Friday, January 25, 2008

What to do when there is nothing to attain?

The blog Echoes of the Name recently published a great quote about authentic religion not addressing our "self-seeking demands." This is true for all such demands or desires, even the notion of attaining Buddhahood. I have a nice list of quotes I keep around. They talk about Buddha-nature and its pervasive presence. They emphasize that you are never really separate from Buddha-nature, and imply that you therefore cannot somehow earn it or work towards it.

This idea has been discussed before. It is really popular on English-speaking blogs and message boards concerning Buddhism. It is a major aspect of (Mahayana) Buddhist teachings as they are being transmitted to the west. In response to the quote at Echoes, I commented:

Which is why it is so hard for us. We always want to fix, to solve, to reconcile, to mend, to complete… And, of course, when a Zen monk or a Shin teacher or other Buddhist guide on the path (or even someone from another tradition such as a contemplative Christian religious) tells us that, in ultimate terms, there is nothing to attain and nothing to grasp, many of us tend to become despondent, or suspicious, or frustrated (nor are those mutually exclusive reactions).

“What is wrong with this moment?” asks the Zen teacher.

“Rest in the Vow of Amida,” suggests the Shin lay minister.

“Let go and let God,” offers the Christian priest.

“Yeah, but– but–” we reply.

That would mean transcending the small-self (ego) is accepting small-self, which requires sacrificing the small-self, which is an act of surrender.
If you search the blog archive here you will find a substantial amount about the idea of surrender. In a recent post I talked about some of the commonalities of many Buddhist practices which are relevant to the idea of "non-attainment" and "non-separation". I wrote, "In Chan/Zen, there is nothing to attain. In Shin, there is nothing to do. In Nichiren Buddhism, one must not seek enlightenment outside of oneself. In Dzogchen, one is to experience 'natural great perfection.' And on and on it goes." This of course related to a post I have been citing written at the Amida-Ji-Retreat-Temple-Romania blog written by Josho Adrian Cirlea (as one can easily discover I like to frequently recycle quotes I find useful):
Many Buddhist practitioners are like a man staring at the sun, but with his body in a hole full of shit. He is always looking at the sun, but he never realizes that his body is drowned in shit. Here the sun represents the ideal – Buddhahood to be attained through his own powers. This ideal is of course very beautiful and the practitioner always like to stare at it and to take delight in many beautiful words about Enlightenment, emptiness, Buddha-nature, that we are all Buddhas-to-be, etc. The hole of shit is his true reality of the here and now, his deep karmic evil, his limitations, attachments and blind passions that cover all his body and mind...

I often meet with people that talk a lot of the fact that we all posses Buddha-nature and because of this there is nothing that we have to do, but just realize this truth in our mind. They are always full of wise quotes from Buddhist masters and sages of the past from various schools, about Buddha-nature, emptiness, etc. Usually this kind of people try many types of practices, always going here and there, never being totally satisfied with any school or teacher...
I once tried to write about why, then, there is any point to practice if there is nothing to attain. Ironically, the way some advocates of Shin seem to describe their faith, there is no point. But I think it might be more accurate to say that there is no point to do practices intended to accomplish or done with the objective of "obtaining enlightenment". Otherwise, I might agree with the notion that once you have realized something like "shinjin" you are better off not getting into "practices" such as seated meditation.

Of course, many (most? all?) Zen teachers will remind their students that there is no "good" or "bad" practice, just practice. Throw away the mental yardstick of progress. Let go of the blinders of expectations. Coming from this perspective there is nothing to attain - only to accept, only to realize. And we could go on with other traditions. Yet that still leaves the question - why practice? Not just formal liturgical observances, but even our "every day" practice? If the practices aren't to "get us" to enlightenment, then what the heck are we doing?

Having mentioned here the importance of acceptance and surrendering the ego, I refer now to something else that reflects my attempts to clarify these issues in my own mind, particularly an small addendum I wrote after describing seated meditation as a form of surrender:
I am not suggesting there is nothing else “to do”. In fact, it would be closer to the other way around. That is, such meditation, whether done while seated, while standing, while walking, while brushing our teeth, etc, doesn’t get us anywhere, it just reminds us where we are. The result to which I am alluding then, the peace in the turmoil, is not “the end” either (a concept which, when related to our practice, we could all do without). Again, that is about remembering what, who, and where we are. Nor is it escapism – it is not a static blissed-out obliviousness to the world around us.

There is still work we can do, but not for the “sake of” attaining such abiding confidence. The work of the Bodhisattva path, as this ego-centric, un-ordained, and overly outspoken lay Buddhist currently understands it, rests on this all-embracing affirmation that is beyond any concepts like attainment. That work rests on it, it abides with it, and the Bodhisattva finds the will and energy to do this work through it: to cultivate ethics, concentration, and wisdom through the Eightfold Path, to embody the six paramitas, to uphold the foundation of the three Pure Precepts.

Looking back at an earlier attempt to answer the question, "Why practice if there is nothing to attain?", I find the following conclusion:
To expand a little, one means of expressing teaching about Buddha-nature is to say we all have access to it/are unified with it, but not everyone actualizes/realizes it. Some people then think, 'Oh, so I'm a Buddha, great, then I don't need to practice, because there is nothing to attain.' Which, in a way, I believe, is correct. There is nothing to attain. The problem is that while it is true we already are/possess/have access to Buddha-nature, that there is nothing to attain, we still do strive to attain the things we crave, the things that validate the tiny ego of the selfish mind. So while it would be nice if people really did grasp the need for/directly experience non-attainment in actualizing/realizing Buddha-nature just by hearing that they are Buddhas, our ingrained tendencies and unrealistic views about ourselves unfortunately require some weeding of our hearts and minds (the middle line of the proverb about the mountains and the rivers is not inconsequential). So then the cultivation spoken of in Buddhism isn't to try to "get" or "grow" the seeds of Bodhi, but to keep out the weeds so that what is already always growing in our hearts can bloom. Hence my recent citation in another recent post of the saying "The Way doesn't need cultivation. Just don't pollute it" (Ch'an ancestor Mazu)
I find now that this answer simply begs the question, why should we care about our grasping?

Looking just above at my quote about the work of a Bodhisattva resting in and being powered by "this all-embracing affirmation" of our Buddha-nature, then the reason for practice isn't self-powered salvation, as some may view it, but rather an act of deep compassion. The practices aren't selfish or strictly for ourselves and our own attainment, but, as the Bodhisattva Vows remind us and challenge us, they really are for the benefit of all sentient beings. The practices then can be seen as an outpouring of our gratitude and realization and a desire to limit or end any further harm we may be causing.

The grace of Buddhanature, of Dharmakaya, of the Inconceivable Clear Light of Ultimate Reality, manifests from the realm of the unconditioned as compassion in the conditioned world (the historical realm of time and space) through the wisdom perceived by finite, karmically bound sentient beings. By those receptive to such insight, not in spite of their failings but at least in part because of them. The story repeats itself in various religious and spiritual paths. In the end, it may be that genuine practice, whether it is through mantra/dharini recitation, focused concentration, etc, is not done because we want to (so we can feed the ego) or because we feel obligated to (so we can feed the ego), but because we are compelled to do so. Not because we are driven to complete or correct our imperfections through our own efforts at self-improvement but because we are grateful for seeing that we are (all) capable of accepting and transforming such "flaws" through faith. Faith in Mind. Faith in Amida. For some, perhaps faith in a figure from another spiritual tradition. Or as Sharon Salzberg memorably phrased it, faith in "the possibility of our own awakening."

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