Motivation for Practice

Note: This essay was written by Jorge Arciniegas as a part of his application for Dharma Teacher training.

by Jorge Arciniegas

Motivation for practice is an interesting topic. Looking back through the lens of memory and past experience, I have come to realize that my motivation for practice has been and probably will continue to be an evolving field, a field that moves ever mysteriously like everything else in this universe and that seems to have a sense of purpose and direction. Like the needle of a compass, that sense of purpose and direction is pulled toward the essence of everything by our fours great vows: 

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all. 

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all. 

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. 

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it. 

Practice, as experienced now, has a tendency to be more and more a continuous moment-to-moment reality, as opposed to a discrete and sporadic event. The sense of practice having an evolving characteristic comes from the fact that in that discrete-to-continuous spectrum I very often find my attention caught in familiar streams of thoughts, feelings and emotions … until a spark of awareness lights up the recognition that I am not those thoughts, feelings and emotions. Perhaps that spark was always there, but during most of my life, so far, I was oblivious to it. Formal practice led me to a precious moment of Grace to experience that spark as the sudden realization that, figuratively speaking, there is a certain distance between the thoughts, feelings and emotions and I. 

Through practice, the very sense of “I” itself continues to vanish. To use an analogy, this vanishing experience is like a flickering light bulb that hasn’t quite burned off. When the old “I” that thinks, feels and suffers seems to be fully in command, the light bulb is on. When the “I” vanishes, the light bulb is off and the same thoughts, feelings and emotions simply happen in the same way in which the wind blows outside. A thought appears and then it disappears. A breeze of air comes and then it leaves. 

If there is a motivation for practice it’s in that space somewhere, to guide the managing, so to speak, of the flickering light bulb. Ultimately, however, the true motivation resides in the complete dropping away of the analogy altogether, in the dropping of every-thing, even this “I”, and in doing so, help this world … Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all … To humbly paraphrase the words of our school’s founder teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, to only go straight keeping don’t know mind, only don’t know, moment to moment and just do it, do it, do it. 

I must say that I’ve been a seeker of something for quite some time. Not knowing what was behind the seeking other than feeling a pull toward something other than “this”, long ago and somewhat unknowingly and haphazardly I stepped on a seeking path. Back then I followed no formal practice and if there was any motivation at all it was simply to alleviate the dread of “this” … Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all … 

I think that the power of intention plays a mysterious role and I have come to realize that in spite of all my plans, everything, and I mean everything, in my experience so far happened exactly so as to bring me 

to this very moment, at every moment. Talk about interdependence arising! Not as a concept but as deep unexplainable moment to moment experience. 

When I eventually found ways to formalize a practice, the motivation was quite self-centered as “I” wanted to attain “something”. Of course that seemed quite suitable and indeed it was what worked for me at the time. 

With time and Grace, practice is now just practice and I am not sure that I can put a finger on a motivation for it. As I sit in my living room typing these words while looking out the window, there is a tree outside and my dog is resting next to me. Not just that, but there is a sense that the entire universe is right here and there couldn’t possibly be anything missing. This is practice. But “I” am not practicing. Practice just is. It just happens. This very moment is just as it is. But the moment itself is ungraspable. It can only be experienced. There is no one there to do the grasping and there is no-thing to grasp. There is no motivation behind the seeing that sees the tree or the feeling that appreciates this moment. 

Practice is every day, everything practice. Keeping don’t know mind is a pointer. That pointer becomes blurred when “the practitioner” comes in the picture and wants to practice. But that’s ok too. That’s just the way it is and I can only try and try and try, in earnest and with determination. 

Practice brings me back full circle to the same starting point, but oddly enough the experience of it is not the same. At the original starting point “I” would have thought that the four great vows were, at best, a nice esoteric panacea and move on in search of something better. At this new starting point, the four great vows cannot be explained or understood, yet they vibrantly point to an ever present experiential reality that simply is. “I” am not there, but I am at the same ever fresh starting point practicing to save all sentient beings, practicing to cut through all delusions, practicing to learn all teachings, and practicing to simply be just like this, moment to moment and in doing so be of help to others and to the world. 

Questions and Answers

by Frank Pauc

“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward to what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.”

Jacob Bronowski, from his book, The Ascent of Man

I am actually planning to write about Zen, but I think that the preceding quote from Jacob Bronowski is appropriate, even though he was talking about science, the great passion of his life. Bronowski was a mathematician, and a modern Renaissance man. He loved ideas, but he hated dogma. He particularly loved the pursuit of knowledge.

If I look from Bronowski’s perspective, I can see similarities between science and Zen. There aren’t many similarities because Zen isn’t similar to anything, really. However, they share a few points in common. Both Zen and science are about questions. In both practices, there is a desire to find answers, but the focus is on the questions. During meditation, some people silently ask themselves, “What am I?”, and then respond, “Don’t know.” Scientists ask themselves questions, and if they are honest, they usually shrug their shoulders and say, “Don’t know”. Even if a scientist finds an answer, that answer is simply a door to more questions. Likewise, if a Zen student catches a glimpse of reality, it is only a small step toward a deeper understanding.

A Zen practitioner may have a rare moment of illumination, where his or her view of the world shifts radically. Scientists can have that too. Scientists cling to ideas and opinions just like everyone else. Then somebody comes along and rocks their world. Copernicus tells people that the sun is the center of the solar system, and the effect is the same as when a Zen master screams “Katz!” Einstein explains that all things are relative, and there is a massive paradigm shift. Quantum physics comes along and suddenly light is both a particle and a wave (sometimes, maybe). A scientist with integrity has to be able to let go of ideas, just like a Zen practitioner must. Both types of people have to experience “don’t know”.

Bronowski notes that science is personal. So is Zen. A scientist has to “feel forward” in the unknown. So does a Zen practitioner. This pursuit of knowledge cannot be done vicariously. Each person has to do it on their own. This type of journey can be risky and requires a certain amount of courage. A person who thinks, talks, and acts differently from others is quite often vulnerable. A Zen practitioner and a scientist both are like trapeze artists who perform without a safety net. The safety net is made up of the things we think we know.

Not many people are scientists. Not many people practice Zen. Most people prefer the safety net. They want the security, real or otherwise, of absolutes. They don’t want that tension, that uneasiness that accompanies us when we stand “on the edge of error.” To be honest, I don’t want that either. But I can’t control my curiosity. As someone pointed out, I am a “seeker”. I keep asking.

Most of Bronowski’s family died in the Holocaust. Once again, he spoke about science:

“It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And this was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

I think I will stick with “don’t know.”