We come to meditation seeking something – greater happiness, freedom from anxiety or grief, or even Enlightenment. I started out because I wanted to feel peace of mind, freedom from addictive behavior and a way to deal with grief and loss.
Today there are now hundreds of thousands of meditation centers to choose from. They are not all the same. Depending on what school you discover, you may be taught ways to calm your mind, how to be more mindful, or even perhaps how to become one with the Buddha or God. The common thread through these approaches is that where we are now – in our body and mind – could be much much better. There is something we can do to transform our lives and end the suffering we are in.
Siddhartha’s own story of transition from a prince to a Buddha serves as a foundation for all these paths. He started out as an ordinary human being, a member of the kshatriya or warrior caste in India. He made the decision to leave his family and Kingly responsibilities to seek Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. He practiced assiduously for 6 years. Then, after much trial and tribulation, became “Buddha.” This, we are told, is possible for anyone who puts their mind to it.
Improvement or “transformation” modes of practice have their merit and may be viable for us in some ways and at some times. I genuinely respect these approaches. However, Soto Zen meditation is different from other schools of Buddhism, Hinduism and secular meditation in an important respect.
Early Buddhist teachings center on attaining Enlightenment through practices that help one end desire. Through awareness of the various components of the human being, such as the five skandhas or the 18 elements practitioners focus on getting at the root of suffering – greed, hate, and delusion – and seeing the impermanent and non-self nature of all that is. As Buddhism aged, there emerged practices of becoming one with various Buddhas through, for example, concentration on images of a teacher. Becoming a Buddha was (and still is) the goal. Another practice includes perceiving the empty nature of all phenomena.
Similarly, many Hindu meditation practices focus on liberation from samsara by following certain methods such as those found in the Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras are a very practical guide for anyone who wishes to understand the way the mind works, and to deepen their meditation practice. They offer suggestions for how to calm the mind and enter various states of samadhi or super consciousness. Through purification of the mind, through tapas – the heat generated by ascetic practice – one gets closer to attaining the goal of moksha or freedom from the round of samsara.
Secular forms of meditation as are found in the modern mindfulness movement de-emphasize or eliminate these religious concepts such as Buddha, Enlightenment, samsara, nirvana, and reincarnation from their lexicon. In lieu of this, they focus on mental and physical health and well-being, such as reducing stress or coping with chronic pain. The mindfulness movement has been an important contribution to alternative forms of healing in our culture. Yet it too is a program which moves from sick to healthy, or suffering to the end of suffering, in a similar way that the preceding examples do, albeit without the religious language or imagery.
In contrast to this, Zen Master Dogen, in his universal instructions for zazen, says, “Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.” There is an active awareness that what we do when we sit cross legged is to try to become something or someone else. The Soto school basically says, be aware of that natural tendency and don’t do that. All sorts of teaching methods such as those found in the Koan cases, are there to prevent us from this natural tendency to want to become a Buddha, to achieve greater health, or, in short, to become something better than we are right now.
One story that I love to share is that of a monk who was sitting in meditation when his teacher comes by and asks him what he’s doing there. The monk responds, “I’m making a Buddha.” The teacher responds by picking up a brick and polishing it. The monk asks him in return, “What are you doing?” The teacher responds, “I’m making a mirror.”
“How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” asks the monk.
The teacher responds, “How can you make a Buddha by sitting in meditation?”
The surface answer is that you can’t do that.
The question remains, though, why bother to practice meditation if it doesn’t do anything for you? This is really the question that practitioners of Soto Zen need to dive into.
My teacher often said that there are three doorways to Zen practice: impermanence, remorse, and self-improvement. Impermanence is basically that we become aware of the truth of the shortness of our life in a very visceral way. Remorse means that we recognize we’ve done something wrong, and we want to make amends for it. Practice can and is done by many because of remorse. But the last one, self-improvement, is a bit of a revolving door. It takes you in to the Enlightened realms long enough to taste the air conditioning on the inside, but unless there is a deeper reason for practice, that revolving door will swing you back outside.
In other words, it’s okay to start out practice with the desire for transformation, but for some folks that’s just not enough to keep them on the path. Consider impermanence or remorse as ways to help you enter more deeply. This is why we say in the Soto school, practice without gaining mind, or, in Dogen’s words, “Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.” But what does this, “Have no designs on becoming a Buddha” actually feel like in our body and mind?
One suggestion while the next time you are engaged in meditation is to recall the other practices you employ, be it mindfulness, insight meditation, a yogic form of meditation, etc. Do them and then notice what happens with your mind. Where is it? Is it in the future? At some point consider saying to yourself silently, almost like a mantra, “Have no designs on becoming a Buddha,” and just see what happens. Or, if you prefer the non-religious language, consider saying, “Have no designs on being more mindful.” Or, notice whatever desire is rising in your mind in that moment and say, “Have no designs on attaining [fill in the blank].” See what happens.