ZEN: Purpose

Every so often I find myself taking a personal retreat in order to, as I call it, calibrate myself back to zero,  which is for me the quintessence of Zen. Just recently I have realized that this “zero” refers to “zero purpose”. When I go to the Arizona Beach Lodge not far from where I live, I leave behind all the things and people in my home environment that call me to do “this” and “that”. I am always rather amazed at how soon I am able to enter into a space in which I have let go of all purpose and am able to just ‘be’.

Plum Village BellWhen I return to my daily life’s circumstances, I of course intend to re-calibrate myself more frequently to this ‘zero purpose’. Alia and I have been keeping to a schedule of sitting quietly without speaking 2 times a day and 1 time sitting quietly listening to Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Plum Village Bell Meditation for a total of three breaks each day leaving the flow of purposeful action. Before I start my day’s activities and before turning out the light, I again have been contemplating a few passages in Alan Watts’ “The Way of Zen”, which also serves this calibration to zero and letting go of all extraneous stuff.

This article is a deeper look at what exactly is “extraneous stuff” in my present understanding. This understanding centers around my musings on the concept of “purpose”. So here we go.

Where there is purpose there is some outward movement, some striving. Some result shows up in my mind, an image or perhaps just a sense of how I want to feel or be. All of this necessarily involves a moving away from how and what I am just at this very moment.

Of course all manifested forms are in continual flux and thus my psycho-somatic organism is no exception. Continually something is called for by the body for its sustenance and comfort. When the desire for more comfort arises it can be called the desire for pleasure. It is only when grasping for pleasure occurs that an endless chain is set off for more and more and more. This is known as addiction. Seen in this light, most everyone is addicted to something, and often many things. Anything that I have been bringing into my life on a regular basis and there is discomfort when I miss it can be seen as an addiction. Some are more acute and some are mild, and some are strongly dysfunctional intensely disrupting an orderly existence in order to be satisfied.

flatline_2As long as I see life as having a purpose I will gladly follow all images that arise in my mind-flow and show me what will satisfy me. There are two aspects of this that I contemplate in order to see how they affect me:

1. These images generally suggest a result of some action and the action itself is more a means to an end. This means that I am following a purpose that I believe will bring me satisfaction at the end of the process. The classical example: I hate my job but I’ll get a fat retirement at the end. If the end result doesn’t meet my expectations I am disappointed.

It is not all too difficult to adjust my inner image to focus more on the satisfaction derived from the doing itself, from the process rather than the result or the product of my efforts. Thus, the way becomes the goal and my efforts are continually rewarded in each moment along the way. If the imagined result leaves anything to be desired, the disappointment doesn’t impact my sense of well-being and my inner-balance too strongly.

2. Any image in my mind that I set out to realize implies the outward flow of my energy focus. When I become drawn to know the truth of who or what I am independently of all attributes to my being, I must release all outward flow. Only then will I be able to see “what is” when I rest in myself in my original state, free of attributes. The original state can only be grokked when my energy field is not caught up in the myriad transmutations involved in becoming “this” or “that”.

Then questions arise such as, “What do I really want to do? Do I really want to follow this purpose?” I find myself being drawn toward Emptiness and sensing that openness and spaciousness are qualities that allow my most expanded perceptions of who and what I really am. I find the following statement useful in this regard: “I am my ultimate purpose”. This signifies no need to “do” anything beyond “being” in order to fulfill my purpose in life. I have already attained the highest achievement simply by being aware of being. Intelligent Infinity as this form called Tomas is fulfilled when it re-cognizes itself in this Tomas-form as well as in any other form that it recognizes through any other form.

Following Alan Watts’ train of thought on Zen has led me to fine-tune my inner focus. This is a process of going beyond the intellect. Words prompt me to deepen my own focus toward the core of my being. It implies emptying the mind of the known and to recognize distractive actions, as J. Krishnamurti calls them, that draw my focus outward.

