Two weekends ago I participated in a Zen Seminar with the same title as this post: Living with No Gaining Idea. It is a rich topic and one that is very relevant to my life at this time. Zen is particularly focused on questions much more than the answers. When you know something in the traditional sense, it is no longer alive, its becomes static. A question is living, dynamic, exploratory. For example:
What is a gaining idea?
Why are gaining ideas so compelling?
What are we gaining through our gaining ideas?
Is it practical to live in this world with no gaining idea?
Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says living with no gaining idea is getting rid of what’s extra. But how do we know what is extra?
These questions and many more all swirled in our discussion and conversation. One of the first things I noticed after sitting with this topic is that as my life shifted in recent years from the realm of career to that of spirit, I found myself often not so much with gaining ideas as I did losing ideas. What I mean by losing ideas are those that sound like “If I only didn’t do this…. or If I could stop this habit…” On the surface they seem very different from gaining, but in actuality they have the same energetic quality: that of not accepting what is in this moment. That is, seeking gain or loss from what is. That means the seminar could have been titled, Living with no Idea. Hey, maybe we’re getting somewhere. You might say, I don’t live with an idea, I just live. But if you look deeply I bet you’ll find what I like to call hidden assumptions about how the world works, how you exist in the world and in relation to others. These are all forms of unexamined ideas.
In the times of your greatest suffering or pain, what is actually happening? I’ve discovered that it is when these unexamined ideas are challenged and shown to be relative, partial views of reality. Its when the world, through your career, your partner or something else challenges this hidden assumption and forces you into a place of uncertainty. In this uncertainty, we have a choice – do we rapidly seek a new idea to stand upon, or can we rest in this unknowing? I would argue, in theory, that this is the only true way of being and that this unknowing is what Suzuki Roshi is speaking of by ‘getting rid of what’s extra’ to live with no gaining idea.
Therefore, whenever our activity (or doing) is organized by an idea, it is rather fragile. An opposing idea can easily knock us off balance. If we can’t trust ideas to base our life on, then what trust is possible? On what do we base our actions? This is maybe the crux of Zen and on what Zen Koan practice is based upon. Suzuki Roshi commenting on the famous one hand clapping koan:
We say, "To hear the sound of one hand clapping."
Usually the sound of clapping is made with two hands, and
we think that clapping with one hand makes no sound at all.
But actually, one hand is sound. Even though you do not hear
it, there is sound. If you clap with two hands, you can hear
the sound. But if sound did not already exist before you
clapped, you could not make the sound. Before you make it
there is sound. Because there is sound, you can make it, and
you can hear it. Sound is everywhere. If you just practice
it, there is sound. Do not try to listen to it. If you do not
listen to it, the sound is all over. Because you try to hear it,
sometimes there is sound, and sometimes there is no sound.
Do you understand? Even though you do not do anything,
you have the quality of zazen always. But if you try to find
it, if you try to see the quality, you have no quality.
For me, this discussion and Zen practice itself often lands on a common denominator: the practice of acceptance. When you say are accepting of a situation, is this a wholehearted acceptance, or is it acceptable because it meets certain conditions? When a situation is unacceptable to you, do you work on this fundamental accepting, or do you, like me, find yourself all too often attempting to change external conditions so that the situation can once again fall under your idea of what is acceptable?
All we want to do is to know things just as they
are. If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point
at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to
grasp. We cannot put emphasis on any point. Nevertheless,
as Dogen said, "A flower falls, even though we love it; and
a weed grows, even though we do not love it ." Even though
it is so, this is our life.
In this way our life should be understood. Then there is
no problem. Because we put emphasis on some particular
point, we always have trouble. We should accept things just
as they are. This is how we understand everything, and how
we live in this world. This kind of experience is something
beyond our thinking. In the thinking realm there is a difference
between oneness and variety; but in actual experience,
variety and unity are the same. Because you create some idea
of unity or variety, you are caught by the idea. And you have
to continue the endless thinking, although actually there is
no need to think.
Thanks for listening to my ramblings.