synthetic zero

February 2nd, 2009

On the Hardcore Dharma weblog, Julia Jonas (aka tinderfoot) writes:

Reading ZMBM I came to the conclusion that the problem is not that you think meditation is going to be good for you, improve you as a person, an artist, a lover a friend. The problem is that in order to see the illusory nature of our beliefs, its essential to let go of these ideas of improvement. I know that’s what Suzuki Roshi is saying, but it made sense to me, for the first time again, this week. Going into meditation in order for it to calm me down pits myself against myself. Going into meditation accepting the momentary, flawed state of my mind and reality and not try to change it, to rather simply be curious about it, allows me to be in the present moment.

It’s a really difficult koan. On the one hand, it seems the purpose of practice is to attain enlightenment, to be free from the cycles of karma, to attain liberation. That’s one story.

Yet, the Heart Sutra says: “There is no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path. There is no wisdom and no attainment. Because there is nothing to be attained, the Bodhisattva relies on prajnaparamita, and has no mental obstructions.”

Of course, the very ones who proclaim the teachings of “no attainment” are people who themselves have done quite a bit of practice, so is there a contradiction here?

Not at all. That’s the koan.

My primary meditation teacher, Steven Tainer, talks about this a great deal. His way of speaking of it is simple: of course, at first, we are so inured to the “goal oriented” mind that that’s all we have to work with (seemingly). So, if we need some sort of idea of a goal to practice, that may be unavoidable.

But to the extent we hold onto the idea of a goal, of a result we are trying to attain … practice is obstructed. That’s not only Suzuki and Trungpa’s view, it’s also Steven’s view (and the view of many teachers). I have to say that in my many years of practice, I’ve come to realize that these great teachers were, as one might imagine, and hope, entirely correct.

But that doesn’t make it easy to understand what the hell they’re talking about.

Ultimately an intellectual understanding of this is not entirely possible, though I do believe it’s very important to try to understand it intellectually as best we can, because a purely “experiential” understanding, as some put it, can be dislodged without careful study. That’s an important point worth noting.

One view I have of this is something along these lines; it’s a picture, so to speak. Which is to say it is inaccurate, as all pictures are.

But essentially: if we realize that who we think we are (the so-called “self”) is really just a sort of phantom, a kind of tiny fragment of a much larger landscape of who we really are, in a deeper sense, then to think in terms of a “goal” is usually to think in terms of the “self” accomplishing or “doing” it. Yet the whole point of all this is to realize that this little “self” is not really who we are, we are not limited to that, we’re much bigger than that.

Thinking in terms of a goal is thinking in terms of a small self doing or accomplishing the goal.

Practice is not a method for the self to accomplish enlightenment. Such a project is impossible. The “self” cannot accomplish this.

Practice is more like a posture, a gesture, a way of aligning ourselves with the radical reality of our true selves, which is vast. Big Mind, so to speak. By making this gesture we allow our larger reality a chance to come forward on its own. It’s always there, but we ignore it, we crowd it out. Even though we ignore it, it is still there, still functioning. We don’t have to produce it. We don’t have to “achieve” it or become it. We are always already Big Mind. To the extent we can relax our desire to “achieve” enlightenment, we make it easier for us to be who and what we already are, to relax into that larger being, to let it be what it already is.

Practice is important, even perhaps essential for most people; but it is not an action undertaken by the self to effect a result. It is more like a way of aligning ourselves with the resonance of the universe, which is already vibrating whether we feel or hear it or not. By doing so we don’t cause our self to achieve a goal, but we may allow our Big Mind or Being to come forward more visibly into our conscious life and awareness. If we have a job it might be to get out of its way; but we don’t even have to do that, really; as it is always there whether we get out of its way or not.

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10 responses to this post:
  1. Buddhadharma: Journey without Goal? Aren’t goals helpful? | elephant journal says:

    [...] found this interesting blog that references Trungpa, Suzuki and others today, just after reading in latest Shambhala Sun about [...]

    February 3rd, 2009 at 3:04 pm
  2. davee says:

    hey mitsu, found your post from reading onecity.

    one thing i’ve been thinking about lately is that meditation for a non-buddhist outcome must be just fine - like if one wants to improve their focus to play basketball - so then having a non-goal goal must more relate to a buddhist path or at least a path with the same direction as buddhism.

    so then if we talk about buddhist practice with a goal, the rub to me seems to be less that we’re doing something wrong, just that we’re not currently or perhaps not yet on a fully buddhist path.

    that said, before we can enter a fully buddhist path, it might really be the case that we have relative work to do. the tibetans say we accumulate tremendous amount of merit first before we can approach emptiness properly, but that is i think saying the same thing. we might find relative work to be preparatory to entering the path fully, and necessary for us. but then who’s to say how much would be the most helpful.

    anyway, i fear if we always equate buddhist path with fully entering then people won’t feel ok with more preparatory work. and that more relative work can be goal oriented even if we understand it’s not an ultimate view. i’m a shambhala practitioner, and it was put by sakyong mipham rinpoche once to me thus, “we have to have a healthy sense of self, before we can contemplate selflessness.” which has been a koan for me to think about the last couple years since i heard it. and it’s prompting me to consider if i should not be so haste in moving from the hinayana view. i’m muddling view and practice here somewhat, though. just thinking out loud.

    February 4th, 2009 at 5:01 pm
  3. davee says:

    i’d like to add, i’ve appreciated reading your comments and the debate on onecity. contemplation is more fun when there’s a discussion going.

    February 4th, 2009 at 5:06 pm
  4. Peter Francis Cerrato says:

    what if the buddha was wrong … what if life is not suffering, what if desire is not a snake skin to be shed but rather the very fabric of a conscious universe … what if the ego is your friend … what if embodied life is a gift filled with the essense of liberation and flavour and the invitation is to deepen our ability to savour it all … what if everything is actually real and not ephemeral and deepening our connection to the fabric is what allows the spaces to open and the deep mysteries to emerge … what if ?

    February 6th, 2009 at 4:07 am
  5. mitsu says:

    Thanks, davee, for your comments. There are a lot of different views regarding this subtle point; many teachers suggest that it is best to start with what they call “preliminary practices” which are very goal-oriented, until you reach a stage where you can start to drop goals. Other teachers believe that it is possible and even a good idea to start by trying to directly work with the principle, as Suzuki put it, of not having a “gaining idea.” Regardless of which approach you take, however, in reality we’re going to have some sense of goal, for quite some time, before we can relax that, so in essence everyone goes through “preliminary practices” whether they do it formally or not. I tend to prefer Suzuki’s view, myself, just because I believe that, realistically, for lay practitioners, we don’t put enough time into practice for the more gradual approach to work that well — however, it’s going to vary a lot by individual proclivities, naturally.

    Peter: What if, indeed?

    But in fact what you’re attributing as a Buddhist view is not, in fact, the Buddhist view; what they’re talking about is far more radical, bizarre, and paradoxical than that. There’s no version of Buddhism which teaches that desire is a “snake skin to be shed”, and no version which denies phenomenal experience in favor of some sort of negation; it’s called the Middle Way for a reason — the idea is moderation, even at the lower levels of the teaching. At the higher levels, for example the Tantric or Dzogchen/Vajrayana/Zen levels of teaching, the phenomenal world is seen to be emptiness, and emptiness is seen to be the phenomenal world. In the Heart Sutra, they say “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” — or to use a Mahayana saying, “Samsara is Nirvana, Nirvana is Samsara.”

    It is true that Buddhists of every school deny the separate, independent reality of the self, or ego, and they also deny the separate, independent reality of “things” in the world. But that’s very different from saying reality is entirely illusory — they certainly don’t say that. It’s not really a “what if” situation but a sort of logical necessity which doesn’t require any sort of metaphysical speculation: that we are transient aggregates, made up of components, interconnecting phenomena. It’s a common misconception to think Buddhism is denying the “reality” of phenomena — they do not. What they deny is that when we call a thing a thing, that this thing is clearly defined, separated from the rest of the universe, and persistent. That can’t be the case, for obvious reasons; if you just think about the physical or, even more impressively, the quantum description of any object, the way it is interpenetrating with the rest of the universe, it’s clear that the Buddhist view must be correct. All things are interdependent with all other things, and we recognize them as things because we perceive and categorize them that way, not because there’s any well-defined sense in which they are clearly separable from the rest of the universe and persistent through time. Further, this categorization depends on the mind; ameobas have a totally different way of interacting with the world than we do; every mind creates its own reality (this was called co-dependent arising in the Yogacaran school). Mind and world co-arise, in other words — a very postmodern idea.

    What is the upshot of all this? Yes, samsara, these very things that comprise our phenomenal experience, is and could not be anything other than nirvana; in other words, it is not necessary to become detached from the world, or to get rid of desire, etc., to be liberated in the Buddhist sense. Instead, it’s simply a matter of Being — things as they are, which is not a denial, but it is also not a “buying into the appearance of things.” In other words, Buddhists are saying there is an illusion here — not that things aren’t real, but that things aren’t what they seem. They’re both much more than they seem, and much less. The much more part is actually the really interesting part.

    This idea: there’s more than meets the eye — that’s certainly true, indisputably.

    So the spaces open and the deep mysteries emerge, as you say, via the world, but not by limiting ourselves to the way the world at first appears to us. So is the ego our friend? It’s not our enemy, but the idea of the ego as a separated “thing” does obscure some aspect of a boundless treasure which is always already available to us. This is because thinking of the ego as a separated thing is actually taking ourselves as much smaller, more constrained, more limited, more cramped beings than we really are — what we REALLY are is vast, inconceivably vast.

    February 6th, 2009 at 5:11 am
  6. Peter Francis Cerrato says:

    Now were talking ! Beautifully put, Mitsu.

    And in that vastness there is room for everything, the pure potential of anything it is possible forus to experience.

    “… there is an illusion here — not that things aren’t real, but that things aren’t what they seem. They’re both much more than they seem, and much less. The much more part is actually the really interesting part.”

    and I would add that maya, the illusion-creating-process, is more accurately termed the measuring-of-reality which begins to get at the deep structure of the sanskrit word itself …

    what is at stake, for me, is our active participation in the very process of consciousness itself which is, as i see it at the moment (this will most certainly change…) is the much-more-making-process …

    here’s a fundamental paradox to ponder|embrace : a world of more, a world of abundance, and a world of deepening connections, of value, meaning and affirmation must of necessity be a world that is complex and wonderfully hidden (who want to know what’s inside the gift-wrapping anyway?) … and that is a beautifully simple and ultimately feeing stance|surfride …

    Think of the subtle, yet profund difference between these two statements :

    “I give my busy mind something to do …”

    “I give my busy mind something beautiful to do …”

    hmmm …

    again, for me, beauty always points most directly into that vast space between certainty and uncertainty, between karma and lila …

    this freedom born of desire gives us the power to step consciously into conditioned reality and make alligned choices about what to bind ourselves to …

    back to your “the much more part is actually the really interesting part” … because (to amplify and un-fold your revelation) this is not only the interesting part, the part that rubs us just so against the grain and into the realm of pure desire … desire for its own sake … it is also an important point, and a place to slow down and contemplate a fractalizing, chaotic, entangled, random, playful universe that offers itself to us in ever more complex, ever more beautiful, ever more magical ways …

    so to sum this one up : i prefer to lean a bit more towards the “tastes great” side of embodied existence and to allow the “less filling” side fill the spaces (which is what it does so well anyway …)

    enjoying the interchange …


    February 7th, 2009 at 3:23 am
  7. Patrick says:

    Mitsu, a pedantic query:

    In your comment to Peter you cite a Mahayana saying, “Samsara is Nirvana, Nirvana is Samsara.”

    Was it really so positive a statement? Or did the saying actually say that no distinction could be found to separate Nirvana and Samsara?

    The latter, to me, would seem to be more on point w.r.t. ultimate truth than an identification of the one with the other.

    On a relative level, of course, samsara is most certainly not nirvana, and on an ultimate level (I think) it would still be incorrect to identify each with the other. That nothing can be found to separate them is subtle, but to say they are the same goes a significant step further.

    I thought it was “not two”, but also “not one”.

    March 10th, 2009 at 5:36 pm
  8. mitsu says:

    It’s not two, in that they’re not separable, but not one, only in that the two words refer to different aspects or ways of relating to the fundamental ground of being. In an ultimate sense, however, I think it is fair to say that they ARE one.

    A picture I use for myself is that what we call samsara is really just a limited take or a constrained, narrow view of the fundamental ground that we all are. That is, a particular phenomenon of samsara, be it fear, desire, attachment, aversion, etc., is, if you follow it down to its roots, so to speak, really and truly one with the ground not just in some ethereal sense but in a very present, here-and-now, practical sense. However, it’s not to say that the samsaric mode of being, so to speak, is, in its limited appearance, the “same” as nirvana; clearly, as a mode of being, samsara can be quite painful and difficult, even if it is comprised of nothing which is itself separate or separable from nirvana.