At this point I am looking at how the structure of our language forms our thoughts:

Way of Zen Cover“The difficulty of appreciating what dhyana (meditation) means is that the structure of our language does not permit us to use a transitive verb structure without a subject and a predicate. When there is “knowing,” grammatical convention requires that there must be someone who knows and something which is known. We are so accustomed to this convention in speaking and thinking that we fail to recognize that it is simply a convention, and that it does not necessarily correspond to the actual experience of knowing. Thus when we say, “A light flashed,” it is somewhat easier to see through the grammatical convention and to realize that the flashing is the light. But dhyana as the mental state of the liberated or awakened man is naturally free from the confusion of conventional entities with reality. Our intellectual discomfort in trying to conceive knowing without a distinct “someone” who knows and a distinct “something” which is known, is like the discomfort of arriving at a formal dinner in pajamas. The error is conventional, not existential.”

Thus I continue to make use of the grammatical convention, using the personal pronoun “I” in conjunction with transitive verbs while being aware that this is but a convention and that the reality is that Awareness is deepening its own Self-recognition by being me. Its Self-recognition consists in the realization that this actuality is a Subject without an object. The subject-object relationship is a thoughtform (concept) with a certain frequency: separation. It is useful in the context of certain experiences that base themselves on the body-mind sense. “My” body requires food and therefore “I” procure food for “myself”. All of this happens actually spontaneously and the subject-object construct is part of that happening.

When, however, the focus shifts to Self-awareness, it is useful to disregard the subject-object context and open up to the concept of a Subject without a second, which is of the frequency of Unicity. This is illustrated by Alan Watts in the following:

“This word dhyana (Pali, jhana) is the original Sanskrit form of the Chinese ch’an and the Japanese zen, and thus its meaning is of central importance for an understanding of Zen Buddhism. “Meditation” in the common sense of “thinking things over” or “musing” is a most misleading translation. But such alternatives as “trance” or “absorption” are even worse, since they suggest states of hypnotic fascination. The best solution seems to be to leave dhyana untranslated and add it to the English language as we have added Nirvana and Tao.

As used in Buddhism, the term dhyana comprises both recollectedness (smriti) and samadhi, and can best be described as the state of unfied or one-pointed awareness. On the one hand, it is one-pointed in the sense of being focused on the present, since to clear awareness there is neither past nor future, but just this one moment (ekaksana) which Western mystics have called the Eternal Now.  On the other hand, it is one-pointed in the sense of being a state of consciousness without differentiation of the knower, the knowing, and the known.

sri-chinmoy-kamakura-buddha“A Tathagata (i.e., a Buddha) is a seer of what is to be seen, but he is not mindful (na mannati, or does not conceive) of the seen, the unseen, the seeable, or the seer. So too with the heard, the sensed, and the known: he does not think of them in these categories.”

As a “seer of what is to be seen” but not caught up in a subject-object dichotomy, a great spaciousness opens up for me. I experience this as an ongoing process of increasing stability in that state of spaciousness. The dynamic of emptying the mind of the known and letting each moment disappear into oblivion, (unless there is some functional reason to re-call it) is a significant aspect of this process.

Another aspect in this process is to observe my favorite “distractive actions” that run counter to emptying the mind of the known. In this I recognize that certain activities have the tendency to create my identification with them and they then becomes “attributes” to my being. For example, I write my reflections on my own process of Self-awareness into this blog. This easily becomes a part of who and what I identify myself as being: “I have a blog of a certain character”. When I feel that I ‘need’ to write this blog in order to fulfill my purpose, I am caught up in attributes and my consciousness loses the frequency of being complete even when free of all attributes.

In the last several days I have been calling this dynamic, “having a purpose”. When I am hungry, I get up from my chair and go to the kitchen to eat. Hunger creates a purpose that drives my activity. When I have an insight relating to my process of Self-awareness, I spontaneously visualize how I can communicate the insight to those who follow my blog. My blog creates a purpose that drives me into a whole chain of activity.

