The Corpse of Ambition

I am going to begin this consideration with an extended quote from the book “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” by the late Chogyam Trungpa, an influential Buddhist teacher who was instrumental in introducing Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism to the West:

“As long as we follow a spiritual approach promising salvation, miracles, liberation, then we are bound by the “golden chain of spirituality.” Such a chain might be beautiful to wear, with its inlaid jewels and intricate carvings, but nevertheless, it imprisons us. People think they can wear the golden chain for decoration without being imprisoned by it, but they are deceiving themselves. As long as one’s approach to spirituality is based upon enriching ego, then it is spiritual materialism, a suicidal process rather than a creative one.

All the promises we have heard are pure seduction. We expect the teachings to solve all our problems; we expect to be provided with magical means to deal with our depressions, our aggressions, our sexual hang-ups. But to our surprise we begin to realize that this is not going to happen. It is very disappointing to realize that we must work on ourselves and our suffering rather than depend upon a savior or the magical power of yogic techniques. It is disappointing to realize that we have to give up our expectations rather than build on the basis of our preconceptions.

We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means the surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment, watch our disciples celebrating, worshipping, throwing flowers at us, with miracles and earthquakes occurring and gods and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult.

Such a series of disappointments inspires us to give up ambition. We fall down and down and down, until we touch the ground, until we relate with the basic sanity of earth. We become the lowest of the low, the smallest of the small, a grain of sand, perfectly simple, no expectations. When we are grounded, there is no room for dreaming or frivolous impulse, so our practice at last becomes workable. We begin to learn how to make a proper cup of tea, how to walk straight without tripping. Our whole approach to life becomes more simple and direct, and any teachings we might hear or books we might read become workable. They become confirmations, encouragements to work as a grain of sand, as we are, without expectations, without dreams.

We have heard so many promises, have listened to so many alluring descriptions of exotic places of all kinds, have seen so many dreams, but from the point of view of a grain of sand, we could not care less. We are just a speck of dust in the midst of the universe. At the same time our situation is very spacious, very beautiful and workable. In fact, it is very inviting, inspiring. If you are a grain of sand, the rest of the universe, all the space, all the room is yours, because you obstruct nothing, overcrowd nothing, possess nothing. There is tremendous openness. You are the emperor of the universe because you are a grain of sand. The world is very simple and at the same time very dignified and open, because your inspiration is based upon disappointment, which is without the ambition of the ego.”

Upon reflection, many of us who shopped around and patronized the various spiritual supermarkets that sprang up during the historical “Baby Boom” coming-of-age years in the West can relate to the hard wisdom expressed in the above excerpt. On the other hand, perhaps many of us are still living under the spell of the promise — the promise of enlightenment, redemption, salvation, or even just a better, richer, more desirable lifestyle – woven and cast by this or that guru, text, or teaching that convinced us we could change ourselves into something better, more powerful, happier, more peaceful, wise, and lovable.

After spending 7 years studying for the priesthood in a Roman Catholic Seminary, I finally became utterly disillusioned with that religion and its apparent fraudulence and so went off to live as a hermit in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A friend had given me a small pamphlet on Zen Buddhism before I left for the hills, and while living in a small tent by a river, I read and re-read that pamphlet and contemplated its implications. This extended consideration provoked a number of epiphanies that gave me a taste of a whole new way of looking at the world, as well as my place in it. I felt as if I had truly found my spiritual calling, after years of floundering in somebody elses’ limited idea of what spirit is really all about.

When I finally returned to San Francisco in 1970, I delved into two seminal books on Zen Buddhism that would serve to exemplify a particular paradox, and one that would take me years to resolve : “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (a transplanted Japanese master), and “The Three Pillars of Zen”, by Phillip Kapleau (an American teacher trained in an austere Japanese Zen monastery).

In a nutshell, Suzuki’s manual spoke of practicing Zen with “no gaining idea”, no artificial motivation to have things be other than they are. For Suzuki and his lineage of Soto Zen, the very act of assuming the formal posture in seated meditation (Zazen) was itself “enlightenment”, and so attempting to “achieve” enlightenment through fabricated strategies and methods would be comparable to adding another head to the one we already have. The meditator simply sits still, relaxed and alert, but without fixation, interference, or identification, as the stream of thoughts arises and passes away. This of course is by necessity an over-simplification, but that is the gist of it.

