There's a line between “what we are,” and “what we do.” It's sometimes very blurry, sometimes may even overlap, and sometimes diametrically opposites. It's all based on self-identification. Depending on work, we may conduct myself as an engineer, or banker. If we're in a political mode, the identification might be as Democrat or Republican, Labor or Tory, Trotskyite or Stalinis, Liberal or Conservative. Vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, male, female, gay, bi, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Forest monk, Shin, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Jew, Orthodox Jew, Hasidic, Reform, etc., and that's a lot of round holes we square pegs might be forcing ourselves into!
These demarcations often have behaviors we associate with them, and quite often, we make ourselves into cookie-cutter images of what we imagine those labels demand. Likewise the label we pick may even determine what hole we think we should dive into. It's one thing to be environmentally conscious and then become a member of the Greens, it's another to look at them and start acting like we think a Green should act. Neither is particularly good or bad, after all, we haven't necessarily thought of every way to be environmentally conservative and may have something to learn from what appear to be like-minded individuals.
To one extent or another, we also try to force others into round holes, and they may have a totally different hole picked out for themselves. It may come as a real shocker to find out that Hitler was a vegetarian and that he was kind to dogs. Animal rights activists might also be vegetarian dog lovers, but that doesn't mean they also have to be Nazis any more than Hitler was a tree-hugging liberal. “Fascists are evil!” we might say, and then to find out that they aren't evil 100% of the time can shake up some of our deeply held preconceptions. And lest we forget, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, no tree-hugger was he, at least according to conventional wisdom. These examples of “other-identifications” are as mistaken as our own “self-identifications.”
Following the Buddhist path is to lead to liberation. Following the Zen path leads to seeing things as they truly are, to experience it fully, to see our True Nature, to help others, and thus become liberated. One could even say that we're already liberated, if we looked for something that held us in chains, we'd see that there really isn't anything. And not just in an “emptiness” nothing, but in reality “nothing” except our own thinking. To be liberated from our thinking is to stop thinking “I'm this,” “You're that,” and because of this and that, it means I must do something and you do something else. Dropping this thinking includes even the notion of unity and differentiation, the notion that there's a fallback position when things get difficult. We make difficult for ourselves, and we really don't need a fallback position. That doesn't really exist either.
The bottom line is that there is no more a reason than an excuse for doing what we do. Negotiating the line I mentioned above can be tricky. Do I not eat meat because I'm a “vegetarian” or am I feeling compassion for all beings and therefore don't eat meat, so I look for the vegetarian section of a menu? Anything I do because I'm a “Zennist” is a poor excuse for doing it. Do I do things because I think it's correct action, and that just so happens to be what the Buddha would have done? Better reason for action. When I go the grocery store, do I put the cart in the little cart hut because that's what a Zennie “should” do? Do I see that someone's livelihood depends on people not putting carts back so he can gather them back up--which is what puts food on his family table? Honestly, sometimes I'll do either, largely dependent upon a whim.
To use the grocery store example further, when they ask “Paper or plastic?” which do I choose and why? Do I immediately say “paper” because I think of myself as environmentally conscious Buddhist, and the Buddha wouldn't have used paper, so ergo I must use paper?. Making the choice isn't that straightforward if I really look at it. Paper requires trees to be cut down. These trees help the atmosphere, provide habitats for animals, help stop soil erosion and so forth. The power saws used to cut them down requires power, obviously. That power is most likely a fossil fuel, the trucks that transport the timber to the sawmill likewise uses gasoline, the saws at the mill use electricity, which may have been produced by coal, nuclear, or maybe by wind, solar, or water power. The rest of the paper-making process likewise requires power, and on it goes. As it turns out, I bring my own bags, because Northampton Mass has banned plastic shopping bags, so it's a moot point here. Previously I went with paper because for all the shortcomings manufacturing entails, plastic ends up not decomposing for the most part, so the long term result is probably the worse choice. Neither choice is pristine.
Until we stop creating karma, our actions will by and large not be pristine. Some may be wholesome and positive, some negative, and some neutral. The priest at an old Zen sangha I attended once said that meditation is one of the few karmically neutral actions we can make. Virtually any action we take--writing, grocery shopping, driving, being with loved ones, working--all involve other people, and therefore will have consequences. In my estimation, the same action will be perceived differently by others involved in the ripple effect of the action. The same person may have radically different reactions to the same phenomena, depending on the flexibility of perceptions. The reaction is dependent on any number of other factors in addition to the action I have taken. It would be very naive and self-important to think my actions happen in a vacuum, that they're the only stimulus that elicits a response. Even when I'm “just writing” this, the thoughts that come to me, the mood I'm in, my physical environment all figure into creating that “just.” In reality, what is it even possible to “just” do?
As Bodhisattvas, the job of “saving all beings” may be as simple as trying not to do harm. Maybe the next notch up is to try to be helpful. We can't worry about how this help will necessarily be received, we can't be paralyzed by the possibility that an action may be taken to be other than in the spirit we intended. We do what we can, as skillfully as we can, to be of benefit to not only the one person we're interacting with, but with the realization that the ripples of our action will flow out like Indra’s Net. This is how we save “all” beings--by respecting and taking care of ourselves so we can help the next being with whom we come into contact,
If we aren't paying attention, acting mindfully if you like, then our blind wandering throughout our environment may indeed result in our actions being “Unintentionally Consequential.”