    I tend to think of it this way: the reason samsara seems different from nirvana is just that we are conscious only of fragments of reality, or aware of only of a tiny shard of what is really going on. Taken in isolation samsara can become quite limiting. But the point isn’t to suppress or tame it (except as a sort of preliminary approach), but rather to expansively extend one’s appreciation of reality until your boundary opens to the whole universe. As one sage put it, the problem isn’t desire, it’s that your desire is so small.

    The reason desire and fear appear so coercive and problematic is that they are fragmented, collapsed. Opened out they become powerful forces, they are just part of the energy of the universe. They’re no longer coercive, strange as that may seem. For the same reason, you need less stimulation to experience them; you can get joy and bliss just from breathing, or seeing light, or sleeping … as your sensitivity and awareness grows you need less stimulation. So it may look like these sages are fairly modest in their desires but in reality they’re suffused with intense awareness and appreciation of every moment, without needing the same level of stimulation that ordinarily people want. The point is not repression but waking up and opening out to a vast connection with the inconceivable universe.

    March 10th, 2009 at 7:02 pm
  9. Peter Cerrato says:


    So beautifully put :

    “…you can get joy and bliss just from breathing, or seeing light, or sleeping …”

    and so true in a very practical sense.

    Which is why I am drawn these days to the teachings which directly address methods for accessing this richness of experience in precisely those modes : the breath, the vibratory nature of external and internal awareness and the transitions between modes of consciousness.

    Perhaps you can tell us a bit about the specific methods you have found valuable in developing access to that sense of bliss.

    Back on the topic of Samsara vs Nirvana … a bit of etymology might provide for both a crack in the wall as well as access to some of those methods refered to above :

    sam-sara :

    The verbal root which gives rise to “sam” has meanings which include “to celebrate” as well as “to embrace”.

    While “sara” embraces the paradox of both “flowing” and “essential”.

    So while the typical buddhist connotation of “samsara” is something along the lines of ‘being bound to the cycles of ignorance causing rebirth’ “samsara” can be turned on its head to mean ‘to be held in the embrace of that which is ever-flowing’.

    Seen in this light the dance of samsara and nirvana becomes much more intimate, sensual, accessible …

    nir-vana :

    “vana” gives rise to our english words such as “winds” and “whisper” and is wrapped around our awareness and savouring of the breath and subtle energy flows in our body …

    “nir” is a very interesting language element in that at first glance it is similar to the english “non” or a leading “a” as a reversal of the following term as thus nirvana becomes “to extinguish” … however, sanskrit is a tricky animal in that it is constantly asking us to embrace paradox as a pathway to meaning and value … this nir-vana can also be read : never-without-breath …

    and so where does that leave us?

    to step from sam-sara (being held in the embrace of the flowing essence of embodiment) into nir-vana (to awaken to the blissfull recognition that one is nothing other than that flowing essense) then becomes not only possible but one contains the seed of the other … and the pathway becomes one of deepening one’s ability to participate and to savour everything that the breath of life offers us …

    which leads to this method :

    allow each inhale to deepen the light of your awareness
    allow each exhale to deepen your sense of bliss and openess


    March 14th, 2009 at 4:39 pm
  10. lawrence says:

    > a purely “experiential” understanding, as some put it, can be dislodged without careful study. That’s an important point worth noting.

    indeed. i’ve been wrestling with that myself. i’ve had some terrific “opening” experiences through various substances and yogic practices, but it is ever so difficult to translate the insights gotten there into long-term changes in my lifestyle, without an intellectual framework which supports me in breaking away from the goal-oriented sleepwalking that so many of us take to be the whole of life…

    figuring out how to integrate all these experiences–what do they all mean? how should i live with people who may not see things the same way?–is an ongoing project.

    which is a funny way of talking about it, since we’re on the topic of goal-orientedness… sometimes i think it’s not an ongoing project at all! maybe it’s like saying, “i go out in the day and come home at night to rest, and that’s part of my ongoing project to stay at home.” sometimes it feels like the moments of remembrance, of recognition, are enough. thanks for provoking some of those with your writing!

    April 3rd, 2009 at 6:31 pm

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