On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

December 17, 2015

Aspiration for Enlightenment

Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

In the Buddhist teachings various distinctions are drawn among aspirations for enlightenment. Essentially, it may be said that there are two kinds of aspiration for enlightenment: the shallow aspiration and the true aspiration.

Understanding that whatever is born must die, that whatever flourishes must decline, forgetting worldly ambitions and only seeking the way to emancipation—this is called the shallow aspiration for enlightenment. The great Buddhist master Nagarjuna said, “To observe the impermanence of the world is temporarily called the aspiration for enlightenment.”

Because it is a practice for entering from the shallows to the depths, those in whom even this shallow aspiration for enlightenment does not arise cannot develop the true aspiration for enlightenment. This is why Zen teachers have always explained the principle of transcience to their students, even though they point directly to the fundamental.

Those who are merely alarmed by impermanence and give up worldly ambitions but do not develop true aspiration for enlightenment are still ignorant people.

People commonly assume that it is aspiration for enlightenment to abandon worldy ambitions and go to live in a hermitage in the mountains to clear the mind with the sound of waterfalls and the wind in the pines. But this cannot be called true aspiration for enlightenment. A scripture says, “Those who live in seclusion in mountains and forests and think that they are thus better than others cannot even attain happiness, let alone Buddhahood.”

True aspiration for enlightenment is development of the mind that has faith in supreme enlightenment. Inherent in everyone, supreme enlightenment is eternal and unchanging. To believe in this is called true aspiration for enlightenment. A scripture says, “From the moment of their first inspiration, enlightening beings only seek enlightenment, with unwavering steadfastness.”

Even if you believe in inherent enlightenment, if you only believe and have no inner communion with it, this is not yet actually the true aspiration for enlightenment.

The belief or faith that characterizes the true aspiration is not found in a dogma or in an external object; in essence, it is the orientation referred to in the scripture as only seeking enlightenment. This means passing through worldly states without clinging; it also means passing through spiritual states without taking them to be final or absolute.

This progress can only be maintained with an inner sense of the transcendence of enlightenment over lesser goals, coupled with an inner sense of the immanence of this enlightenment in the mind. This fertile union of inner sense is called true aspiration for enlightenment.

Aspiration that is only in the realm of belief, without this inner communion, is what scripture refers to when it says, “This aspiration for enlightenment arises and passes away, is transient; it is not the permament, indestructible essence of enlightenment.

The Great Sun Scripture says, “What is enlightenment? It is to know your own mind as it really is.”

A commentary says, “If the mind itself is enlightenment, why do people not become enlightened? Because they do not know the mind as it really is. If they knew the mind as it really is, they would become truly awakened at the moment of their initial inspiration.”

If people who are not yet in communion with the inherent mind of enlightenment consider relentless devotion to religious practice to be evidence of firmness of will for enlightenment and power in practice, they will certainly become obsessed because of their pride. Then again, there is also the anxiety that if this determination weakens and they are distracted by worldly conditions, then they will not attain salvation. Thus inherent enlightenment becomes increasingly obstructed and obscured by this pride and fear.

When beginning practitioners get into such a frame of mind, if they realize that these erroneous ideas have arisen because they are not yet in harmony with the transcendental path, and if they lay it all aside to look directly into their minds, they will eventually reach accord.

    Worldly feelings

Attraction and aversion are two feelings that keep people within the bondage of ignorant repetitive behavior. Those who seek only what pleases them and try to avoid what displeases them are acting in this way because they do not realize the nature of the world.

For those who know the nature of the world, lack of complete satisfaction or fulfillment in things of the world is in itself advice to cultivate detachment. If people do not crave to be pleased, they will not be displeased. What causes mental suffering is not the environment itself but the mind itself.

   Work on the Fundamental

It is not necessary to get rid of worldly feelings in order to work on the fundamental. Those who are keenly aware of the precariousness of our situation as human beings and the brevity of our opportunity to awaken, and who use this awareness to hone their will, are not distracted from the work by worldly feelings.

Feelings that arise because of circumstances can actually be used to fuel the urgency of work toward the fundamental. Preliminary methods of softening worldly feelings are taught for the sake of those with insufficient determination. This does not mean that work on the fundamental is to be undertaken only after worldly feelings are ended.

    Dreams and Illusions

There is a popular practice, commonly found in Buddhist scriptures and Zen writings, that consists of looking upon all phenomena as if they were dreams or illusions. This practice is in the realm of method and is not an ultimate teaching.

Secular literature and folk sayings use the image of things being like dreams or phantasms to mean that everything is transient. In Buddhism, the implication is that phenomena are ultimately insubstantial but nevertheless conditionally manifest. This represents a balance, avoiding both reification and nihilism. Although things exist, what we perceive of them is not their real existence; although things are void of absoluteness, that knowledge is not really void.

Thus, contemplation of phenomena as dreamlike is an elementary expedient used to facilitate realization of the Middle Way transcending dualistic and extreme views.

The use of this practice in Zen is not for the purpose of getting people to contemplate the principle but to encouarge them to set everything aside to turn directly to the fundamental. An ancient master said, “Why bother to grasp at dreams, phantasms, hallucinations? Abandon gain and loss, right and wrong, all at once.”

Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

excerpted from Dream Conversations on Buddhism and Zen – trans by Thomas Cleary 1994

Many of us have longed at one time or another to retreat to a hermitage in the mountain wilds, to follow the way of the sages, thus shedding our distractions and focusing on a life of practice.

Reality seems to have other plans for us, providing the experiences that best hone our spirits for true aspiration. What we come up with as true practice has little to do with it when we step back to consider our lives. It seems it is not as simple as we first thought.

However, aspiration to be a person of the way, to crack this riddle of existence, to solve the mystery of “Who am I?” is the tree we lean against and the rudder we hold onto as we steer through life. Our sitting practice, no matter how distracted it seems at times, is the foundation to a life of practice. And to hold our questions close to our hearts is key to refining our aspiration for the Way.

So, taking everything with a grain of salt, including ourselves and our views, just return to the meditation seat and let thoughts and dreams pass on by. Once the dust settles we can rest once again in the universe and return to being…..no one special

To be the present unfolding,


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