Bringing the Path to Life

Featured in Mountain Record 30.2, Fall 2011


This issue on Aspiration takes up the question of why we practice the Buddhist path. With the world in its present state, it seems more important than ever that we keep our practice vital and relevant and be clear about what we are doing and why. To aspire literally means “to breathe into,” to give life, in a sense. Without aspiration, our practice lacks life: the forms turn into empty husks, our zazen becomes passive, our vows languish. As Charlotte Joko Beck writes, “Aspiration is the key to practice because, without it, our buddha nature is like a beautiful car: until someone gets in the driver’s seat and turns on the ignition, it is useless.”

This question of “why practice?” is part of aspiration, but it’s not the whole thing. Aspiration is more nuanced, less clear-cut—more the yearning cant of the heart than the reasoned language of the head. This issue is devoted not only to looking at the centrality of aspiration with regard to Buddhist practice, but also to exploring its subtleties. What is it, after all? Why is it so important? How does it function in our daily life? When we give up or go numb, where can we find it again?

In his discourse, Daido Roshi emphasizes not only how fundamental aspiration is to the work of self-realization, he also points out its thoroughly personal nature. Shugen Sensei speaks of how, when we lose our way, “in one mysterious and unexpected moment” our mind can shift and bring us to life again. Ryushin Sensei takes up the importance of vow, of letting our aspiration be born as commitment. As Maezumi Roshi writes, aspiration is present at the very beginning of practice, and yet, as the Dalai Lama teaches, it must also be diligently cultivated over time.

The Zen path is one of transformation, of turning deeply inward in order to revolutionize our very way of seeing and understanding ourselves and all of reality. From this inward turning, Zen insists we extend outward and manifest this truth, offering the fruits of our practice for the good of all beings. So, how do we hold both the aspiration for our own realization and the vow to save all beings before we save ourselves? How, in the face of unprecedented challenges and relentless self-doubt, do we draw upon our courage and nurture our self-trust?

Historian and social activist Howard Zinn writes, “We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. . . to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

And while the Buddha didn’t speak in terms of “victory,” per se, he did teach that we should live and act in accord with the truth. In the end, there is no day of reckoning, no final determination of whether we failed or succeeded. There is just our life, unfolding. The question is, how will we use it? 

Danica Shoan Ankele, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor