When we first read or hear about living an enlightened life- acting from the same still center that Buddha did- it may seem like an impossible dream. But without dreams where would we be? By keeping this impossible dream alive even in the midst of the radical uncertainty that has been created by our current pandemic, we have a chance to tap into the joy emanating from our timeless center by simply practicing bringing our attention to it.
If someone tells you that your dream (whatever it is) is deluded, is that a criticism that should bother you? A phrase used in Buddhist teaching is, “flowers blooming in the sky.” This refers to how our minds get clouded by all types of delusions like a person with cataracts. Many people are experiencing more cloudedness/mind fog now due to the corona virus.
In early Buddhism the goal of meditation practice was the removal of these cataracts so we might see clearly without mind fog. But Dogen turns this teaching upside down when he suggests that genuine enlightenment means radically accepting that we are all dim-sighted people (who also experience mind fog). Even a dim vision can be very motivating. And our imperfections, including additional mind fog evoked by this pandemic, may help us in our spiritual practice. My hearing impediment has increased significantly in the last 20 years, but this isn’t completely bad. I have to pay attention carefully when someone is talking as well as watch them carefully- no more spacing out if I want to be connected to someone who is sharing with me. Opening up to and acknowledging both our mind fog and our flaws may help us connect to others I ways we never thought possible. “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another,” says Dogen.
Genuine enlightenment, then, makes room for our delusions (including our mind fog) as it sheds light on them. If we are “enlightened” without awareness of our delusion, there’s a good chance that we will overlook our actions’ effects on others. The most important component of practice-enlightenment is bringing our delusions into awareness.
I would like to suggest four ways in which we can enlighten our delusions:
First, when you have a hazy vision of something you want to change, create, or transform, don’t dismiss it. Instead, work with it, play with it, and even fumble around with it. You may be surprised at what clarity comes out of this process.
Second, embrace not knowing completely what the vision is or how to implement it regardless of how much mind fog you have. Dogen calls this “going beyond Buddha.”
Third, be willing to take risks in reaching for something you deeply care about. Sure, you will fail a good deal of the time, but if you keep at it, you will be surprised at how often you succeed. When I became guiding teacher at Zen Center in 2002, I had a dim vision of how to make some of our activities less formal and friendlier for Americans, while continuing the tradition of offering priests’ training two a few individuals. Many people left during my first couple of years, but I stayed with my dim vision. And it worked!
This brings me to the fourth one; don’t give up on whatever aspiration or vision you have. Trust it regardless of how crazy it is or how difficult our current environment is for you. If you keep your heart and mind open, you’ll learn to live your enlightenment in your own idiosyncratic way.
Finally, this time of “sheltering inside” we might view as an extended retreat, offering us ample time to slow down our activities and our mind so we can discover how to take steps to realize our deepest aspirations as our mind becomes unburdened by thought even though the fog doesn’t entirely recede.
Practice-enlightenment is what keeps the dharma alive!
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher