The Goal of Buddhist Practice

Quarter Moon Teaching

This particular Uposatha Day is also the Day of the Full Moon. This particular Day of the Full Moon is also Dhamma Day, commemorating the Buddha’s first discourse, in which he first expounded The Noble Eightfold Path. Dhamma Day also marks the beginning of Vassa, the Rains Retreat. During Vassa for three months monks and nuns traditionally do not wander but devote their time to practice and study, because in India and today most of the Theravada world, including Burma, it’s raining this time of year.. Vassa shows up in Zen tradition as the three month ango, which however has lost its relationship to the rainy season in India. I will spend Vassa here in Minnesota, do not intend to travel, but will schedule a more intensive meditation practice, try to be pristine in discipline and devote more time to Sutta study (thereby covering the Three Trainings that subdivide the Noble Eightfold Path, namely meditation, ethical conduct and wisdom. For the first few days of Vassa I am joined by a group of new temporary monks, who ordained the day before Dhamma Day, but only intending to remain monks for a week. I think Ashin Nayaka is trying to get back from Asia to spend the Vassa here.

The topic of today’s posting has come out of the blue, inspired by an email exchange with a dedicated Buddhist student in Austin. Buddhist practice, the Noble Eightfold Path, is generally assumed to have a goal, and in fact that goal is defined in lofty terms as Nirvana, Full Awakening or Liberation from Samsaric Existence, or what I equally vaguely called the Perfection of the Human Character in earlier postings. And often it is also assumed that reaching that goal involves a series of attainments, much like reaching the top of a mountain involves reaching each of a series of landmarks or becoming a scholar involves receiving a series of academic degrees. In fact goals of all kinds easily enmesh us in the Triple Poison of Greed, Hatred and Delusion as our desires flair, our competitive instincts set in and soon we live in a world of Me, What I Want, How I’m Going to Get it, and What is In My Way. Such a precious goal as the Perfection of the Human Character, ironically but nevertheless, is no exception. This goal, if so enmeshed, represents the exact antithesis of itself! We have to be careful.

We have to be careful, especially in our acquisitive goal-oriented instant-gratification Western culture. In the West many people want to be on the fast track to Enlightenment, as if there were someone there to receive it when it comes and as if that someone would like it when it was reached. I suspect that this has a precedent in Buddhism Tang China, which enjoyed much social mobility, and in which Buddhists began talking about Sudden Enlightenment as if one did not need endless lifetimes of practice as one seemed to in India, which generally fixed one’s social status at birth. The danger of grasping after Sudden Enlightenment seems to have been offset by a further cultural adaptation, the idea that Enlightenment though at hand nonetheless should not be sought after. A very well-known Zen koan from this period begins:

Chao-chou aked Nan-chuan, “What is the Way?”
Nan-chuan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
Chao-chou asked, “Then may I direct myself towards it or not?”

Nan-chuan said, “To turn toward it is to turn away from it.”

At the end of this discourse Chao-chou attains Enlightenment. (I’ve posted an essay on this koan which further explores the theme of this posting here. ) In short, we as Westerners have what is certainly an even greater imperative to avoid the seduction of enlightenment than our predecessors before us.

Even our friend the potter has to be careful. (I am as surprised as anyone that I have been able to get such milage out of his analogy to the Buddhist practitioner.) Recall that the potter, like the Buddhist practitioner, is on a path toward an ultimate goal, but in his case he moves toward mastery of his specific craft. However, if you ask him in his studio, What is it you are doing? He will generally answer, I am making a pot. If he answered, I am making a master potter, his answer, though true, would be worrisome. You would almost expect him to spend more time buying the right smock or adjusting his baret in the mirror than actually working with clay. We do the same in Buddhism. But the focus is all wrong. It seems that the most direct path to the distant goal of becoming a master potter is simply to focus on the immediate goal of making a masterly pot, over and over. But wait, it is not quite that simple: Occasionally the potter should recognize that his skills fall short. For instance, while he understands clay in his hands, he might not be so successful in design or in selecting glaze colors. If he recognizes this, or perhaps a more adept teacher does, then he might undertake an art class in design or color. This is not on behalf of the next pot, but in improving the skill set of the potter for the long run. The goal of making a master potter is therefore not to be entirely neglected but mostly the ultimate goal attains itself as long as the potter focuses on the immediate goal of making each pot as if a master potter had made it.