The focus on emptying the mind of the known calls for me to recognize these various ‘purposeful’ activities and the extent to which they are actually ‘distractive actions’. This passage of Alan Watts points out this dynamic beautifully:

“Sitting meditation is not, as is often supposed, a spiritual “exercise,” a practice followed for some ulterior object. From a Buddhist standpoint, it is simply the proper way to sit, and it seems perfectly natural to remain sitting so long as there is nothing else to be done, and so long as one is not consumed with nervous agitation. To the restless temperament of the West, sitting meditation may seem to be an unpleasant discipline, sitting zenbecause we do not seem to be able to sit “just to sit” without qualms of conscience, without feeling that we ought to be doing something more important to justify our existence. To propitiate this restless conscience, sitting meditation must therefore be regarded as an exercise, a discipline with an ulterior motive. Yet at that very point it ceases to be meditation (dhyana) in the Buddhist sense, for where there is purpose, where there is seeking and grasping for results, there is no dhyana.”

Exactly this is what Krishnamurti is pointing to when he speaks of emptying the mind of the known: “where there is purpose, where there is seeking and grasping for results, there is no dhyana.” Thus I recognize the state of ‘no purpose’ as the letting go of all the myriad motivations that drive me into distractive actions. Sitting with no purpose, walking with no purpose, talking with no purpose, writing with no purpose, eating with no purpose… All the world is talking of the importance of finding my purpose, living my purpose, purposeful action and so on and so forth. Won’t I fall into a black hole if I give up all purpose in life? If I take on the attitude, the inner posture, that I am living without a purpose, that my life is without a purpose? If I give up all grasping, all trying to reach a result by my actions?

When I open up to my recognition that, in actuality, the thinker is not separate from the thought and the subject is not separate from the object, where does that take me? Once again the Alan Watts’ text I am following leads me further onward:

“Through such awareness it is seen that the separation of the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, the subject from the object, is purely abstract. There is not the mind on the one hand and its experiences on the other: there is just a process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped, as an object, and no one, as a subject, to grasp it. Seen thus, the process of experiencing ceases to clutch at itself. Thought follows thought without interruption, that is, without any need to divide itself from itself, so as to become its own object.

“Where there is an object, there thought arises.” Is then the thought one thing, and the object another? No, what is the object, just that is the thought. If the object were one thing, and the thought another, then there would be a double state of thought. So the object itself is just thought. Can then thought review thought? No, thought cannot review thought. As the blade of a sword cannot cut itself, as a finger-tip cannot touch itself, so a thought cannot see itself.

This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi, and because of the disappearance of that fruitless threshing around of the mind to grasp itself, samadhi is a state of profound peace. This is not the stillness of total inactivity, for, once the mind returns to its natural state, samadhi persists at all times, in “walking, standing, sitting, and lying.”

bhagavan-ramana-maharshi6We find it in Ramana’s “Forty Verses on Reality” (Verse 3) as follows:

“That State is agreeable to all, wherein, having given up the objective outlook, one knows one’s Self and loses all notions either of unity or duality, of oneself and the ego.”

In the YouTube video of Krishnamurti (“On Observing Ourselves“) which I posted yesterday he says:

“When the observer views the observed as something different than self then it can act. When it realizes it is the observed then all action ceases. Therefore there is no fear at all. This requires a great deal of inner observation without coming to conclusion.” (Thanks to BG at middlepane.com for this excerpt)

Letting myself fall into this frequency of “no purpose” I see all the very subtle ‘purposes’ that populate my hours and minutes from waking until I turn out the light for the night. I feel the subtle-unrest that is like the theme-song of my life: “This needs to be done, do that, think about that, figure out this, go on the Internet and do this, that and the other, go to the store and find this, that and the other.” Yes, I feel the quality of “distractive actions” in a visceral way. To just experiment and say to myself: “No purpose, I just am” opens up to me the vastness of Reality:

The Pali Canon (Vinaya Titaka, III. 3–6, and Majjhima Nikaya, I. 349–52) lists eight types of jhana (Dhyana) – the four rupa-jhana and the four arupa-jhana – the states of jhana with form and without form. The first four involve the progressive settling of conception (vitakka) and discursive thought (vicara) into a state of equanimity (upekkha) through the practice of samadhi. In other words, as the mind returns to its natural state of integrity and non-duality, it ceases to clutch at experience with the symbols of discursive thought, It simply perceives without words or concepts. Beyond this lie the four arupa-jhana, described as the spheres of Boundless Space, Boundless Consciousness, Nothingness, and Neither-Perception-nor-Nonperception, which are stages of the mind’s realization of its own nature. At the time of his death, the Buddha is said to have entered into parinirvana (i.e., final nirvana) from the fourth rupa-jhana.”

