Is There Really “Nothing to do and no one to do it?”

If you begin to wake up, you will become frustrated.

I know that sounds strange. Let me explain.

One of the side effects of the insight path is that, in the language of the Visuddhimmaga, you begin to see “what is the path and what is not.” In other words, you can intuit what leads to realization and what is a distraction. You can see much more clearly what is skillful and what is BS, and the problem is this: there is a lot of BS. Not only that, but people are deeply attached to it. They are righteously, emphatically, evangelically attached to it. This isn’t really a problem for you – until you start to wake up. Then you can clearly see all the tragic ways that people keep themselves in the dark. You desperately want to do something about it. But you can’t. It is deeply frustrating.

Below is an email I received from one person who had just such an encounter. I get emails like this regularly, and thought this one was a pretty good example of what it’s like to run face-first into what Bill Hamilton called the “mushroom culture” (when meditators are kept in the dark and fed shit).

For context, the writer recently finished second path, and is cycling up to third, so he is speaking from a place of genuine wakefulness.

I subbed in for my wife last night at a class she was taking at our local Zen Center (of which we are both members, although I almost never sit with the group), where they are studying Chogyam Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Man, it was frustrating.

We’ve discussed before the differences between Zen teachings (open, honest, steady as you go) and those given by the pragmatic dharma folks that I’ve experimented with (Mahasi Sayadaw noting technique, map- and goal-oriented). And, personally, I think that there’s much to be said for recognizing that different techniques and approaches may suit different personalities, yet still lead a seeker to similar realizations.

The funny thing, as I’ve mentioned before, is how Zen’s “drop your goals” and “stop trying” mentality really resonates for Theravada practitioners working up to “third path” in the Sayadaw model. It’s the path where you learn to give up the path. That’s the path where you start to intuitively understand, at a very deep and very fundamental level, that all experiences really are marked with dukkha.

But it’s one thing to see directly that there’s nothing you can actually do to accomplish a goal that will provide you with the experience of permanent bliss and satisfaction and entirely different thing to hear some Zen teacher say that and then accept that as your intellectual understanding of the thing.

The frustration last night was realizing that many of those in the class — even long-time Zen practitioners — simply had no idea what they are doing. If you try and talk technique or methods for figuring it out, they bristle. A woman last night literally took issue with the term “technique” (in a discussion concerning how to drop the “watcher,” which I pointed out the Zen koan “Who am I?” and other self-enquiry techniques are designed precisely to get at). She said — and most of the class agreed — that the term “technique” made it sound like you were doing something, but there’s nothing you need to do, because you cannot achieve enlightenment, it’s just a thing that happens.

Fair enough, but nobody understood what that means. Nobody got that you only realize that there’s nowhere to go after trying to get somewhere for a really long time and failing miserably over and over again and seeing how it feels. It was, instead, this dogmatic adherence to the Zen “no goal” view, without having any clue what it meant. The clear impression from the class discussion was that having a non-dual experience was essentially unattainable. (“The class spent some time discussing ‘what it would be like if you could drop the watcher.'”)

Indeed, it was almost as though there was some sort of taboo associated with even saying that you want one of these peak experiences — like, if you admit that you want to have the non-dual experience, then you won’t have it, ever.

Here was my response:

This sounds like an episode of star trek where they confuse a supercomputer with a logical paradox.

There is nothing to do to become enlightened and any attempts to do so will fail – now go get enlightened! What a disempowering thing to believe.

It seems like, from your description, that they are confusing thinking like an enlightened person with being an enlightened person. From the awakened perspective it sure appears as though there is nothing to do and no one to do it. But if you take that perspective before you’ve actually experienced at least one path moment, then it is crippling.

It’s as if they are pilots stuck on the runway because they only read accounts of how to use auto pilot. Why would it be necessary to do anything? According to the autopilot instructions there is no pilot. There is nothing to do. Nothing to control. Just let go. And if someone points out that they are stuck on the runway because they are acting like they are at 10,000 feet when they’re not, they get offended and think it’s crazy talk. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

The Buddha himself was very clear about striving for enlightenment. On the night of his enlightenment he was working so hard that he described himself as running with sweat with his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth with effort. Over and over again he essentially said “go for it!” liberation is real, it’s available if you just do the work, and even an ordinary person like you can do it. It is a mystery to me why he would tell people to practice like your hair’s on fire if any attempts to become enlightened would fail. He didn’t think that, and he said so over and over. He didn’t hedge on that. He didn’t take it back. He made it one of the steps of the eightfold path, and “strive on with diligence” was the last thing he said before he died. Could he be any clearer? You have to try, and try really hard, otherwise nothing will happen.

Posted on February 4, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. The more I sit the more confused I become about what to do with my life

  2. I don’t want to do anything

    • Do you have anyone guiding you? Sometimes these kinds of feelings come up in meditation and are part of the normal course of things, but if you don’t have a teacher you’re checking in with who can let you know what is going on and give you reassurance, it can be too much. If you don’t have someone you’re talking with regularly, I’d strongly recommend it.
      Email me directly if you’d like more information:

  3. No I don’t have any guidance other than discourses by SN Goenka of Vipassana. It probably would help though, your right.
    Thanks Ron

  4. I might also think of this in terms of ‘absolute reality’ versus ‘conventional reality’. yes, in an absolute sense, there is a sense of ‘being no one going no where’. But in convential reality you have to do the practice and follow certain steps.

    one of my continual frustrations with Zen is the use of inexact language. This is probably a problem of not understanding Zen’s culture very well, though

    • I agree with that assessment Mike. In some ways you might say that is the problem with the mushroom culture overall – it is an attempt to take the perspective of enlightenment before one is actually enlightened. It ends up just being another form of delusion when that happens, I think.

  5. I’ve been a Zen practitioner since 1990. “Mushroom culture” is quite common in many US Zen Centers. The thing about Zen is that it *looks* like it’s so simple a child could do it. Therefore, many people take a childish approach to it. They play-act their way through the practice, because no one has told them any better. And they imagine what it would be like to be “all grown up” (i.e., Awakened) while at the same time dismissing quite often the actual reports of people who have realized some significant degree of Awakening, because those reports to not fit what had been imagined. Other times, they accept the reports, but conclude falsely that they themselves have exactly the same understanding and have had comparable experiences. To paraphrase a famous line from STAR WARS: “The Force of self-delusion is strong with this one.”

    • Yes! That’s it exactly.
      I’m curious – is there a book on zen that approaches it pragmatically? It seems that there must be, but I’m not sure. I’d love to read one that really gets to the heart of it.

Leave a Reply to Ron Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: