What do you hope to gain from meditation? If it’s something very simple—a bit of calm, or maybe a moment of quiet in your busy day—then congratulations. You can probably have that thing; it might even feel just like you thought it would, or at least close.
But what if you want more? When I started in my teens, I wanted all of it, everything I thought the Zen books were promising. I wanted enlightenment (and did not see any irony in believing, having only read it, that I knew what it would be like). I wanted a kind of wise spontaneity (spontaneous wisdom?) like the Zen masters of old, so that I could act without thinking but always, somehow, say or do just the right thing at just the right time. I wanted moral purity, but not the kind that required effort—I wanted the kind that came naturally, that fit like an old sweater. And I wanted clarity, eyes that cut through delusion (mine and others’) and instantly made sense of the world. (Looking back, I don’t know if “calm” even made the list.)
I’m glad I went in like that, big, wanting to swallow the practice whole. If my goals had been more achievable, I might have just gotten bored with it all. Believing there was more (a lot more) kept me curious. It kept me hungry.
That initial ambition took me to Japan, and through ordination, and into a monastery—and there, where I thought I was finally going to break through to the depth and rewards the tradition could offer, I met teachers for the first time who spoke honestly about what Zen is, and, more importantly, what it isn’t. Those teachers introduced me to mushotoku: the absence of gain, a letting go of the idea of profit. If you want something from the practice, they told me, then you aren’t yet doing the practice. You’re missing the whole point.
One of my teachers liked to use the analogy of a job: If you just do your job for money, he would tell us, then your job is just a means. It’s degraded. It’s the same for zazen—if you do zazen to gain enlightenment or to become a certain kind of person, then zazen just becomes an obstacle to something else. You can spend your whole life that way, chasing one thing and never truly doing the thing in front of you.
This simple idea changes everything (or at least it did for me). What happens to meditation when we do it for its own sake, with no thought of reward, no hope of transformation? The simple answer is that it stops falling short of what you hoped it would be; now, it starts revealing itself for what it is: a practice that’s bigger than your ideas about it.
Of course, as with almost any good teaching about meditation, this isn’t really about meditation—or at least, meditation is just one face of it. What does your work look like when the point is the work itself? What does a kind gesture look like when there’s no expectation of the kindness being returned or recognized? It looks like giving. It’s smiling at a stranger on the elevator, or picking up a piece of trash on a country road, or putting coins in the donation basket, except it’s your whole life. Everything you do in the day, every thought, word, and deed, is bigger than your imagining of it. So give this a try. Whatever it is, release your grasp on it. Let go of what you want it to be—and what you want from it—and see what reveals itself next.
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.