The essence of Zen is, for me, to give the mind some real “time-out” in which there really is nothing to do and nowhere to go and just be. Since this is the most difficult thing to ask the mind to do, it proves helpful to me to focus the mind on ‘purpose’ and to recognize all the ways in which the mind follows the thread of purpose as its modus operandi and to recognize that this is just what the mind does and it does it wonderfully. I find, however, that in this recognition I step out of the mind flow of “purpose” – which greatly constricts laughing Ganeshmy horizon — and find myself in the settled and peaceful state beyond the intellect and the mind. I am then able, as Eckhart Tolle suggests, to “renounce the need for the next moment”. What a relief! What a delightful way to spend all my time! I am free to sink deeply into each moment of NOW and let it show me its secrets and all that is new and fresh to me! Out of this NOW beingness quality in my life I find that I naturally and spontaneously am filled with love for all I do and everything and every person I meet. Does anyone who speaks of finding your true purpose in life mention anything that goes beyond this?

I leave you with the final passage of Alan Watts’ chapter “The Origins of Buddhism” from “The Way of Zen”:

Once again, therefore, we see how convention, how the maya of measurement and description, populates the world with those ghosts which we call entities and things. So hypnotic, so persuasive is the power of convention that we begin to feel these ghosts as realities, and make of them our loves, our ideals, our prized possessions. But the anxiety-laden problem of what will happen to me when I die is, after all, like asking what happens to my fist when I open my hand, or where my lap goes when I stand up.

Perhaps, then, we are now able to understand the celebrated summary of the Buddha’s doctrine given in the Visuddhimagga:

Suffering alone exists, none who suffer;

The deed there is, but no doer thereof;

Nirvana is, but no one seeking it;

The Path there is, but none who travel it.



Alan Watts excerpts: “The Way of Zen” p. 53 – 56

16 thoughts on “ZEN: Purpose

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  5. we humans are such complicated beings. thanks for sharing these thoughts…this one stood out clearer than all the rest:
    “The essence of Zen is, for me, to give the mind some real “time-out” in which there really is nothing to do and nowhere to go and just be…”

  6. Krishnamurti’s says is so powerful “where there is purpose, where there is seeking and grasping for results, there is no dhyana.” Thus I recognize the state of ‘no purpose’ as the letting go of all the myriad motivations that drive me into distracting actions.

    For me this is a fascinating revelation. I have always been told that the seeker must decide on his purpose of life so that he progresses further towards his spiritual goal. But I wonder if the great Jiddu implies this in the context of Dyana – where we must be in a relaxed and “Let go” mode.

    Thanks again Tomas and cheers 🙂

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Dilip ~ This way of looking at things brings us to consider what this “individuality” that we assume to be real, really is? Can a spiritual goal be followed by a non-existent entity? If my spiritual goal is the deepest perception of the truth of my existence, my true nature, then letting go of all distractions is integral to my spiritual goal. Quite a journey to follow… 😉

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  8. Great post Tomas! We seem to be taught from birth that we need to be doing something, going somewhere or knowing something, but at the root of it all is non-doing and non-knowing. Thank you for sharing your process and thoughts.


  9. Sitting quietly together is such a powerful bonding experience. This is the moment upon reflecting the others’ silence perfectly, and know we’re one and the same… such as it is. Wow, such great confirmations in this post, I’ll finish the rest tomorrow. Thanks for posting Tomas! ♥ {Hugs}

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