by no means useless

September 1st, 2020

Not seeming to protect
The paddy field,
Scarecrow standing
On the hillside –
By no means useless.
— Dogen

This is a time of despair. During the Democratic convention, I felt such a sense of buoyance and belonging. I felt as if I had a community, a real live community! And it was huge. But after the last week of lies, corruption, fear, fury, and hate, I no longer feel as if I have a country or any place in it. I’m afraid.

Why aren’t things getting better? Are all my actions, all my words, all my efforts in vain? Why can’t good things happen? Why won’t people do the right thing?

I found this poem by accident, which is how we find everything. While we’re looking for something we want, we find something we need. It was in the last line, by no means useless, that I found encouragement.

Don’t you ever wonder if all your efforts are useless? That you won’t make a difference? That your hope, faith, and good intentions are for naught? That there’s no point?

I sometimes like to examine where I’m at, or where the world is at, compared to the world the old masters lived in. We might think, for instance, that life is so much harder for us, the world so much more evil—and that this ancient practice originated in a simpler time, a better day. But that assumption, like most assumptions, is wrong.

Even as the world seems to be falling apart, there’s a reason to believe in the promise of life, goodness, and supreme usefulness. There’s a reason to be here, now.

By ourselves and for ourselves, we accomplish nothing. These times are terrible, and we are afraid. But this practice is by no means useless. Because open your eyes and look! The Dharma never dies.

“By No Means Useless” dharma talk
Photo by Kiril Dobrev on Unsplash


  1. It will pass. It always does. I am an old woman (and how did that happen), and I have seen wars, corruption, ugliness, and hatred come, almost overwhelm us. And then pass. There is something beautiful that endures. “Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers said. You’re one of them, dear Karen.

    Comment by Susan Hamilton — September 1, 2020 @ 9:42 pm

  2. Thank you. This has been both helpful and up lifting. I wait for your posts.

    Comment by Ruth Andrew — September 2, 2020 @ 2:53 am

  3. These past two months, I start my mornings off by reading one chapter in one of your books and then I sit on my patio and meditate. I’ve fallen off the meditation wagon many times, but this season I feel a stronger thread connecting me to daily practice. Although … although … as expected, the doubt and overwhelm creep in … So these words by Dogen and your talk fortify me and I know I will return again and again when I need to remember why I sit, why I practice. I too look forward to your posts and Soundcloud talks. Thank you for continuing to show up, especially now in these lonely and difficult times.

    Comment by Lisa — September 2, 2020 @ 4:33 am

  4. Thank you Karen. Another wonderful, uplifting post.

    Comment by Tom — September 2, 2020 @ 4:35 am

  5. Thank you. I very much needed this today.

    Comment by Joan Z. Rough — September 2, 2020 @ 6:07 am

  6. Yes I know how you feel. I find it awful.
    Neale Donald Walsch says that the universe is always moving towards improvement, towards becoming better (or something like that) but I fail to see that at the moment.
    Let’s just live in the hope that it is always the darkest before the dawn and that soon things will be different.

    Comment by Simone — September 2, 2020 @ 8:30 am

  7. These are times of great despair. Sometimes so hard that it seems, in laying one’s restless head down to sleep at night, that it would not be the most terrible thing not to awaken. Yet awaken we do, and we do our best, and when we are alert we always find evidence that we are not alone. Thank you for today’s evidence. Shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, day by day.

    Comment by Connie Assadi — September 2, 2020 @ 2:18 pm

  8. Exactly the words I needed, as a mama feeling useless and unable to protect her ? ? ?

    Comment by Deirdre — September 3, 2020 @ 3:15 pm

  9. Some of your subscribers may not have heard, listened to, watched, or read about “The Bull” series by Martin Goodson, on Youtube, of course. He used to do weekly talks on Tuesday which I miss. Yours, like “By No Means Useless,” are just as good! I will listen to the Bull Series again and see how it parallels some of the ideas in your talk. Thank you for your despair antidotes.

    Comment by Larry Misiak — September 8, 2020 @ 7:07 am

  10. Oh my, thank you. A bracing antidote to despair. Deep bow.

    Comment by Nick Webb — September 14, 2020 @ 12:34 am

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