Why do I seek realization? I only have a very short time to live (years or days just a blink in time). What is the benefit of becoming enlightened? It can’t be for me. I’m as transient as an airborne spore.
When you realize buddha dharma, you do not think, “This is realization just as I expected.” Even if you think so, realization inevitably differs from your expectation. Realization is not like your conception of it. Accordingly, realization cannot take place as previously conceived. When you realize buddha dharma, you do not consider how realization came about. Reflect on this: what you think one way or another before realization is not a help for realization.
~ Eihei Dogen in Yuibutsu Yobutsu
To engage Zen wholeheartedly and not know why is a sure sign of sincere practice. If there were a clear reason we could grasp with the thinking mind, this reason would fail to sustain our energy over time as life circumstances change. But the instinct towards awakening needs no rational justification. In fact, just the opposite — there is a teaching that “the mind that seeks the way is the mind of enlightenment itself.” When practice really starts to take hold and change our daily life habits, a tension often arises between the instinctual knowing that there is something to wake up to and the rational comparing mind that has limited ideas about who enlightened people are and what it looks like. What am I doing? Why am I spending all this time in zazen? I can’t possibly get enlightened, you know, like the Dalai Llama. I could be relaxing reading a mystery novel or taking up ceramics. What good is all this sitting? I never thought I’d do something like this. This is pure craziness!
This skeptical doubt is not a problem if we see it for what it is, trying to be a good friend and keep us safe in the limited known world. However, alongside this is another knowing we come to rely upon — the intuitive felt sense we are returning to an old familiar place we once knew but have forgotten. This wordless inspiration in the body’s core is the place we return to breath after breath. It is the vital life of practice, animating our Zen rituals. While we can lose touch, it is never apart from us. We start to trust it more and along the path are frequently affirmed when we experience the moment of returning home in our lives and our bodies. It has no justification in the world of gain and loss, right and wrong, should and shouldn’t.
It is said we need three things on the path — great faith, great determination and great doubt. So this skeptical intellectual doubt begins to transform into the “great doubt” of an open mind, listening to what cannot be grasped but can be lived out, going forward with humility and curiosity. I remember a difficult time in practice when it was painful to sit with fear and grief and self-criticism. I was too far in to quit but really doubting the path. I said to my teacher, Why would anyone choose to go through all this difficulty for some elusive enlightenment? He said gently, It is just like taking off a too tight pair of shoes. Slowly I realized this awakening was less otherworldly and far more intimate and powerful than I imagined.
Yes, life is transient. It is also a long life. What we do matters. Every day, there are endless choices and consequences to these choices. The path is not a matter of time left but time now and we see that simply walking the path is awakening itself and sustains us day to day. It is a good way to live, enlightened or not. When we give up the image of the magic moment in the future when we “get enlightened” all that energy returns to wholehearted being now and brings light and life to the ungraspable nature of what is before you. The path — endless, marvelous, loving, and mysterious — becomes who we are.
With palms together,