What first drew me to Buddhism many years ago was the clarity of the teachings. The stages of the path were neatly laid out, and they came with a set of instructions that appealed to my can-do approach to just about anything I undertook. I set off on a path, and the goal, however limited my understanding of it, seemed to hold great promise.
For some, this approach is all that’s needed for a lifetime of practice. But for me, as for most others I know, the path took unexpected twists and turns, putting me up against the limits of my agency. It wasn’t long before my enthusiasm sagged under the weight of expectation—what Joseph Goldstein might call “the craving for becoming” (see “Peeling Away the Promise of Desire”). My goal—awakening—was thwarted by my very desire for it. To tell the truth, my wish for it was little more than vanity, a desire to become someone other than who I was, someone better, maybe even perfect. The distinction between selfish craving and open aspiration was lost on me.
In speaking with others, I soon discovered that virtually every practitioner has experienced this. In fact, it is so common that I fear overstating the obvious. But how we respond to this impasse varies widely. Some, like Tricycle features editor Andrew Cooper, ended up on paths quite different from the ones they’d first set out on (see “Regret: A Love Story”). For others, like me, encounters with other traditions provided a jolt that loosened the sometimes linear, goal-driven quality we can give our practice. There is room in Buddhism for a variety of approaches, and it was exposure to other schools’ discourses on enlightenment that shed light on my dilemma.
“The Liberation of Buddhism is liberation from self, not liberation of self,” writes Dharmavidya David Brazier in “Performing the Ritual of Life.” The subject of his essay is Eihei Dogen (1200–1253), founder of the Soto Zen school, and his writing on satori, or awakening. Dialectical and dynamic, Dogen’s writing is impossible to pin down, forever contradicting itself, thriving as it does on paradox. “Dogen does not teach static doctrine,” Brazier writes. “It is difficult to find [his] position on a given matter.” Dogen’s writing, in other words, is much like the elusive nature of life itself. This includes enlightenment, something described by Dogen as discontinuous with delusion, or with any idea we may hold of it.
It is not that this take is for everybody, or that Dogen supersedes all other presentations. But he does offer a perspective that can be applied in one’s life, whatever one’s orientation: that we can find meaning in Buddhism in how we enact it, in the way we live it out. In Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Inadvertent, the author expresses something similar in describing an insight that surfaces in the act of writing and the form it demands: “The difference between life as it really unfolds, always in the moment, and the overarching context we interpret it in but never live in will be revealed.”
Whatever course our life and practice takes, it is kept vital by consistently going beyond whatever static ideas we bring to it, even Buddhist ideas. Even Dogen’s own ideas. Orthodoxies of all kinds, including Buddhist, tend to set themselves apart from an inclusive and various take on things. But as life repeatedly reminds us, especially life in our pluralistic world, there is room for so much more than the limits we set—room for clarity and for paradox, for uniformity and for contradiction, for logic and for poetry, for bootstrap effort and for faith, for orthodoxy and for liberality. Our ideas, no matter how profound they feel to us, are part of a larger revealed whole. And that is the home we seek and the home we share.
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