On the other hand, Kapleau’s book spoke in glowing terms of the absolute necessity to attain “kensho”, a first step to enlightenment, consisting of a mystical, transformational glimpse of one’s “original nature”. In order to acquire this glimpse, or “awakening”, Kapleau suggested that one needed to submit to an almost militaristic regimen of marathon meditative endeavors, focusing all of one’s life and attention on answering “koans”, which are enigmatic cases drawn from dialogues between historic Zen characters that resist any intellectual resolution. This focus on koan work and kensho is characteristic of the “Rinzai” school of Zen, as opposed to the Soto school mentioned previously.

The sense of personal dilemma that ensued resulted from alternating back and forth, attempting to be free of self-centered notions of attainment, but desperate to achieve some breakthrough in consciousness that Kapleau and his ilk assured me was necessary to gain entrance into the real and authentic Zen club and reach the critical state of liberation. A seed had been planted in my head – if I wanted to be free from the suffering entailed in being born into this human condition, I needed to become someone different than I ordinarily am. I had to become a “Knower”. In other words, I had to get “Enlightened”.

The inherent wisdom of Suzuki’s school sounded reasonable, but the lure of some magical experience of “Satori” touted in the Rinzai school was much stronger. It would be years before I was able to recognize that I was embarking on a quest to become what I already am and have always been. Apparently, I needed to chase my tail for several decades before finally realizing that was exactly what I was up to when I left my previous life behind and entered into a Zen monastery, and from there continued on for years with gurus and purported wise guys, pursuing the big “E”.

As great non-dual sage Nisargadatta Maharaj noted: “Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image. “

As long as I perceived myself to be a separate and enduring person, there was no way that I was going to be deterred from the search. Lingering in the background, there would always be the comparative mind insinuating that, if I only studied the right teaching, sincerely practiced the right strategic method, and discovered the right Spiritual Guide, I could become free, happy, wise, special, sanctified, and gracefully relieved of the chains that accompanied this human life.

Such was the “kool aid” I had swallowed, along with countless fellow boomers who were equally seduced by the promise of divine transformation being sold in the spiritual marketplace that had emerged in the West during the latter half of the last century. The almighty “Me” project was born and given legitimacy by a seemingly endless parade of swamis, roshis, lamas, and various home-grown variations of smiling and mostly well-meaning path promoters who each offered their own particular snake oil remedy for whatever spiritually ailed us, and we were happy to lap it all up in ashram temples, satsangs, monasteries, churches, and diverse holy gatherings (where financial donations and even sexual favors were gratefully accepted to further the general betterment of the lifestyle conditions of said teachers, masters, and gurus).

Certainly, I am not the first to point this all out, and in fact numerous books, articles, and journals have been published detailing the whole adventure we collectively undertook, from the streets of the Haight Ashbury to the Himalayan caves, and so this essay is really presenting nothing new about the phenomenon that has not already been discussed and analyzed and critiqued over the years. However, for those who are following along here, perhaps there might be some sense of resonance that will help shed light on their own process in this regard, particularly in relation to inspecting their own ambition, and recognizing that trap for what it is.

If we stay true to our spiritual path, regardless of sect or denomination, we may eventually come to a place where nothing works anymore, and we face a veritable stone wall which we can’t go over, under, or around by employing our intellect or force of will. That wall is actually a mirror. Our ambition will have led us here, and our various practices may have supported us on the search, but eventually we will find ourselves in a kind of “check-mate”, as one commentator put it.

At such a critical juncture, all of our pretense must drop away, all of our willfulness, so that we are left naked and exposed to the “hard facts” that we have heretofore been layering over with good intentions and hopeful projections of spiritual grandeur awaiting us upon “enlightenment”. Interestingly enough, it is only with that disenchantment that we can become truly available to real transformation.

