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Barbara O'Brien

More Goalless Goals

By November 19, 2013

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The comments to the last post are so good that I'd like to keep the conversation about goals going. Zen liturgy and commentary have a lot to say about goalless goals. For example, this is from the Sandokai  (best known in English as Identity of Relative and Absolute), an 8th century Chinese text by Shitou Xiqian:

Make no criterion: if you do not see the Way
you do not see It even as you walk on It.
When you walk the Way, you draw no nearer, progress no farther;
who fails to see this is mountains and rivers away.

In his commentary on this text (working with a sightly different translation), Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said,

"'Practice is not a matter of far or near.' This is very important . When you are involved in selfish practice you have some idea of attainment. When you strive to reach a goal or attain enlightenment, you naturally have the idea 'I am far from the goal,' or 'I am almost there.' But if you really practice our way, enlightenment is right where you are." [from Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai]

On seeing or not seeing the Way, Roshi said, "Whatever you see, that is the dao." I like that. It reminds me of a koan, from the Blue Cliff Record, that contains this quote:

"'Medicine and disease cure each other.' 'The entire great earth is medicine.' What particularly is oneself? The Cure."

The entire great earth is medicine. Everything is medicine. But then it also says that medicine and disease cure each other. It's not a matter of using medicine to drive away the disease. As I understand it, the "cure" is a kind of resolution, of both medicine and sickness.

Another translation of this passage is "Medicine and sickness subdue each other. The whole earth is medicine. Where do you find yourself?" Where do you fit into this sickness-and-medicine thing? How can you be the cure? That appears to be the question the koan is asking.

Be advised that this is a koan that's been nagging at me for years, but I've never formally presented it to a teacher. So anything I say is an uninformed student's opinion and not an expert's word. But, at its most basic, it seems to be saying, "Don't sort everything into 'sacred' and 'mundane' (or good/bad) bins. Don't make a duality out of practice and enlightenment. Don't think of anything as separate from you."

Roshi also wrote that "A beginner's practice and a great Zen master's practice are not different." However, if you think practice is something you do to obtain enlightenment, that is delusion. You will be creating huge barriers for yourself.

 

Comments
November 19, 2013 at 2:56 pm
(1) Lee says:

if you think practice is something you do to obtain enlightenment, that is delusion.’
if you think practice is something you do to realize ‘enlightenment’ is that delusion?

November 19, 2013 at 6:29 pm
(2) Lee says:

Barbara … I am very interested in your writing on goals. I have taught goal setting.. I have used goals to attain many things. I have goals on my ‘list’ each day to get done. Fix the car, fertilize the bonsai. When I began training my goal was to become enlightened (of course). I finished each meditation with my own little ritual bowing and saying “may love, compassion and wisdom rise in my heart. May I continue to be willing to train.” I would bow and go on with my day. After some years I realized things had changed and one morning I bowed and said “may love, compassion and wisdom manifest in my daily activity. may I be willing.” and I went on my way. I feel that since I began serious training something has been ‘set in motion’ … a process which includes ‘me’ is changing my view of things. and goals are important to insure I get the bonsai fed and the trash taken out. And when I bow even the trash is cool! when I don’t it stinks!

November 19, 2013 at 8:18 pm
(3) facethemusic says:

I’m not sure I understand the problem with having a goal of enlightenment. The original Buddhist teachings talk about suffering and the goal of how to escape or transcend it. The Four Noble Truths as a teaching is not shy about objectifying the causes of suffering and the path, etc..

Along the path there are many intermediate goals – think of the Bodhisattva vow. The act of taking a spiritual vow is in fact setting yourself a goal, publicly. And setting that goal is motivated by the desire to build towards a larger goal, to recognize enlightenment.

All our lives we set goals, we strive to attain or “get” something or other, and then another thing, and it’s always a purely dualistic exchange. You work towards it, then you “get” it and consume it or “get” it and try to keep it. Well, I think the Teachers are saying that the enlightened mind doesn’t fit in that dualistic exchange framework at all. You can’t “get” it the way you get other things. But you still have to work at it,…. up… until you don’t!

November 20, 2013 at 8:14 am
(4) Hein says:

“The original Buddhist teachings talk about suffering and the goal of how to escape or transcend it. The Four Noble Truths as a teaching is not shy about objectifying the causes of suffering and the path, etc..”

It seems to me the Buddha’s teaching is that (objectively and subjectively) there is suffering (“dukkha”/dissatisfaction) and the cause and the stopping of it. But i think the Buddha did not create a “goal”. The Buddha teaches the Way (the Noble Eightfold Path) as a way to transend all of the aforegoing three Truths, not as a goal but simply as The Way. IMO if you do not have right understanding then your practice of the Way would not be “right” or skillful. Now to bring in the controversial “faith”. If one have “faith” in the Buddha’s teachings one should then by logical conclusion also have “faith” in The Way. So there is no goal except to practice The Way, which is not a goal but simply the never-ending Way to practice enlightenment (but not – as I undertsand it – a way to achieve enlightenment). The Way is the way of doing things if you “belief” the Buddha.
Trust that opinion of mine makes sense?

November 20, 2013 at 9:27 am
(5) N. Yeti says:

When we got out of bed this morning, presumably the ground was beneath our feet without thinking about it. That is faith, not a goal. It is not that faith exists separately from the dream of mindstream, but that it transcends it in as many aspects of practice we choose to recognize. But faith is not an affirmation or word or concept. To say faith itself, as though it were something to be identified and held in the hands (or held in consciousness, as an idea or concept), so to speak, chases away the real meaning of faith which is transcendent knowing and not a goal.

November 20, 2013 at 9:40 am
(6) Yuan says:

In my opinion, the teaching of goalless goal is really a Ch’an thing. Ch’an’s path is one of non-attachment. Not even to the concept of goal.
Bodhidharma didn’t even want to establish words and writings, lest that people become attached to them.

Other traditions uses both goals and attachment (in some form) to help their practitioners. For example: 4 stages of Enlightenment (Theravada), Lamrim(Tibetan), Pureland.

November 20, 2013 at 9:59 am
(7) Yuan says:

So if this goalless goal thing is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other varieties to choose from. Don’t sweat it.

November 20, 2013 at 10:06 am
(8) Mila says:

re: “‘Medicine and disease cure each other.’ ‘The entire great earth is medicine.’ What particularly is oneself? The Cure.”

What this brings to mind is how the manifest Dharma (written & spoken teachings, rituals & practices) arise — as “medicine” — in response to the dis-ease of samsaric suffering. They “cure each other” in the sense that once we’ve taken the medicine, i.e. applied the practices, and so regained our natural ease (i.e. realized Buddha-Nature), then the medicine, i.e. the practices, are released.

To use a metaphor from physics: disease and medicine are like entangled particles, and the process of healing like the computations of a quantum computer, in which the “question” and “answer” move toward one another. So in this case the “disease” and the “medicine” move toward one another — and the “cure” is their mutual annihilation back into the field out of which they initially arose.

It is quantum entanglement that allows for (the appearance of) the exchange of classical information (between seemingly-discrete “entities”). Similarly, it is our True Identity as the universal field (with its wave-function intelligence) which is the “cure” into which disease and medicine simultaneously resolve.

November 20, 2013 at 10:32 am
(9) N. Yeti says:

Emperor Wu was said to have asked Bodhidharma: “What is the first principle of the holy dharma?” Bodhidharma was said to have answered: “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” How perplexing this must have been to Emperor Wu! If there is an elevated state which is completely devoid of holiness, and yet seemingly flows out with the characteristics of holiness (selflessness and compassion) then whatever can it be?

If we look into this matter, I think Zen reveals a mental state which goes quite beyond goal seeking, or definitions of any kind. But there is a pathway to it which might be considered a goal if we consider Zen an ongoing practice. Can emptiness be said to be a goal? If so, what might that goal look like? If not a goal, emptiness is certainly not something which is absent from practice or religious contemplation (dhyana) in Zen (or pan-Buddhism), and so again, how can this be?

This notion we are talking about here then, is not an either-or thing, or thing of any kind, and neither is it the nihilistic obliteration of mind or being itself, but an elevated state of consciousness which transcends all things and forms of being, which is precisely why it becomes difficult to talk about Buddhism in the contexts of goals.

November 20, 2013 at 3:35 pm
(10) Lee says:

an elevated state of consciousness which transcends all things and forms of being,” …

how could this be?

November 20, 2013 at 5:35 pm
(11) N. Yeti says:

Lee, sorry if the comment was needlessly opaque. Basically what I am talking about is the dharmakaya.

