No Gaining Idea

Suzuki Roshi often said we shouldn’t have “a gaining idea” or any idea of attainment. A student once asked him why anybody would do zazen if they didn’t have a gaining idea. He said, “You still have one gaining idea.” “What is that?” the student wanted to know. He replied, “That’s a secret.”
Recently we completed a class series on the Three Doors of Liberation—Emptiness, Signlessness, and Wishlessness. These three practices appear in early Buddhist teachings, but are more commonly found in the Mahayana. In contemporary Buddhism, the late master Thich Nhat Hanh frequently taught on these. The third door—Wishlessness or Aimlessness—has a particular resonance in our Zen tradition. It is a rich vein of practice in Soto Zen, from Dogen through to Suzuki and Sojun Roshi. Scholar Edward Conze offers this gloss on Wishlessness (apranihita in Sanskrit):

The word apranihita means literally that one “places nothing in front,” and it designates someone who makes no plans for the future, has no hopes for it, who is aimless, not bent on anything, without predilection or desire for the objects of perception.

Late in his life, Sojun Roshi lectured on the Three Doors of Liberation, and said this about Wishlessness:

Wishlessness means letting go and appreciating. Letting go and being able to appreciate everything around us just as it is. To accept myself just as I am. This is called virtue. Everyone has their own virtue, which is not the same as value. Value is comparison. We stop comparing ourselves to others.

In our Soto Zen practice, wishlessness or aimlessness is expressed as “no gaining idea” (mushotoku in Japanese), hammered home by Suzuki Roshi and Sojun, who drew their wisdom from the ancestors and from their own life experience. In Shobogenzo-Zuimonki Dogen Zenji offers this advice, his approach to wishlessness, no gaining idea, and the heart of Buddhist practice:

Simply do good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind you have to awaken to impermanence.

“Awakening to impermanence” might sound like a gaining idea—the quest for enlightenment or attainment. Maybe this is even the “secret” Suzuki Roshi spoke of. But our teachers are clear that awakening is not a goal. Rather it is always right here, if only we can let go of our goals and aims. In fact, it is a “losing idea”—losing our self-centeredness and attachment to ego. This is such a simple shift, but maybe it is not so easy. This point is pivotal in the Heart Sutra when Avalokiteshvara says to Shariputra:

With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva depends on prajna paramita
And the mind is no hindrance.
Without any hindrance no fears exist;
Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in nirvana.

Chanting this daily, week after week, year after year, still I hear the call of those gaining ideas. Sometimes they whisper in my ear, sometimes they roar like a diesel. I confess that I am only a foolish human. Like so many of us, I am just walking up and down in the world. Fortunately, there is a well-traveled path to follow. If one follows the path and the practice, it leads right through the wilderness of gaining ideas. In faith, it leads to freedom.

—Hozan Alan Senauke


Year of the Tiger
Year of the Tiger (Sumi-e painting by Kazumi Cranney)