Christopher Collingwood is Canon Emeritus of York Minster, where, from 2013 to 2020, he was Canon Residentiary and Chancellor. He is also an authorized teacher in the White Plum Asanga, an international association of Zen teachers based in the USA, and leader of the Wild Goose Zen Sangha in the UK.
‘Do not desire to become a Buddha’: A Sideways Glance from the Practice of Zen at the Christian Experience of Grace
The Practice of Zen
‘Do not desire to become a Buddha’ sounds something like the kind of spiritual health warning one rather anxious Christian might issue to another inclined to become better acquainted with Buddhism. Except that, in this case, it was actually the injunction given by one Buddhist to other Buddhists!’ Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253), one of the greatest Zen Masters of all time, gave this instruction in the context of setting out the basic principles and practices of Zen meditation. Dōgen was the supreme exponent of the practice in Zen known as Shikantāza or ‘just sitting,’ which involves ‘meditating’ without an object for the mind to focus on. ‘Practising Zen is zazen,’ he states at the beginning of his brief Fukan Zazen-Gi, or ‘Rules for Zazen.’ He continues:
Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest. Zazen is not thinking of good, not thinking of bad. It is not conscious endeavour. It is not introspection (Tanahashi 1995, 29).
Bodily posture, he explains, is important, but once the body is ready for zazen – seated meditation – he outlines what is then entailed:
Sit solidly in samādhi and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen.
Zazen is not learning to do concentration. It is the dharma gate of great ease and joy. It is the undefiled practice-enlightenment (Tanahashi 1995, 30).
To the uninitiated, these instructions probably have a touch of the absurd about them. The rational mind is likely to be baffled by them, especially by the nuances between ‘not-thinking’ and ‘nonthinking.’ Prior to all this, though, Dōgen has uttered, ‘Do not desire to become a Buddha!’ It is as if the essence of what he has to say about zazen is concentrated in this sentence. Here, then, Dōgen is commending a practice that has arisen within Buddhism, and yet he is inviting practitioners to give up any idea of becoming a Buddha. What on earth, it might well be asked, is he getting at?
In his Bukkojoji – ‘Going beyond Buddha’ – Dōgen refers to Tianhuang Daowu (748-807), a dharma heir of Shitou Xiqian (700-790), in which Daowu asks Shitou, ‘What is the fundamental meaning of buddha-dharma?’ Shitou responds, ‘Not to attain, not to know.’ Dōgen comments:
This fundamental meaning is not-attaining. It is not that there is no aspiration for enlightenment, no practice, or no enlightenment. But simply, not-attaining…It is not that there is no sacred truth, no practice-enlightenment, but simply not-attaining not knowing’ (Tanahashi, 1995, 208-209).
In other words, not attaining and not knowing are experienced when the desire to become a Buddha is relinquished, hence, ‘Do not desire to become a Buddha!’
To someone unversed in the language of Zen, or who has not tasted the experience of zazen, this is all likely to come across as rather confusing, to say the least, so in order to see exactly what Dōgen is articulating, let us examine this in the light of what actually occurs during zazen.
The basic practice is essentially very simple, which does not necessarily mean, though, that it is easy. Zazen enables us to become aware of the nature of the mind. As soon as we begin to sit zazen, we realise that there is a great deal going on in our minds. All sorts of thoughts – by which is meant not just discursive thoughts but anything that arises in our awareness in terms of thoughts, feelings, sensations and so on – are ceaselessly arising. Many of these thoughts are trivial – ‘I must remember to buy some bread,’ for example – but others are more significant. The mind seems to be constantly active. From time to time, if not as a matter of course, most of us will experience our minds not just as active but as restless, agitated, disturbed, fretful and unsettled. When this is so, our experience of ourselves and of the world can be uncomfortable and painful. This is because we all have certain preconceptions about who we are and what we expect the world to be like, not least the preconception that we and the world should be free of pain and suffering.
