When aspiration is present and it’s clear, then practice is very easy. It just naturally happens; it’s hard to contain it. But you can’t control motivation. You can’t manufacture it. It’s one of those intangible skills. Yet speaking of it as a skill makes it sound like it’s something we can learn. Is it? Is it like waiting for the phone to ring or are we somehow each intimately, intricately involved in arousing that aspiration? But it’s not a thing, so how is it aroused? It has to do with entering into the mystery of what spiritual practice is all about. It’s not tangible, but it’s not non-existent. It’s not something you can manufacture, but it’s not something that you can wait for. And so what do we do? Well, you can look outside. Just look around. You can look inside. Look around. What do you see? Don’t just look! Ask, investigate, wonder. Be troubled. Allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by what you see.
The poem reads, A foolish child troubles over “money” used to stop crying; A good steed chases the wind, looking back at the shadow of the whip. The first line refers to a mother gathering autumn leaves and offering them to her child, saying, “Here! Here’s some money to keep you happy.” The superintendent is like the child worrying over “money”: “You haven’t given a talk in a long time. Don’t you think you should expound the dharma?”
When the Buddha was practicing, he had the aspiration to be free. That’s what we know. That’s what he said and that’s what his life indicates. He had a great aspiration, which is different from having ambition. He wasn’t being motivated by the ambition to lead a sangha. He turned that down twice, according to the sutras. Ambition is a fortification of the self. The Buddha’s aspiration was to shed that self, to be naked and free. If he had had a shred of ambition, a shred of clinging, of wanting to just be done, to be finished, he wouldn’t have been the Buddha. His actions indicate that although he had eaten, he wasn’t satisfied. He was still hungry.
To stay in touch with that aspiration is difficult, because it means you have to continue to be uncomfortable on some level. That’s one of the skills for studying the dharma, learning how to live with the discomfort of delusion. Before we enter into practice there’s a lot of discomfort at being deluded, and we put a lot of energy into getting rid of that discomfort. Then, when we finally decide that this approach doesn’t work, the decision becomes to turn toward that very discomfort. How do you live with the experience of being in this world and of not being in perfect accord even as you’re practicing and working toward harmony? Those who don’t develop the skill to hold that discomfort do not continue. This is where desperation can be very helpful. If you really know that there is no door to escape from, then there is no door to escape from. We may not like the room we’re in, but we’re in it—until ultimately we realize that satisfaction comes from realizing there never was any hunger. We see that all the discomfort, real though it was, was not real, was not necessary, was a creation of mind. Still, that very same hunger persists. It doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it gets much bigger, because now we feel everyone’s hunger.
Clouds sweep the eternal sky; nesting in the moon, the crane— The cold clarity gets into his bones, he can’t go to sleep. That eternal sky is our nature. It’s our mind. The pain of sitting with ourselves is like the sky being blocked in, and it is eternal in the sense that there’s no release from it. It’s not that it reaches everywhere, but just that we can’t get away from it. And yet, within that eternal sky there are clouds passing. Are the clouds different from the sky? Does the sky resist the clouds? They don’t have an arrangement: “You can pass through,” “I won’t diminish your blue.” They just sweep through. It just happens. Nesting in the moon, the crane—This is like the crane nesting in a treetop, silhouetted against the moon. The crane is a symbol, as is the moon. The moon, of course, is the symbol of enlightenment. The crane is that eternal sky, the great emptiness. The cold clarity gets into his bones, he can’t go to sleep. For Yaoshan, that spaciousness, that non-obstructive sky is so deep in his bones, that he can’t go to sleep.