Beyond Attainment

In the Genjokoan, Dogen writes:

When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far from its environs. But dharma is already correctly transmitted; you are immediately your original self.

Dogen is trying to tell us that the dharma – the truth – is already in our hands, already in our mouth, ears, and tongue, as well as already in our skin, bones, marrow, and mind. If we do not understand this point, Dogen tells us, then we live our life as if we are separated from the truth.

Because the truth of our life is constantly present, we only need to grasp it immediately. This is the point of Zen practice. But the way that we “grasp” the truth of our existence is very important. In other words, we need to understand the meaning of “grasp” from the standpoint of our spiritual practice. Since inherently we are not separate from the truth, we have no need to reach out for it, to actively try to grasp it, as if we could pick it up and hold it with our hands. The Dharma is not something that can be grasped by clinging; it cannot be held by holding on with hands, eyes, ears, nose, or mind. And it cannot be held with feelings or ideas.

The Dharma, the truth of our life, can be “grasped” only when we give up grasping in the usual sense. In our practice, we simply let the Dharma fill our mind without interference. So practice means to let our mind be open. This is how we hold on to the Dharma. We just let it express itself through our words and gestures, through our actions and thoughts.

So there is no need for us to worry about grasping the Dharma. If we are concerned about attaining the Dharma, we will become discouraged, because our idea of attainment is a result of our desire to achieve something personal. But the truth of existence is not personal. It is not the same as goal-oriented activities of everyday life. There is nothing to obtain; it is already attained. When we practice based on our trust of this truth, practice has no goal. We understand that there is nothing for us to gain in the future.

Even though our body has physical limits, our zazen posture expresses our inherent limitlessness. In zazen practice, we find balance and confidence through the ease and depth of our breath. It is how we appreciate our inherent connection with the limitless world. Our practice has no particular contemplative structure. We just let our mind resume its limitless awareness, to be ready, to acknowledge whatever enters awareness.

The greatest problem for human beings is our desire to control events, things, and other people. It is a symptom of our misunderstanding of the true nature of life, our misunderstanding of Reality. This desire for control is the source of human unhappiness, as the Second Noble Truth explains,

Thirst and craving lead to the arising of suffering.

We can understand this truth through our own experience, if we are watchful of ourselves and if we pay careful attention to each other.

Spiritual practice includes giving up the idea of control. Dogen explains this point in the following way:

“Long ago a monk asked an old master,

When hundreds, thousands, or myriad objects come all at once, what should be done?

The master replied,

Don’t try to control them. … Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled.”

But giving up trying to control things is not giving up in the usual sense. It does not mean retiring or retreating to a passive life; it means being active in a more creative way. When our life is based on practice, rather than emphasizing “control”, we see our life as “taking care.” So if there is a fire or a flood, we might speak in terms of “controlling” it, but our attitude is actually concerned with taking care of people, land, animals, and property. The same is true of friends, relatives, and people we meet in everyday life. If they sometime seem difficult to us, we try find out what we can do to take care of them. This is the best way to “control” them.

Zen is the practice of non-attainment. We rest in non-achievement when we are not caught by the idea of achievement, when we are not caught by the idea that we need to be in control. It is why our practice is based on the idea of “letting go.” We practice not holding on to ideas about our self, to ideas of pride of achievement, or to ideas of failure to achieve. Letting go means to give up ideas about our self image, about how we want to appear in the eyes of other people.

Our practice is simply to be aware of experience itself. We should try to see clearly what is happening, how we are feeling, how it is working out. Honest awareness of experience is sufficient; we don’t have to classify our experience as “good” or “bad.” Then we can enjoy all of our experiences. Then the Dharma is in our hands, in everything we do.