From a relatively early age, therefore, we begin to make judgments and distinctions about ourselves and the world and, in so doing, judge certain aspects of life as being desirable and attractive on the one hand, or unwanted and unpalatable, on the other. Furthermore, we find that our very identity is shaped in relation both to all those things we find ourselves more comfortable with, and also in opposition to those things towards which we experience an aversion. In one sense, this is entirely necessary to make it possible for any of us to inhabit the world and negotiate our way through it without finding ourselves hopelessly adrift. Boundaries and parameters are helpful in setting and facilitating a course to be followed. At the same time, though, such things can act like blinkers, making it difficult for us to see beyond our own inevitably and unavoidably limited perspectives.
Herein lies the root of discord, conflict and violence within ourselves and between one another. The genesis of Buddhism, the path of waking up, has its roots in Siddhartha Gautama’s desire to find the cause of suffering and its cure. It is worthy of considerable note that nearly at the end of his search, despairing, it would seem, of ever finding what he was looking for, he sat down by the bodhi tree and resolved not to rise until the answer was forthcoming. In other words, he stopped moving, externally and internally, and became still. Zazen, seated meditation, is the beautifully pure and simple participation in this foundational experience.
Something of all of this constitutes what might be called the hinterland of Dōgen’s Fukan Zazen-Gi. Dōgen is all too aware that when we sit zazen the mind is going to be endlessly active. His directives concerning not-thinking and non-thinking encourage us neither to follow our thoughts, nor to suppress them, but simply to let them be without becoming involved with them or worried about them. Generally-speaking, if the attention is focussed anywhere, it is on the breath, but pure shikantāza is the experience of simply resting in the awareness of everything that arises in the present moment. In this way, we gradually cease to identify with our thoughts, even though they continue to arise, and allow a deeper awareness to come into centre stage. This awareness cannot be attained or achieved; it is a simple given. The final impediment or barrier to the realisation of this is the belief that it is something we lack. The intention of zazen is to enable us to realise that we have nothing to gain or attain, to grasp at or crave, for we already are what we seek.
In the language of Zen in particular and of Buddhism in general, this is described as Buddha Nature: the realisation of ourselves as ‘empty.’ Empty, that is, of a substantial, independent ‘self.’ Emptiness means not that we do not ‘exist,’ but that we are not separate from anything or anyone; we are profoundly interconnected with all that is. Our empty nature is really an openness to the very fullness, richness and possibility of life itself, and invites us constantly to let go of fixed ideas about ourselves, the world and life. It awakens within us an awareness of ourselves as being at one with an unlimited and dynamic but mysterious source of wisdom, energy, compassion and love. Paradoxically, it is in the letting go of the very desire to become a Buddha that the ‘self’ is liberated, set free, ‘extinguished,’ only to awaken to the ‘True Self’ in the ‘10,000 things.’ In other words, it is when we stop grasping, craving and clinging that we awaken to who we truly are.
A Christian Parallel
Initially, this might seem a million miles away from the language of Christian belief and doctrine. I want to suggest, however, that there are deep resonances with the heart of Christian experience and particularly with the experience of grace. The persistent call of Jesus in the gospels is to repent, for the kingdom of God is near or at hand. In other words, it is an invitation to let go of anything and everything in which we place our security. As the gospel narrative unfolds, so the invitation becomes even more demanding:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8, 23-37).
At the end of his own life, Jesus himself had to let go of his own fixed ideas about the world, his mission and – especially, perhaps – God: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15, 34). It is in and through the relinquishing of his own desires and expectations that resurrection bursts forth and becomes a reality. It cannot be ‘gained’ or ‘attained;’ it is simply ‘given.’ As such, it reveals the eternal pattern of the universe as the paschal mystery. In order truly to live, we have to die, and when we die, life cannot but burst forth.
The gospels paint a picture of Jesus as broadly at ease with himself, comfortable in his own skin. He was at home as much with those deemed to be sinners and banished to the margins of society, as with the more respected and respectable members of society. There is no question that he was subject to the vicissitudes and trials of life, just like everyone else. Underpinning all this, though, was a deep sense that he did not need to gain or attain anything. He knew that he was already and inescapably grounded in and inseparable from his Father’s life and love, profoundly bonded with him in the Spirit. The fullness of this truth was given to him at his baptism: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1,11). Notwithstanding the differences in theological perspective in the gospels, they are unanimous in the conviction that Jesus’ whole life was a manifestation of this primary disposition: that he had nothing to prove or to achieve, for everything had already been given to him.
This is not the experience of most human beings. Human solidarity so often seems to have more in common with the Apostle Paul than with Jesus. Paul seems to have been a restless figure, plagued by doubts as to whether he could ever measure up to the demands of the Law. The goal towards which he strove seemed to be forever out of reach. By his own admission, his pedigree was impeccable, his credentials beyond reproach, except that he felt himself to be lacking (Philippians 3, 4b-11). The early followers of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9,2) appear to have posed a deeply disturbing threat to his own sense of identity, such that he sought to rid the world of them. While pursuing them on the Damascus Road, though, he was stopped in his tracks, rendered unable to see, and reduced to nothing that he could hold on to, by an overwhelming experience of one whom he could not initially identify, but whom he later came to know as the Risen Christ (Acts 9,1-19). This was the one from whom nothing could separate him (Romans 8,18-19), and for the sake of knowing whom it was worth losing everything (Philippians 3,7-8). Only then did he stop running, striving and pushing, and came to know that there is nothing to be gained or attained, because all that matters has already been given. After a long struggle, he accepted what Jesus seems always to have known, that we do not need to do anything to earn God’s love. It is freely given at every moment and holds the whole world in being. It is sheer grace: ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 15,10).
When Paul came to know this at first hand, he was – for the first time in his life, it may be assumed – at home with himself and comfortable in his own skin. From within a completely different culture, tradition, history and geography, Paul came to know what Jesus seems never to have been without, and what Dōgen describes as the ‘dharma gate of great ease and joy.’ In so doing, Paul was liberated from himself – his small, limited self, constantly seeking to maintain its own fragile and precarious existence – and awakened to his inseparability from anyone and anything in Christ. Metaphorically-speaking, he stopped trying to be a buddha and lived every moment in grace.
This is the vocation of every human being, to discover that we can give up trying because there is nothing to gain, nothing to attain. All things are already given. When we know this, we are set free from ourselves to live life in all its fullness, come what may. There is nothing to gain because there is nothing to lose. This is the liberating experience of grace.
It goes without saying, of course, that Zen and Christianity are clearly not the same as each other at a certain level. What I have sought to show, though, is that the foundational experience in each case, while not identical, shares a great deal in common with the other. In whatever ways and with whatever thought-forms these experiences are articulated, they are both concerned with the truth of who we are. Whereas most of us spend a lifetime seeking to build up our identities, make our way in the world in competition with others, and – en route – inflict a great deal of pain and suffering on ourselves and everyone else, Zen and Christianity alike suggest an alternative path. These different but not dissimilar paths invite us to relinquish all that we consider to be important and essential, not so much to get somewhere different, as to wake up to where we already are. In their different ways, they bring us face to face with ourselves in both our turmoil and also in the clear transparency of our pure and undefiled nature. We spend much of our lives looking for this, but when we experience the liberating reality of grace, we know at long last that we have been enabled – in the words of the poet TS Eliot – ‘to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’ (Eliot 2004, 197).
Eliot, T.S. (2004, first published 1969) The Complete Poems & Plays, London: Faber & Faber.
Tanahashi, K. (ed) (1985) Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, North Point Press: New York.
Birx, E. (2020) Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of Zen and Christianity, Maryknoll New York: Orbis Books.
Collingwood, C.P. (2019) Zen Wisdom for Christians, London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.