For most seekers, our fondest wish has been to be gloriously present at our own Awakening, and thus we may discover to our shock and dismay that such an awakening from the dream of a substantial and independent self involves the literal death of our most cherished concepts and self-images — the death of our spiritual ambition. As it so happens, very few are willing to face that daunting prospect. The tremendous humility required for such a confrontation with one’s own fundamental emptiness is a gateless gate that challenges and undermines the raison d’etre of personal ambition.

Despite our insistence on wanting to be free, when push comes to shove, what many of us really wanted was some exciting and marvelous experience that we could claim for ourselves, accompanied by the enviable status of having gotten IT, perhaps even sporting cool powers and arcane talents – an Enlightened Ego, in other words. We were expecting some special revelation that in turn would grant our prideful self-sense an enduring and elevated validity and confirm our position as an advanced being.

The last thing we ever wanted, despite protests to the contrary, was to see the whole house burn down to the ground. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the fictional narrative of our “spiritual me-story” consists of – a flimsy house of cards – and its only relevant destiny, if we are to truly snap out of the trance of identification with being a needy seeker and assume our natural freedom, is submission to the consuming bonfire of our every vanity.

From that “place” of our original innocence, prior to the stressful adventure of seeking, we can relax more and more into the transparent spaciousness of awake awareness — that which is most true of us. By returning attention again and again to such open natural knowingness that is ever-present beyond any need for acquisition or attainment, what’s discovered is the self-liberated primordial sky of one’s own being in which all thoughts, desires, and self-images arise and dissolve like passing clouds on a warm summer day.

Resting in the simple innocence of awake awareness, we notice that our ambitions have been nothing but thoughts. Our desire for things to be different than they are, is just a thought. Our belief in some special state of enlightenment is just a thought. Every idea or image we might have of ourselves is just a passing thought. Our regrets about the past and projections about the future are mere thoughts. Indeed, whatever arises is nothing but a mental fabrication, a projection of mind that has all the solidity of smoke. Investing attention in any of it is only indulging in day dreaming. When such investments cease, there is no longer any energy fueling the machine of distraction, and thus, as the poet Ryokan so eloquently wrote, “Like the little stream making its way through the mossy crevices, I, too, quietly turn clear and transparent.”

“No ambition is spiritual. All ambitions are for the sake of the ‘I am’. If you want to make real progress you must give up all idea of personal attainment. The ambitions of the so-called Yogis are preposterous. A man’s desire for a woman is innocence itself compared to the lusting for an everlasting personal bliss. The mind is a cheat. The more pious it seems, the worse the betrayal.”
~Nisargadatta Maharaj

See also:

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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15 Responses to The Corpse of Ambition

  1. jencistory says:

    “For most seekers, our fondest wish has been to be gloriously present at our own Awakening” Great piece, Bob, including the quote you begin with. If we boil it right down, to me this line of yours says it all. The story of me wants an enlightenment ending.

  2. rahkyt says:

    “The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image. ”

    Hear, hear. Death of the self means no compromise. Total destruction. Bless, bredren!

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Indeed, Brother! We keep thinking that there’s something there for us personally, and that hope keeps many clinging to fantasies. Hope is just the flip side of fear — both are mental fabrications that obstruct true recognition of our actual nature and condition.


  3. Bob OHearn says:

    Synchronistically, I came across this quote today, about spiritual death, that makes some good points:

    “Some of the popular Zen books talk about achieving satori, which is really nothing more than the ‘Wow’ experience,” Rose went on. “A fellow says, ‘I went to this ashram and stayed there so many months or years, then one day it hits me. ‘Wow, I got it!’ So I had some tea with the head master and we went away laughing together because we both got it.’” Rose frowned. “This is not Enlightenment. Because if this man had experienced Enlightenment they would have carried him out on a stretcher–it’s that drastic. You don’t die and then laugh and say ‘Wow!’ Death is more final than that.”

    I could hear a young woman’s voice from the front row. “The whole experience doesn’t sound very pleasant.”

    “Who said it would be?”

    “I mean, its not the type of spiritual experiences I’ve been reading about.”

    “Then you’re reading about lesser experiences. Enlightenment is the death of the mind. Death. You think you are dying–completely and forever. And it’s good to think that because it kills the ego. When a person feels himself dying he immediately drops all his egos.

    “It has to be this way. You must go through death with no hope of survival. Because you have to be truthful with yourself–all those tales about life after death could be fiction. But when you die honestly, you die with absolute despair. And that absolute despair removes the last ego you’ve got left–the spiritual ego that believes the individual mind is immortal.

    “No. This does not accrue gradually. It happens suddenly and is never anything like you might imagine beforehand. I always thought a spiritual experience would be sheer beauty. I had visions of reaching some beautiful fields of flowers or God knows what. And the fact that I found something so utterly devastating and contrary to my desires convinced me that the experience was genuine, and not the product of wishful thinking.”

    ~Richard Rose,

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life. The most important thing is to forget all gaining ideas, all dualistic ideas. In other words, just practice zazen in a certain posture. Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. Then eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.”

    ~ Shunryu Suzuki

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    What is it like to live an awakened life?

    Adyashanti: “While the world is trying to solve its problems and everyone around you is engaged in the same, you are not.
    While everybody around you is trying to figure it out, trying to arrive, trying to “get there” trying to be worthy, you are not.
    While everyone thinks that awakening is a grand, noble, halo-enshrouded thing, for you it’s not.
    While everybody is running from this life right now, in this moment, to try to get there, you are not.
    Where everybody has an argument with somebody else, mostly everybody else, starting with themselves, you don’t.
    Where everybody is so sure that happiness will come when something is different than it is now, you know that it won’t.
    When everybody else is looking to achieve the perfect state and hold on to it, you are not.”

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    Question: You told us the other day that we cannot even dream of perfection before realisation, for the Self is the source of all perfection and not the mind. If it is not excellence in virtue that is essential for liberation, then what is?

    Nisargdatta Maharaj : Liberation is not the result of some means skilfully applied, nor of circumstances. It is beyond the causal process. Nothing can compel it, nothing can prevent it.

    Q: Then why are we not free here and now?

    M: But we are free ‘here and now’. It is only the mind that imagines bondage.

    Q: What will put an end to imagination?

    M: Why should you want to put an end to it? Once you know your mind and its miraculous powers, and remove what poisoned it — the idea of a separate and isolated person — you just leave it alone to do its work among things to which it is well suited. To keep the mind in its own place and on its own work is the liberation of the mind.

    Q: What is the work of the mind?

    M: The mind is the wife of the heart and the world their home — to be kept bright and happy.

    Q: I have not yet understood why, if nothing stands in the way of liberation, it does not happen here and now.

    M: Nothing stands in the way of your liberation and it can happen here and now, but for your being more interested in other things. And you cannot fight with your interests. You must go with them, see through them and watch them reveal themselves as mere errors of judgement and appreciation.

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “Later I understood the meaning of spirituality and came to the conclusion that it is discardable as dishwater.”

    ~ Sri Nisargadatta

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    To you for whom something is still missing in Zazen
    (by Uchiyama Kosho)

    Dogen Zenji’s practice of shikantaza is exactly what my late teacher Sawaki Kodo Roshi calls the “zazen of just sitting”. So for me too, true zazen naturally means shikantaza – just sitting. That is to say that we do NOT practice zazen to have “kensho” experiences, “solve” a lot of koans or receive “inka-shomei”. Zazen just means to sit.

    On the other hand, it is a fact that even among the practioners of the Japanese Soto-school, which traces itself back to its founder Dogen Zenji, not a few have doubts about this kind of zazen. To make their point, they will quote passages like these:

    “In the hall: ‘I have not visited many Zen monasteries. Having met with my master Tendo, I quietly confirmed that the eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical. Nobody can fool me anymore. I have returned back home with empty hands.’ “(Eihei Koroku, 1st chapter)

    “I travelled to Sung China and visited Zen masters in all parts of the country, studying the Five Houses of Zen. Finally I met my master Nyojo on Taihaku peak, and the great matter of a whole life time of study came to an end.” (Shobogenzo Bendowa)

    Now people will say: “Hasn’t Dogen Zenji himself said that he ‘confirmed that the eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical, and that the great matter of a whole life time of study came to an end’? What use is there then when an ordinary person who has not the least glimpse of enlightenment ‘just sits’? Isn’t that kind of zazen just stupid?”

    I remember all to well having had this kind of doubts myself, and of course not only I had these doubts: Many of those who practiced under the guidance of Sawaki Roshi eventually gave up just sitting and switched to “Kensho-Zen” or “Koan-Zen”. Therefore I can understand these doubts very well.

    First, we should know that Sawaki Roshi was a typical Zen master just as you would imagine one, and his charisma was so great that anyone who would listen to his talks for the first time felt attracted like a piece of iron towards a magnet. Therefore, when Roshi would say that “zazen is good for nothing” (that was Sawaki Roshi’s expression for the zazen that is “beyond gain and beyond satori (mushotoku-mushogo)”), everyone thought that he was just saying it, but that in reality zazen would of course get them “somewhere somehow” over time. I am sure that many practiced like that with Sawaki Roshi.

    Maybe those who lived outside and came to the temple just to participate in zazen or the sesshin did not have such strong doubts. But those serious enough to throw their physical existence into the Way, become monks and join our community that practiced under the Roshi – those who really lived their lives as zazen practice would sooner or later start to have doubts about shikantaza. Because however much you may sit, you will never get “your fill” – zazen won’t satisfy you. It is just like even though you eat, the food does not seem to fill your stomach. So when I say that we never get “our fill” by zazen, I mean that we do not have the feeling of “satori” filling our stomach.

    Many of the young people who had dedicated their physical existence to the practice of the Way started to think: “What use is there in wasting my youth on this practice of zazen which seems to have no lasting results?” And too many finally left, saying: “And what about those ‘senior students’ who have practiced for years? Aren’t they all still the same ordinary deluded people? After all, what we really need is SATORI!”

    I myself felt as if those doubts would make me burst. Still, I continued to practice zazen with Sawaki Roshi for 25 years – until his death. Therefore, I think that I understand the doubts pretty well, but I have also come to understand the meaning of shikantaza that Dogen Zenji and Sawaki Roshi are talking about. When I write the following, I will try to be something like an “interpreter” between the two sides.
    When I say that an “interpreter” is needed, I do not only mean to say that the doubting practioners do not understand the words of Dogen Zenji or Sawaki Roshi (that is of course the case), but also that the words of Dogen Zenji and Sawaki Roshi often do not reach down to the root of the doubts and problems of us, who try to practice shikantaza. This is not because Dogen Zenji or Sawaki Roshi would not understand our doubts, but rather because they express themselves in a way that far transcends our ordinary common sense. I therefore want to try my best at offering my own “translation” of Dogen Zenji and Sawaki Roshi’s words.

    For example, let’s take a look at the quote from the “Eihei Koroku”:

    “I quietly confirmed that the eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical. Nobody can fool me anymore. I have returned back home with empty hands.”

    How about reading it like this:

    “I confirmed that I am living my life by breathing the present breath in the present moment.”

    How can I make such an interpretation? The fact is that when I am reading the “Shobogenzo”, I do not do it as a scholar of Buddhist studies who just tries to find some order in the labyrinth of Chinese characters. I am also not reading it as a sectarian who thinks that each single character is so holy that he wants to conserve it like canned food and then prostrate in front of it, without ever opening the can. When I read Dogen Zenji, I do it as a wayseeker: Living my completely new life, I am always looking for a brand new way to live this life. For me, this is the meaning of words like “reflecting on your own mind with the old teaching”, or what is expressed as “to study the Buddha way means to study yourself”.

    Anyway, if we read it in the light of our completely new life, we should not interpret Dogen Zenji’s words about the eyes being horizontal and the nose vertical in a flat and static manner. We should realize that “the eyes horizontal, the nose vertical” expresses the dynamic functioning of this “raw” (Japanese “nama”, lit. “raw”, that means “fresh and alive”, unprocessed by our thoughts. The Japanese word for “life” or “birth” is written with the same Chinese character (but pronounced differently)) life we are living. It is the dynamic flow of living our life by breathing the present breath in the present moment. Read thus, we should see that Dogen Zenji isn’t talking about some mystical state that one might experience during zazen once you get “satori”: He is talking about the plain facts of life that everyone of us is living.

    Therefore it is said at the beginning of the “Fukanzazengi”: “The way is complete and all-pervading, why use practice as a means to verify it? The vehicle of truth wheels freely, why do you exhaust your efforts?”
    And how about the following sentences? “If there is only the slightest discrimination, it will cause a separation like that between heaven and earth. If you follow or resist, your mind will be shattered and lost.”
    It is a basic fact that each one of us lives his completely new life, fresh and raw. But when we start to think about it in our heads, in that moment we get stuck in a static concept that we “grasp”. Because what we think of as “raw, fresh and alive” isn’t raw, fresh and alive anymore. “Raw, fresh and alive” means to open the hand of thought: Only what we let go can be raw, fresh and alive. Zazen means this opening of the hand of thought, it is the posture of letting go.

    I want to add some words here about the actual practice of shikantaza – just sitting. When we sit in zazen, it is not that there are no thoughts at all appearing in our heads. Actually, a lot of thoughts appear. But if you start to chase those thoughts, then that can’t be called zazen anymore. You are just thinking in the sitting posture. It is important for you to realize then that, “I am doing zazen right now, this is not the time for chasing thoughts!” Return to the correct posture, and open the hand of thought again. This is what is called “waking up from distraction and confusion”.
    Next we might become tired. Now it is time to remind ourselves, “I am doing zazen right now, this is not the time to sleep!” Let’s then return to the correct posture, and wake up to zazen. This is what is called “waking up from dullness and fatigue”.
    Zazen means to wake up from distraction and confusion, dullness and fatigue for a billion times, and return to the wide awake posture of zazen. “Living the raw and fresh life called zazen” means to arouse the mind for a billion times in this fashion, practice and realize it for a billion times: This is what is called shikantaza – just sitting.

    People say that Dogen Zenji got “satori” by dropping off body and mind, but what is this “dropping off body and mind (shinjin-datsuraku)” in the first place? Dogen Zenji writes in the “Hokyoki”:

    “The abbot pointed out: ‘To practice Zen means to drop off body and mind. It has nothing to do with burning incense, doing prostrations, calling upon Buddha, confessing one’s sins or studying the scriptures. It is just sitting.’ I stepped forward and asked: ‘What is dropping off body and mind?’ The abbot answered: ‘Dropping off body and mind is zazen. When you just sit, you are freed from the five desires and the five illusions disappear.'”

    That means that the zazen in which you open the hand of thought and let go, let go a billion times, is in itself the dropping off of body and mind. Dropping off body and mind isn’t some special kind of mystical experience either.
    Only this kind of zazen can be called “the whole way of Buddha-Dharma, which isn’t equalled by anything” (from the “Bendowa”). And it is also called the “true gate of Buddha-Dharma” (ibid).

    Let’s compare living our lives with driving a car: You shouldn’t sleep behind the wheel, and you shouldn’t drink and drive. Also, when you are driving a car, you shouldn’t be tense and you shouldn’t think too much – it’s dangerous. The same is true when we sit behind the wheel of our own lives. The basics for driving our own life consist in waking up from dullness and fatigue, so that we don’t fall asleep behind the wheel. Also, we have to wake up from distraction and confusion, that means we must not be tense or think too much while driving. Zazen means to put these basics of “driving your life” into actual practice. Thus it can be called the “whole way” and “true gate” of the Buddha-Dharma, and it is “universally recommened” by Dogen Zenji in his “Fukanzazengi”.

    “The body and mind of the buddha way are grasses and trees, stones and tiles, wind and rain, fire and water. To discover these things around you and realize the buddha way inside them is the meaning of arousing bodhi mind. When you grasp emptiness, you should build pagodas and Buddhas with it. Use the water from the valley to manifest Buddhas and pagodas. To do this means to arouse the mind of uncomparable, complete bodhi-wisdom, it means to repeat the one arousal of mind for a billion times. Thus, you are practicing realization.” (Shobogenzo Hotsumujoshin)

