Buddhism teaches that the realms of existence we can dwell in range from the hell realm, which is unending agony and pain, to the realm of the gods, where you live in heaven and “become a long-lived celestial being.” The life in the realm of the gods is good, where you can have all that you want. You’re sitting on top, looking down on many others. The air is clear, and in many regards you are calling the shots; it’s a realm of power.
Yet, it’s still limited. The limitation is that it is still based in habitual consciousness, and the karma, or conditions, that are necessary for you to live in that realm will not last. As soon as those conditions change, you will find yourself in a very different realm. And so, even though it is pleasurable while you are there, you can’t stay. Because you can’t stay, you can’t really enjoy it because you know that any day, this could all come apart; this empire can and will fall. It is still a realm marked by dukkha. It’s not yet a place of liberation. To move beyond that, you have to give up all attachments. This isn’t to say that there aren’t profound experiences and transformations within the course of practice, but the moment you attach to them you are caught, no longer moving in the right direction.
We have to give up the belief that if we can acquire something new and special—whether it be in the so-called worldly realm or in the so-called spiritual realm—then we will be new and special. Freeing ourselves can never come from the outside. There is nothing out there, no independently existing thing that has power of its own. That’s the delusion. From that perspective, we could say all delusions are forms of sorcery. It’s like we are constantly trying to do a magic trick. The magic trick being—the well inside my heart is dry, so I’m going to wave my wand. I’m going to buy something new and wear something flashy. I’m going to be with somebody important and have an impressive title. And once I’ve done this, the well inside myself will be full and then I’ll be full—it’s like a magic trick. We do what’s necessary to get a bit of pleasure, to feel some satisfaction and enjoy some recognition from others. We seem to be getting all the right signals, but then what we realize is that it doesn’t last. We can’t hold on to any of this.
There isn’t anything—no title, no achievement, no sense of security—that gives us a lasting, genuine experience of happiness, meaning, or fulfillment. To understand this is to realize those magic tricks are something minor. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those endeavors; they constitute the activities of our lives. The problem is not in those activities. It’s in the sorcery we try to create with them—the sense of being complete based on our belief that we, inherently, are not.
So Keizan says, “…thus learning something minor, is like being dragged by a rope.” The thing we think we’re in charge of—I’m going to work hard, make a lot of money so I can do what I want, and that’s going to make me happy—becomes the thing that now is dragging us down. The thing we thought we were controlling, in order to control our own destiny, is somehow now controlling us.
How did that happen and what do we do about it? Dhrtaka goes on to say, “You should know for yourself that if you give up the little stream and immediately return to the great ocean, you will realize the uncreated.” You should know for yourself. That’s the foundation of Buddhist practice.
We have to discover the “little stream” and give it up. First there is the stream of just ordinary existence, thinking that if we drive fast enough and have enough great meals, life is going to be great. We have to realize, no, there’s something more than that. Then as we practice, we have to give up the dream of non-existence. “Oh, I see. So the world that arose out of my thirst and my attachments and my mind—that was the problem. So I’ll just dwell in the world where there is no thirst, no attachments, no mind, no thoughts, no world, no self, no things.”
Keizan says, “So do not even seek nothingness, for you may become the same as nihilists. You should not remain in the ‘eon of emptiness, before the primordial Buddha,’ for this too is to be like a corpse from which the spirit has not yet departed. Do not wish to stop illusion in order to arrive at reality, for this is the same as the saints who cut off ignorance to realize the middle way. This is producing clouds where there are no clouds, producing flaws where there are no flaws—you will become a destitute vagrant in a foreign country, an impoverished traveler drunk with ignorance.”