1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Goals, Commitments and Pathless Paths

By November 21, 2013

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In reading over the comment to the last post, I think there is some confusion between goals and commitments. A goal, by definition, is "the object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result." That's directly out of an online dictionary. A goal is the object of effort, not effort itself. In many Mahayana schools,  it is taught that holding on to any idea of goal in practice is a fetter to realization.

The same dictionary defines commitment as "the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc." Dedicating yourself to a spiritual discipline is a commitment, not a goal.

In Mahayana Buddhism, ultimately, "goal" is a delusion. The Heart Sutra, which says that in prajna paramita there is "no ignorance, no end to ignorance; no old age and death, no cessation of old age and death; no suffering, no cause or end to suffering; no path, no  wisdom  and no gain." In short, without self-reference, without the "I," there is no cause of suffering and no Path as explained in the Four Nobe Truths.

From what I have read, Theravada Buddhism doesn't have a problem with goals. Many schools of Mahayana have various incremental steps or levels that are worked toward as goals. Some of these may be something like the phantom city in the Lotus Sutra -- an illusion conjured to keep us moving in the right direction. But, ultimately the phantom city, along with  "moving" and "direction," are insubstantial.

Noting widespread ambivalence to Chogyam Trungpa -- his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism really is very good and worth reading, and in it Trungpa wrote quite a bit about the futility of struggling.

"... many people make the mistake of thinking that, since ego is the root of suffering, the goal of spirituality must be to conquer and destroy ego. They struggle to eliminate ego's heavy hand but, as we discovered earlier, that struggle is merely another expression of ego. We go around and around, trying to improve ourselves through struggle, until we realize that the ambition to improve ourselves is itself the problem. "

Of course, we all struggle in practice sometimes, whether to stay focused or quiet our thoughts or (my standard sesshin struggle) not nod off to sleep. But it's really when we stop struggling that insights happen.

I've heard teachers advise us to not think of practice as something "I" am doing. Maybe you are something that practice is doing. Just give yourself to it.

November 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm
(1) N. Yeti says:

Ask yourselves Kalamas, when speaking to the tree trimmer, is it better to say: “I would like you to trim the tree,” or should we say, “Branches long. Wind meets mind amid the leaves.”

November 22, 2013 at 8:58 am
(2) Lee says:

once I made a commitment to practice and began to regularly sit it seems as though a ‘process’ was started and as intent and commitment to the conversion of greed, hate and delusion is nurtured (through training/practice) … I have found my relationship to ‘life’ has also changed. While ‘goals’ to reach any place (enlightenment) have been dropped along the way the process continually unfolds as life rapidly slips away.

November 22, 2013 at 9:32 am
(3) Mila says:

Like something that moves by magic
a cloud, a dream, or lightning
such insight results in liberation
and severs the three continuities [of greed, anger, delusion] forever

~ Lankavatara Sutra

& to the tree-trimmer I would say (also via the Lanka):

Why do you speak of a self and no self
of eternity and annihilation
why not teach the truth
‘everything is made of mind’?

November 22, 2013 at 11:01 am
(4) N. Yeti says:


Oh, what a Kalamaty!

November 22, 2013 at 12:38 pm
(5) Mila says:

@ N. Y.

yes, doesn’t bode well for all of the tree-houses :)

November 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm
(6) donald cook says:

… just is …

November 22, 2013 at 7:22 pm
(7) Mila says:

From the point of view of wisdom, the world — including paths & practices, teachers & students — does not exist.

From the point of view of compassion, the world — including paths & practices, teachers & students — does not not exist.

November 23, 2013 at 12:59 pm
(8) Franklyn says:

“Unmon, giving instruction, said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; bring me a phrase about after the fifteenth day.”

“Unmon himself answered without waiting for a reply, “Every day is a good day.”"

Consider whether or not Siddharthar Gautama himself had a goal in mind when he alledged said:

“Here on this seat my body may shrivel up,
my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve,
but my body will not move from this seat
until I have attained Enlightenment,
so difficult to obtain in the course of many kalpas”.