Here are some of the meanings:

“the Ultimate Reality…which is far beyond the senses and discriminating mind”

“the Ultimate Oneness, emptiness, unborn, unqualified, devoid of will effort”

“source of intuition”

“Nirvana”

“The Ultimate Essence”

November 20, 2013 at 5:55 pm
(12) Lee says:

I don’t believe the statement was opaque … and what is there to transcend; what is there that is elevated and how can that transcend all forms of being? (would that include non forms) It could leave one quite confused. Again, how could this be?

November 20, 2013 at 6:58 pm
(13) Mila says:

re: “All our lives we set goals, we strive to attain or “get” something or other, and then another thing, and it’s always a purely dualistic exchange. You work towards it, then you “get” it and consume it or “get” it and try to keep it. Well, I think the Teachers are saying that the enlightened mind doesn’t fit in that dualistic exchange framework at all. You can’t “get” it the way you get other things. But you still have to work at it,…. up… until you don’t!”

Ultimately, the question of whether or not goals are set is less important than the question of who/what is this “you” that is either setting goals or not setting goals. Who’s that one? When you say “I” — what is the referent of this word? Does this “I” have a space-time location? Does this “I” share the (apparent) limitations of the human bodymind that it calls “mine”?

Once this investigation completes itself, then goals may arise, or they may not arise. Practice may appear to be happening, or it may appear not to be happening. But these appearances then are simply the functioning of the Absolute (or, if you prefer, the “happening” of Nothing) — and are not a cause of suffering, because they are not presumed to issue forth from a limited egoic “me.”

November 20, 2013 at 7:40 pm
(14) N. Yeti says:

Lee, I think these are questions of an individual practice. But scripturally, the dharmakaya is the essence of being, an animating principle. As revealed in the Lanka, all appearances stream from mind and are illusory; yet the unborn and undying essence which is the dharmakaya, is not conditioned, illusory or ephemeral. Thus the jewel of Buddha nature is concealed within the “all things” of samsara, obscured by defilements and can be awakened once the adept recognizes the nature of mind which transcends the ordinary mind and the appearance of reality itself. It is intuitive, said to be impossible to know in its entirety even by the highest level of Bodhisattva, yet always present, always acessible and the very essence of consciousness. Thus to know it and Nirvana is to transcend samsara and all appearances. It is not arrived at by concept or condition of any kind, but recognized by a mystical “turning about” at the very seat of consciousness, which is the awakening of bodhi and the first step to liberation from the transformation of death.

November 20, 2013 at 9:26 pm
(15) won says:

Medicine, it seems to me, is a force which can only exist in relationship to a thing for it to treat. If we are well, then what is medicine? Nonexistent. Also, what is disease? Also nonexistent.

For one to arise, the other must arise simultaneously, so much so, maybe they can be seen as different sides of the same coin.

If I fall ill and there is no way to treat it, then this is merely the path of my life, maybe I will die sooner than I might have otherwise, but in the absence of a treatment, the notion of an “otherwise” is imaginary…

If a treatment becomes available, then my condition becomes a disease, a thing to be opposed by its counterpart.

I rarely think of it this way, but since life is a death sentence, I tend to assume that it is normal that it should end and may even consider myself healthy, even as cells are dividing and dying as part of a finite process. If there was the possibility of immortality, all mortality would be more often considered a disease.

Reality is reality, the only thing that can be “cured” is the perception of it as something other than it is.

I’m reminded of a story Ajahn Brahmavamso tells (my details are from memory and thus sketchy) of a military strategist who was asked about the problem with the Middle East conflict. He replied that problems have solutions, and since there is / was no solution to the conflict, then there is also no problem. Never understood that before…

November 21, 2013 at 8:08 am
(16) Mila says:

re: “Reality is reality, the only thing that can be “cured” is the perception of it as something other than it is.”

Yes — “Reality is reality” — and it is the equation of “Reality” (and hence of “I”) with a limited form (e.g. a human body) that is the “perception to be cured.”

re: “life is a death sentence”

Where there is birth (i.e. appearance of form) there will be death (i.e. dissolution of form). Life/Reality is the field of Dharmakaya within which such dramas unfold, continuously …..

Whether you are mortal or Immortal is simply a matter of identification.

November 21, 2013 at 6:34 pm
(17) Tanukisan says:

Goodness; it seems as if so many here are trying to figure out what the “goalless goal” is – which is a goal, of course.

Personally, I think a bowl of tea is a good goal to have.

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