Living with No Gaining Idea

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.

Fall is in the Air

Fall is in the air, as is the energy of getting back to school and work. Yet I still linger in this space of uncertainty, waiting, waiting for my call to work or school or otherwise.

What are my circumstances asking me to do?

Is the phrase I mentioned in my previous post that is often asked by those pursuing a Summoned Life.  Yet what if those circumstances aren’t asking me anything? Maybe I’m not listening well enough?  I find myself struggling on days like this – a Monday morning with a blank week ahead. Yes a few coffees and hikes with friends, but outside of this and my morning meditation practice I have very little structure. Even when one has a job they don’t like, the job still fills the role of providing the individual purpose and a frame to work in. But what if ones work is self-discovery? Why can’t self-discovery be the framework that one’s day evolves from? This is a constant area of wonder for me – of how a sometimes meaningless (depending on your line of work – of course this isn’t true for everyone!), time consuming activity used to extract money from society can be such a form of stability, while a spiritual process is often not?  I guess answering to a time-clock is easier than answering to yourself. I wonder if this is why Buddhism has been so fulfilling for me as of late – it provides a rational process and tools for spiritual development and my soteriological process. A quote from the aforementioned article:

Business is about making choices that maximize utility. But the most important features of the human landscape are commitments that precede choice — commitments to family, nation, faith or some cause. These commitments defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

Defying the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return…. why would you proceed to do anything in this manner? Only after you have discovered through contemplation that rational thought, deductive reasoning and the scientific method are all limited in their soteriological qualities. I find it interesting today that many people consider themselves atheists or agnostics and yet fully accept the reductionist/scientific view of life as a doctrine. Many people in modern society use science AS something to explain the world without self-examination. This is the definition of belief and at a fundamental level is not any different than a belief in God, Allah, or Jesus. Its just called Science, not Religion. But I digress.

If I am to committed to relinquishing a modern, materialistic and reductionist worldview, rather choosing to approach a life of contemplation and seeking (aka the examined life), should I feel guilty when I crack a beer and watch a couple episodes of The Daily Show?  How do we reconcile the differences between enjoyment and recreation and attachment? There are no concrete answers as there are no absolute rights and wrongs. For one person a chocolate bar may open the door to all manners of craving, attachment and delusion where for another it may be the catalyst to liberation. Following this logic, each person needs to carefully examine the subtle workings of their consciousness. Many call this the subconscious, but in yogic teachings the subconscious is never seen as something different than consciousness, it is just an area of your consciousness that you do not currently have the ability to be directly aware of (dreaming mind). Powerful Yogis and practitioners have transcended this and have the ability to remain aware in their dreams and even deep sleep.

So what exactly does an examined life in modern society look like? If one is not careful, he will be perceived as selfish, overly-holy and egotistical. Yet such is the risk of such an existence. We can never truly judge someone else’s position with 100% accuracy. Recently I had someone close to me attempt define me in this way – I was told that my pursuit of Buddhism was an academic one, preventing me from maturing as an individual and allowing me not to commit (citing Buddhist non-attachment) to anyone or anything in my life. This really bothered me, because it is true that while I am not diving 100% into any activity, I feel so much more fulfilled by all activities. And everything even means the traditionally burdensome ones. I will continue to wrestle with my perception in the world…. understanding there will always be at least 3 viewpoints (my perception of my self, others perceptions of me (many multiples of these!), and of course just Self).

Often I feel a sense of guilt around my lifestyle – and am not always comfortable admitting that I am no longer a good capitalist, my future no longer indebted to my past and not filling any clearly defined role.  In cultures like India a Summoned Life  is acceptable and even expected from at least one member of the family whereas in the West, the Summoned Life is often viewed as mysterious as it does not follow the framework of business plan life and remains oddly on the sideline for others to point at as different.

I am incredibly fortunate at this point in my life. To have gotten out of the cycle of working and debt and to have this opportunity to remain comfortably unemployed. However now we arrive at the Crux of the Summoned life – getting over the ego’s need to prove that you are DOING something with this alternate approach, the pressure to SHOW something from it.  That’s all I have for today… Off I go…