We can find many stories like this in the Ch’an / Zen School
Another immediate example being the second Chinese Patriarch. Given your beloved Dogen according to every biography I know of was, early on, determinedly seeking something.

November 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Franklyn — I don’t think you understood what I wrote.

November 23, 2013 at 10:50 pm
(10) won says:

As it seems to me, commitment is expressed <i>now</i>, whereas a goal is something off in some imaginary future.

One can unskilfully strive toward goals, but one can also do so while realising the striving in the <i>now</I> as being the true benefit of the effort.

November 25, 2013 at 12:32 am
(11) Hein says:

“Given your beloved Dogen according to every biography I know of was, early on, determinedly seeking something.”

Yip it is called the Truth…but when he found it he realised that “searching is futile” (with apology to the Borg in Star Trek). :)

“From the point of view of wisdom, the world — including paths & practices, teachers & students — does not exist.

From the point of view of compassion, the world — including paths & practices, teachers & students — does not not exist.”

That so not not fair for a practitioner like me with a bompu nature nose only that he breathes…:)

November 25, 2013 at 2:18 am
(12) Hein says:

“Given your beloved Dogen according to every biography I know of was, early on, determinedly seeking something.”

Dogen learned the “right way” from the Chinese Chan Masters.
Thus it is said at one webpage (http://www.dharmanet.org/coursesM/26/chan4.htm):
“The path of practice should…not be seen as abandoning the idea of self-centered ego but accepting it as a starting point towards a point where there is no self-reference to hinder the birth of wisdom and compassion. In this view, practice is the path of using self to ultimately realize ‘no-self’ or ‘no-mind’ “.
I quote (because I cannot put it as eloquent):

“How can a self-seeking person become enlightened? Therefore, the Chan school also emphasizes practices such as giving and repentance. If one does not show concern for the benefit of all sentient beings, sincerely give of oneself for others, and devotedly practice giving and make offering, it will be quite difficult to succeed in spiritual practice.”
and it concludes with:
“…if you are so arrogant that, having barely embarked on the Chan path, you refuse to prostrate to the Buddhas, respect the Dharma and Sangha, or believe in the various Dharma-protecting deities, then do not even think about the possibility of attaining enlightenment or seeing your true nature.”


November 25, 2013 at 6:59 am
(13) Hein says:

Somebody gave this example (in another context than the Dharma) of searching for the truth: it is like searching in a dark room without windows or doors for a black cat that is not there. I suppose (in the Dharma sense) one should not even begin the search?
The commitment to once spiritual practice is the goal and the practice is for the benefit of others. Master Sheng Yen said: “The practice of no seeking is the practice of this enlightened state.”

And what is “this enlightened state? Master Sheng Yen (once again) said: “To experience selflessness or emptiness is to experience the quiescence of nirvana, Buddha nature and enlightenment.”
Finally in something reminiscent of what master Dogen said the Chan master Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”) wrote this poem:
In the flash of one thought
my turbulent mind came to rest.
The inner and the outer,
the senses and their objects,
are thoroughly lucid.
In a complete turnabout
I smashed the Great Emptiness.
The ten thousand manifestations
arise and disappear
without any reason.

November 26, 2013 at 7:05 am
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

“I suppose (in the Dharma sense) one should not even begin the search?”

I’d say do begin the search; just don’t hang on to any fixed idea of what it is you are looking for. Or what “search” means. Or what “begin” means, for that matter.

November 26, 2013 at 7:53 am
(15) lee says:

I’d say ‘do begin the search’ … and when you wander, gently bring yourself back to your cushion and sit … I feel, for me, once the process was started and there was a genuine desire to understand regardless of the ‘detours’ or ‘pauses’ the process did not stop … the flower continues to open and show the beauty of what we are in the midst of…

December 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm
(16) Franklyn says:

Received an email today which included the following quotation:

“Zen without the accompanying physical experience is nothing but empty discussion”
- Tekio Sogen Roshi

So what is Sogen advocationg – Having a Goal, Being Commited to a process, or treading Pathless Path (i prefer Buddha Way).

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