“It says you are a lazy man.”