Even the dieter has to be careful. Suppose you find yourself among the ranks of the chubby, so you set out to lose weight. Most people frame the task in terms of the goal of achieving an optimal weight, say 180 lbs., suffer much suspense and frustration on the path to that goal interleaved with brief feelings of accomplishment, typically do not stand the stress of this and give up in an impulsive binge, and if they do manage to achieve the ultimate goal, immediately start to backslide. An alternative, however, is simply to take on the discipline of eating an appropriate daily diet for their height and body type, and getting an appropriate amount of daily exercise, an immediate goal reached day by day. That’s what the ranks of the non-chubby already do. The body weights of the chubby will begin to shift as their systems seek new equilibria, and they will gradually blend with the non-chubby, but when and how fast that happens need not be of any concern.

Buddhism is easy. It is the vow, *This* is how I will live my life from now on. Then you just do it. If you slip up you just renew your vow and continue. And if you look at how other people live their lives you have plenty of incentive to put in the effort to enact this vow. The immediate uplift of the harmless beneficial life is the greatest incentive. Then as long as you remain on the Noble Eightfold Path we will certainly experience stages of attainment, but it is best let Nirvana take care of itself.

4 Responses to “The Goal of Buddhist Practice”

  1. Randy Collins Says:

    Thank you for this entry. Actually thank you for all the entries you have made, but I felt moved to respond to this one in particular because it addresses the concept of goal.

    One of my personal difficulties with embracing what for a lack of better terminology and more precise expression the idea of Zen Buddhism is the emphasis on the idea of not having a goal, or not attempting to ‘accomplish’ something. While I can, and do appreciate the wisdom of this idea when viewed from a certain perspective, it leaves my western mind with the issue of what to do when I awake in the morning. There is the day ahead and decisions will have to be made. Decisions require a criterion upon which to base them, and that seems to require at the very least some sense of value – enter yes and no, good and bad, right and wrong?

    When left with the perhaps ultimately true idea that ultimately nothing matters and all directions are equal, and even more profoundly, there is nobody to make any decisions, and all is as it should be does tend to leave one with wisdom and apathy being one.

    I had a considerable amount of difficulty reconciling “Christian” belief and what appeared to be how one should behave if attempting to manifest that belief in one’s life, particularly when considering the possibility that creating a docile and servile and self sacrificing population would play very well into the plans of another segment of the population more focused on control and exploitation, and perhaps, the real test at “judgment day’ would be a test of intelligence based on how completely stupid can a soul be… to volunteer to be used and abused and ultimately enslaved with nary a hint of resistance.

    I seek to manifest what I truly believe in my life and that has made things rather more complicated for me.

    The question that still lurks in the back of my mind is whether or not the end of this paricular road leads to total and absolute passivity.

    Which perhaps on an astral plane, or if one is reincarnated as a bumble bee with no sense of self would be accurate.

    In the meantime…


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Hi, Randy. The point is that not all directions are equal; we are heading toward the North Star without needing to actually get there (in this case we actually won’t). Every day we are making the best pots we can, and of course there is a Right and Wrong in our skill. Every day we develop our skills as well, often in an intentional way. Every day we try to act with wisdom and compassion; there is PLENTY of that to do, the world is such a mess, and there is a Right and Wrong (suffering, delusion, etc.) in untangling this. But the ultimate, transcendent goal, that of becoming perfect in what we take on daily, will take care of itself, … for the most part … and becomes a source of attachment, distraction and frustration if we think otherwise.


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