Today we have a guest post from writer and Zen practitioner Sam Guthrie. In “Getting There From Here,” Guthrie grapples with his contradictory desire for enlightenment.

I sit facing the wall on a small round black cushion, legs pretzeled, feet wedged implausibly onto opposite thighs. The burning in my knees has taken on an almost mystical quality. I try to be in the present moment, to be one with the unholy pain screaming in my body. If you can be one with it, it is supposed to hurt less, or at least differently.

I am sitting in zazen–seated Zen meditation–with about twenty other people, on the first day of a weeklong zazen marathon called a sesshin. We’ve more or less sat like this for twelve hours. In four hours it will be bedtime and I will roll out my sleeping bag on the hardwood floor of the zendo, climb in, and stretch my legs out blissfully straight, grinning like a drunken fool as the agony of my knees recedes to a dull, almost pleasant ache. Then will come six more days exactly like this one. I’ve spent the last decade doing sesshins and reading inscrutable Buddhist texts because I want enlightenment. And that is a very bad thing.

In Zen Buddhism, you are not supposed to want enlightenment; you are supposed to sit in zazen merely to sit in zazen. This is called having No Gaining Idea. It is coveted. Ah, but how to gain No Gaining Idea? If you ask Zen masters they are prone to saying, “Just Sit Zazen,” not unlike the old Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” In fact, Zen master Seung Sahn liked to exclaim exactly that to his students. “Just Do It!” For the record, this is much harder than it sounds.

So why, exactly, are we not supposed to want enlightenment? I mean we are talking about “the peace supreme and infinite joy,” as the Dhammapada puts it. What’s not to want? The main reason, as far as I can tell, is that wanting enlightenment is dualistic, meaning that enlightenment is already our True Nature. The sixth patriarch, Hui Neng, said our True Nature is like a mirror upon which no dust can alight. The problem is that we forget this, and on a truly epic scale. Then we project it out onto some objectified future ideal, which we call enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, realization, and try to attain it. But trying to attain something that’s already your True Nature is, evidently, like trying to exist.

Hence, of the True Man of the Way, Zen master Rinzai says, “Not even for a fraction of a moment does he aspire to Buddhahood.” The spiritual master Adi Da used to tell a joke. A man gets lost driving in the country outside of London. He pulls up to a yard where an old farmer sits in a chair. “Can you tell me how to get to London?” asks the lost driver. The farmer thinks for a moment, scratches his chin. Finally he says, “You can’t get there from here.” So with enlightenment. You can’t get there from here.

But this dualism business isn’t the only problem with wanting enlightenment. We also apparently don’t have the remotest idea what enlightenment is. In fact, if there’s one thing everyone in the enlightenment racket seems to agree on, it’s that enlightenment cannot be conceived of.

In the face of enlightenment’s utter inconceivability, I’ve simply made up my own version, a collage of images and emotional associations that have filtered in to me over the years. There’s video footage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from when I was six years old (my parents got the family into Transcendental Meditation because The Beatles did it), his eyes glittering with a secret impish light, hands fluttering lyrically in the air. There’s the TV show Kung Fu, with David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Kane, who I was pretty sure was enlightened. These and a hundred other odd, disparate fragments make up the goulash of my emotional associations with enlightenment.

In advertising, when you sell something based on emotional associations with a product, rather than the actual product, they call it “selling the sizzle, not the steak.” Everyone knows, for example, that you sell trucks by associating them with rugged guys doing manly work in the woods. That’s sizzle.

I want the sizzle of enlightenment.

Yet, for all the hubbub about not wanting enlightenment, the world’s spiritual traditions, including Zen, seem full of equally fierce exhortations that you should want enlightenment very badly. Zen masters always seem to be saying things like, “You must want enlightenment as urgently as you would want a fire in your hair to be extinguished.”

And when Rinzai said that the True Man of the Way does not even for a fraction of a moment aspire to Buddhahood, it’s good to remember that he was speaking to cast-iron monks who were sitting in zazen day and night, year after year, a medieval regime punctuated only by meals of a few moldy grains of brown rice and occasional beatings by Rinzai himself. 

Oh, there’s one last problem with our desire for enlightenment: Evidently it’s a complete lie. None of us really wants it at all. In fact, according to lots of great masters, enlightenment is the last thing we want. Because somewhere deep in our hissing reptile brains, we sense that enlightenment will have the nasty side effect of annihilating us, and far more decisively than the quaint hiccup of physical death.

More to the point, enlightenment reveals that the whole “me–who–wants–to–be–enlightened” never existed in the first place. To become enlightened is to awaken to the mad truth that the precious personas we’ve been parading around as all these years, maybe all these lifetimes, are fictional constructs. Smoke and mirrors. In other words, we ourselves are all sizzle, no steak. To awaken is to realize this. Of course, the Heart Sutra and pretty much everything else in Zen Buddhism have been telling us this forever, but apparently it’s quite a different matter when your entrenched ego actually senses its own imminent and non-theoretical demise.

So how then does enlightenment ever happen? Well, I obviously don’t know, but it sure seems like Big Help is usually required. Call it the Mystery Factor, Divine Luck. One Zen master said, “Enlightenment is always an accident. Zen practice is a way of becoming accident prone.”

Sometimes this accident shows up in the form of a fire-breathing spiritual master, because it seems an awful lot of us have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, from our delectable miseries and into enlightenment. As Rumi said, “It’s amazing, and funny, that you have to be pulled away from being tortured, pulled out into this spring garden, but that’s the way it is. Almost everyone must be bound and dragged here.”

The message then, to all of us spiritual seekers across the globe, shivering in Himalayan caves, ravaging our knees in remote Japanese temples, meditating on our bedroom floors next to the laundry basket, seems to go something like this: Enlightenment—you can’t possibly acquire it, you don’t know what it is, and you absolutely do not want anything to do with it. Good luck.

On rare occasions, I let all this hit me, stumble back to my meditation cushion, all lost and porous, and practice with a strange new hopeless ferocity, like my hair is on fire, or at least smoldering a little. In those precious, gifted moments, I actually do sort of just do it. And somehow, by some impossible grace, I am open to whatever accidents may happen.

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