    It would be a great mistake to interpret this “to repeat the one arousal of mind for a billion times” as a mere reminder for those who haven’t yet experienced satori to not neglect their practice. To arouse the mind for a billion times means that the raw and fresh life breaths as fresh and raw life.
    Those people who give up the practice of shikantaza because it doesn’t give them a feeling of satisfaction, and they thus start to get bored by their practice, do so because they intellectualize these “billion times of arousing the mind” in their heads. They think: “Oh gosh! How could I possibly do this for a billion times? What I need is SATORI! If I could have only one big satori, that would take care of those billion times once and for all!”
    That is just as if we were told when born as babies: “From now on you will have to breathe for your whole lifetime, each single breath, each single moment – you will breathe in, breathe out a billion times.” Would we reply: “Oh gosh! I have to try somehow to take care of that breath of my life for once and all, and take only one single big breath!”

    Even if we tried to do that, we would hardly succeed. That is why the “Shobogenzo Hotsumujoshin” (quoted above) continues:

    “A person who thinks that we arouse the mind once and for all, without ever arousing it again, and who says that practice is endless, but the fruit of realization only one – such a person has never heard the Buddha-Dharma, doesn’t know the Buddha-Dharma, and doesn’t meet the Buddha-Dharma.”

    Who tries to have “satori” once and for all doesn’t accept the fact that we have to live our fresh and raw life just as fresh and raw as it is.
    Even in the biological sense we can only live by breathing the breath of our whole life, each single breath, each single moment. To live means to breathe this breath right now, and therefore to live your “raw/fresh” life naturally doesn’t mean to think about it in your head. It means to accept life as life – as “raw, fresh and alive” – and to develop an attitude of living. When you do this, that is exactly “the great matter of a life time of study coming to the end”. It is also the start of true practice of shikantaza – just sitting. This is what Dogen Zenji calls “unity of practice-realization” and “practice on the ground of realization”.
    And that is why Sawaki Roshi always said:

    “There is no beginning to satori, nor an end to practice!”

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.

    In that sense we can say that the purpose of practice is no purpose. If we have a purpose, then we have problems. We set up all kinds of goals and we reach for them. But the amazing thing is that the goal is right here! We are on the starting line and at the same time we are already on the goal line. In other words, our life is already the buddhas’ life; we are already living the buddhas’ life. Regardless of whether we realize it or not, regardless of whether we are new or old-time practitioners, we are intrinsically the buddhas. Yet until we see this, somehow we simply cannot accept that fact.

    We get stuck when we try to figure this out intellectually. From the intellectual point of view, the start and the goal must be different. This shore and the other shore cannot be the same. Then what to do? There are as many different paths to realization as there are people. But we can say there are two basic ways. One way is to push ourselves to realize that our life is the buddhas’ life. Another way is to simply let our life be the buddhas’ life and just live it. In a way, this is the difference between koan practice and shikantaza. But whichever practice you do, the point is the same. Do not create a gap between your life and the buddhas’ life.

    How can we close the gap? How can we realize the other shore is here, right now? In other words, how can you become one with breathing, with koan, with zazen, with work, or with whatever you do? Do not play with intellectual comprehension. This is the biggest source of trouble. Unfortunately, we are usually not even aware that we are being intellectual. Simply by being in our heads, we become self-centered. We make others and self separate. As long as ideas are involved, regardless of how fine our ideas are, this gap is there.

    ~Taizan Maezumi Roshi

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    “We should cast aside all childish games that fetter and exhaust body, speech and mind; and stretching out in inconceivable nonaction, in the unstructured matrix, the actuality of emptiness, where the natural perfection of reality lies, we should gaze at the uncontrived sameness of every experience, all conditioning and ambition resolved with finality.”


  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “Zen practice is so vast that we can approach it from almost any angle and still gain something. However, if we can approach it from where we are, sitting directly in the midst of our life rather than coming at it from any particular angle, then all of its riches will begin to open for us. We will find that grasping at these riches pushes them away. Even if we are able to hold onto one thing, as soon as we close our hands around it and hold on, we can’t pick up anything else, we can’t use anything else. Every time we grasp at something, we limit ourselves. Yet, no matter how hard we grasp or clutch, we cannot hold on because everything and everyone is always changing and coming and going. It is not just a matter of not being able to hold onto things; the whole act of grasping is one of limiting.”

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