…the possibility of unconditional openness that practice can lead us to is one where … beneath all the surface troubles of life there is actually a well-being.
Last week’s message on the value or utility of practice may have come across as a bit baffling so I want to say a little more on the purpose of practice.
Clearly, few people are going to take up a practice of meditation without a reason or purpose. And yet, there is an old dialogue from the Zen records that runs as follows:
A student asked Rinzai what Bodhidharma’s purpose had been in bringing Zen from India to China. (Bodhidharma being the semi-legendary figure said to have brought the Zen form of Buddhism to China in the early sixth century.)
Rinzai answered: “If Bodhidharma had had a purpose, he couldn’t have saved even himself.”
What should we make of that? Maybe not too much. Zen is always immediately situational. It has no overarching ontology or philosophy. What Rinzai says to a student in one moment he might contradict in the next. Whatever might free the student of what he thinks he knows, Rinzai will say or do. Yet we can still explore and unpack what is going on.
Firstly, as a practice strategy, to be over-attached to outcomes is rarely helpful. To sit expecting certain results may be counter-productive. Our task is to accept the moment as it is, and we can’t do that if we’re already leaning into a future moment, anticipating some state or outcome we hope to reach. One quick way to cut through that tendency is to feel out any sense of purpose we may be unconsciously carrying, any agenda for our practice, and give our attention to it, allowing it to loosen and dissolve.
But secondly, the possibility of unconditional openness that practice can lead us to is one where all is well, where we taste that beneath all the surface troubles of life there is actually a well-being – of all creation creating itself with a vast but empty power.
Why is it doing it? What is its purpose? It’s not clear we will ever know. Some say its only purpose is to be recognized – which we are doing when we taste it – hence, if there were a purpose, it is already fulfilled in our practice. Yogananda said that the world before us is like a movie being projected onto a screen, and that we get utterly beguiled by the images, caught up in them, and that we can in fact look up and see the beam of light cast by the projector. The purpose of life is to see the beam, he said. But once we do, all purpose is somehow swallowed up.
But none of the above denies the demonstrable benefits of practice: becoming calmer, less at the mercy of our cravings, moods, hankerings, and habituated patterns of reactivity. And maybe over time we can offer our own humble contributions to making the world a kinder place. And perhaps that will happen sooner not through hungrily grasping after it, but rather through patience.
It can help to check out if we’re leaning ahead, into the next moment, toward a time that hasn’t come yet. See what it would take to rest in just this moment. After all, the next step can’t help us with this one.