My kid received several books for Christmas and one of them was called Three Samurai Cats. In it, a lord’s home is invaded by an atrocious rat, so he goes to the local monastary to ask for a samurai cat to get rid of it. The first one is quickly bested in combat, the second is dumb enough to be tricked into putting his sword away, and the third one spends all day every day sleeping on a mat ignoring the rat and pissing off the lord until a rice ball festival comes up and the rat takes all the sticky rice to make his own giant rice ball, under which he subsequently becomes trapped. The cat agrees to free the rat if he will gtfo, with a threat of death otherwise, so the rat obliges.
The lord pays the monastary and asks how the final cat got rid of the rat; the head monk explains a buddhist principle: there is power in stillness and inaction; wait for your enemy to defeat himself.
Now far be it from me to criticize a beautiful religion’s teachings, but you’ll recall I have some issues with self-defeating villains. There’s some clear differences with defeating a villain by zen style inaction and a villain whose incompetence causes their defeat, but I think the line is narrow, especially because the thing about inaction is that sometimes it just makes you a cohort.
So I question teaching my kid this principle. I know a big part is that I am not Buddhist and probably don’t fully understand the principle of stillness myself*, though knowing a little of karma does help me to see how gazing at a person’s actions down through to the consquences and merely waiting for them to reap what they sow would be an effective tool against an enemy who you otherwise do not think you can conquer.
Yet at the same time, the rat wreaked utter havoc on the lord’s home, and it’s not just the lord who suffered; his servants were harrassed and tormented the whole time. And sometimes you see this zen played out even in the face of the suffering of others but is that the best way? And I guess this is where “zen master” comes into play, knowing the power of stillness but also knowing when to act.
*It also probably makes a big difference that I’m not a still person myself, no matter how hard I try, because ADD is the opposite of stillness.
Ultimately, I think that the execution of stillness in a masterful way is not something that is written well a lot of the time, especially if the writer is someone like myself who does not actually fully understand the principle. I mean, if it seems like both action an inaction are viable options, inaction is going to come off as laziness and/or apathy, even if there’s a reveal of “but look how wise waiting was!” later.
And this does leave open the potential for the self-defeating villain issue. If your villain was always going to destroy himself and all your protags had to do was wait, then…what…was the point? Who cares anyway?
If the stillness is more of a holding action than no action required, it should be easier to execute. Consider a military unit that has captured a small city. They’re the kind of people who slap children for talking to them and burn down the bar when the owner tells them they can’t talk to his wife that way. We’re used to the MC swooping in and kicking butt, but perhaps he’s going to let this behavior continue until the soldiers have expended all their resources (or perhaps contract food poisoning or another weakening illness he set up for them) so that they are all weaker than him when he finally does step in. In which, the MC was always planning to come in and kick their trash, but he just waited until it was feasible and there wasn’t big risk of failure. I could get behind that, but it would still be hard to forgive MC for not doing anything while soldiers harassed the citizens, especially depending on the level of harassment.
And it is constantly a totally criticizable and hugely annoying problem when someone is doing something long-term and refuses to just communicate their flipping plan.
On the plus side, it’s much easier to have the villain be the zen master. Just wait, just wait, the hero will waltz right into my claws, my trap, will trot the McGuffin to my hand (man heroes have a bad habit of doing that). Because the worst that happens when the hero is deated this way is that the hero is considered dumb and a hero can recover from stupidity more easily than a villain so long as it was within the realms of character flaw dumb and not why do I even care about this total inept loser moron levels of dumb.
Just make sure you take care to think through every aspect of a zen character – inaction may be a great tool, but it’s also a pretty big problem when there’s evil afoot. Zen Buddhism is a beautiful religion and I know people have gained much from their teachings of stillness, but there’s a reason like a bajillion different quotable people have said something along the lines of if there is evil and you do nothing, you are a cohort.