In my last piece, I wrote about the importance of tapping into and living from our deepest aspiration, even if it is only a “dim vision.” This term is Dogen’s, who writes that enlightenment is ever intimate with dim vision.
As the 8th century Zen teacher Shitou says, “within darkness there is light.” A single ray of light is all we need to bring to life our deepest sense of what we want our future to be. Here are five ways in which we may develop, nurture, and keep alive a vision about our future regardless of how dim it is.
First: Trust Your Dim Vision.
My root teacher, Suzuki Roshi, had a dim vision of coming to an English speaking country to teach the dharma dating back to his twenties. But his teacher was not in favor of him doing this. He kept this dim vision alive as he developed a friendship with Nora Ransom, a British woman, who lived near him. She taught him English and showed a sincere interest in learning Buddhist meditation. This combined with her British disciplined orderliness undoubtedly impressed him. However, time passed and World War II raised its ugly head. Although he still had thoughts about teaching in the West, he had to pour all his energy into supporting members of the small Zen Buddhist community, which depended on him. Finally, more than a decade after the war was over when Suzuki was in his mid-50s, he learned of an opportunity to come to San Francisco and teach. He had kept his vision alive for more than three decades, but he wondered to himself, “Am I too old to establish myself in a new country?” He remembered Miss Ransom’s disciplined orderliness combined with her hunger to learn meditation and he still had this vision of teaching English-speaking people. It must have been a huge shock to him to discover that the people who began showing up at the San Francisco Zen Center were not at all like Miss Ransom. We (speaking of myself and my friends) were both disorderly and undisciplined. Yet he stayed and worked with us. Over the course of the last decade of his life, his dim vision came to dramatic fruition with the phenomenal success of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind coupled with the development of the first Zen monastery in the west.
Second: Embrace Not Knowing.
Life has so many twists and turns that we can never really know when and how our aspiration is going to manifest itself. But that’s okay. The best way to bring whatever dim vision we have alive is to actively fumble around. I had a student who had a dim vision of working with kids but instead went to business school and then developed a small business as his father had done. But he was not happy and kept having vague images of working with kids as his business faltered and then failed. Then he stayed home as a house husband with his own kids, then he volunteered at his kids school and finally he ended up teaching at a charter school, work which he finds deeply satisfying. But through most of his journey he had no choice but to embrace not knowing. If we think we have our future figured out, it’s likely that we are caught by a somewhat superficial view of our life.
Third: Take Risks.
Suzuki Roshi took a huge risk in leaving behind a familiar life to settle into a milieu as alien as that of the San Francisco beatnik and then counter-culture, in many ways diametrically opposite to the civilized, polite behavior of Miss Ransom. But he stayed with us and we stayed with him.
Fourth: Make One Mistake After Another.
Take my own life for example. I started off as a psychology major in college because I had a dim vision of helping people who were suffering psychologically. But I was bored out of my mind by Stanford’s focus on rat experimentation and behavioral psychology. I realized I had made a mistake in my choice of major and switched to speech and drama. After graduating I kept my dim vision alive by reading R.D. Lang and others who talked about psychosis as a spiritual journey. Then my wife and I took my sister in after she had a psychotic break—I utterly failed at R.D. Lang’s approach and after a tumultuous month we had to send my sister back to California. Then I got a job working with folks with mental health issues and seemed to be finally developing mental health competency, that is, until my younger brother’s suicide. Again, I felt like an abject failure and blamed my incompetency partly for his death. Shortly, after that I got a job, directing a non-profit agency and made a determined effort to develop community-based options for people like my brother and sister. Legislator after legislator slammed his door on me. Each time I fell on my face I came back to Dogen’s statement “A Zen practitioner’s life is one mistake after another” until I finally found a couple of key legislators who chose to help me implement my dim vision.
Fifth: Keep Trying.
Trust your vision regardless of how dim it is, embrace not knowing, take risks, and don’t give up just because you make mistakes over and over. As W. B. Yeats suggests in his poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” we may feel that we have lost our ability to perform tricks with our strategic thinking mind, but that may also mean that we are ready to return to the root, as in a second poem of his when he writes:
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
Dogen refers to this as “going beyond buddha.” May we all wither into the truth!
In my last piece I talked about happiness and explained that we can only experience it “now” when we are fully present, never in the past or future, where we spend so much of our lives.
But life is short and our planning and projecting ability is part of being uniquely human. Each of us has an opportunity to move toward a future in which we live from our deepest aspiration.
In my book Nothing Holy About It, I talked about Victor Frankl’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp as well as the experiences of people in the camp he interviewed after the war. Frankl claims that the only way he and others who lived happy lives afterward survived was that they shared one common denominator: each had thought hard about a life after and imagined themselves living it. They were able to do this even though, or possibly because they had been stripped of everything they identified with—the people, objects, life, which supported them. Using a Soto Zen term, we could say that each was able to get in touch with their own unique “dim vision.”
The term “dim vision” was used negatively in Buddhist literature for hundreds of years until Dogen turned it on its head in the 13th century. Originally, it is a descriptor of the blind man with cataracts, who cannot see the world clearly because he is ensnared by his thoughts, memories, and their projections. This early teaching made the claim that through meditation practice we can move from this deluded state to a thoroughly enlightened one. However, for Dogen, as well as my two teachers, regardless of how much meditation we do, we are never free from delusion. But this isn’t negative. Meditation practice can both help us experience the deep happiness in the present, and see and fully accept our delusion. In order to do this we must allow ourselves to experience what William Butler Yeats referred to in the title of one of his poems as The Circus Animals Desertion. At this late stage in his life he feels that the ability to use words to create wonderful worlds that will move people has deserted him. He has lost the tricks of his trade, which is not at all a bad thing. As is the case with serious meditators, he has been stripped of everything he has learned and identified with.
If you do your own stripping way, you too, can discover your own dim vision. I often refer to the meditation process as peeling layers of an onion, you cry as you peel away layer after layer, often in a manner that seems endless. But the more you let the layers of thought and emotion peel away, the closer you are to your still, empty center, your true resting place. After Yeats has done his own peeling away, there’s the last line of his poem:
Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
With all of the should’s and should not’s, all of the ideas about accomplishing something or impressing others stripped away we can each tap into this rag and bone shop. And its not at all foul from the Zen sense, but fertile with the possibility. That we can live from our deepest aspirations. When Dogen writes enlightenment is ever intimate with dim-sightedness, he is encouraging us to embrace this shadow side. As the 8th century Zen teacher Shitou says, “Within darkness there is light.”
A single ray of light is all we need to bring to life our deepest aspirations.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher