Lately I’ve been talking about pure zazen as being letting go of any and all effort. Even beyond our zazen, Dogen says in Fukanzazengi that those of us on the Zen path should “Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort.” In Roshi Kennett’s translation,[i] this is, “respect those who have reached the goal of goallessness.”
These discussions about effortlessness and goallessness has led a number of people, quite naturally, to ask: Is it okay to want to improve, and to use our Zen practice for that purpose, or are we “supposed” to give up any goal of improvement?
It probably won’t surprise you that the Zen answer to this question is, “Yes.” It’s okay to want to improve, and to use our Zen practice for that purpose, and the ancestors strongly advise us to give up any goal of improvement. (Stuck between a rock and a hard place, our Zen practice is rarely comfortable.)
In brief, gradually working to improve ourselves – deepening and strengthening our compassion, wisdom, and skillfulness – is essential. What kind of spiritual practice would Zen be if it encouraged you to be complacent about, or even obstinately proud of, your ignorance, selfishness, and negative habits? Humility and the desire for happiness for all beings – including yourself – is a prerequisite for practice and liberation.
And yet… how do we approach the work to improve ourselves? Usually, we have a goal in mind. Even if we’re not aiming at perfection, we’re sure aiming not to be who we are. We want to rid ourselves of some Buddhist version of Original Sin, after which point we will be okay in some ultimate and transcendent way. If we can just reach 50% perfection (or 30%, or 90%), we’ll be at peace… but we’re never seem to arrive at our destination.
In Zen, we don’t deny that the tools of practice can help you become happier, more mindful, more concentrated in your meditation, better able to deal with your emotions, etc. In fact, you’re expected to be doing that kind of work all along. That’s why we emphasize the precepts and how you conduct yourself in even your most mundane activities. However, in Zen, this is not the main point. What is the main point? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I should say that even though self-improvement is not Zen’s main point, that doesn’t get you off the hook – you still gotta keep doing it, diligently, year after year.
Okay, what is Zen’s main point? You have access to ultimate peace and perfection right now, just exactly the way you are. Liberation isn’t dependent on the degree of your self-improvement.
Many of our practices aim at self-improvement, but we must refrain from making goals out of our natural desire to improve. To set goals is to get trapped in dualistic thinking, which then keeps us separate from the absolute reality in which everything is already okay. Zen demands we operate at both the relative and absolute levels simultaneously. We don’t get to hide out in one or the other, even though they appear to contradict each other.