Posted on in On Our Radar by Alex Chong Do Thompson

Do Good Works in Secret


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 is a very strange practice on the surface. In the face of layoffs, rowdy neighbors, and political unrest, it seems like the Zen equivalent of standing around a campfire and singing “Kumbaya.” It sounds good on paper, but does it really fix anything? Yes, it does, and we can see that for ourselves by simply observing how plants interact with the world.

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 a.m., or when disturbing news stories pop up in 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.

woman's face with finger near the lips and sign "DO GOOD" on the eyes

But the practice doesn’t end there. 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.

As social creatures, it’s only natural that we enjoy receiving praise from others. This is especially true when we go out of our way to do a good deed. But if we’re being honest, most kind acts go unrewarded. People don’t always thank us 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.

Alex Chong Do Thompson is a former Marine who now earns his living as a business analyst. He splits his free time between social justice work, cycling, and deepening his meditation practice.

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