Since ancient times, it’s never been an easy matter to enter into training. The student has always been tested in terms of determination and aspiration. In all the accounts of students and teachers, you’ll always find the quest to understand the nature of the self as the motivating force for the student. This motivation needs to be present for the teacher to have permission to teach; it’s part of a process of bonding between the teacher and the student. Aspiration creates a very important beginning point. When that is not present, the teaching can’t happen. It seems simple, but it’s a pivotal matter.

A person’s motivation distinguishes Zen training from other practices—from entering into psychotherapy, for example, or doing some kind of self-help. Usually when people enter into therapy, they’re motivated by a problem that needs resolving, which is very different from asking the question, “Who am I?” Even in cases where the motivating force is to address personal pain, underneath that pain needs to be a deeper question about the nature of reality, the nature of the self.

When a person enters into a relationship with a therapist, it’s a matter of making and keeping an appointment; the barrier for entry is very, very small. Compare that to the barrier for entry in spiritual training. At the Monastery, a person who wants to receive the teachings has to pass through the Guardian Council, sit Tangaryo, and over time, create a bond with a teacher that ultimately resolves itself as permission for the teacher to function as a teacher. The student has had to get in touch with their aspiration—this makes all the difference in the world in how they see the practice, do the practice, and hear the teachings. If they’re listening for how they can get rid of this problem that they have, then that’s what they’re going to hear. And while there’s no doubt that spiritual practice can resolve psychological problems, it’s a natural byproduct of the process, when that becomes the motivation for practice, something is off. As a motivating force, it doesn’t carry enough strength to do the things that a rigorous and authentic spiritual practice requires.

In the dokusan room I hear a lot of questions along the lines of, “How long do you have to practice before you realize it?” or “I’ve been doing this for a year, or two years, and I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.” In a sense, aspiration in spiritual training is really a matter of effort, meticulous effort—not of trying to accomplish a goal. Effort always takes place in the moment. It’s part of reaching a goal, but if you’re preoccupied with a goal, then that’s what you’re practicing—you’re not practicing effort. We constantly want to know how close we are to that goal, but sooner or later, that attitude weakens our practice.

For those of you that have been practicing a couple of years and haven’t been enlightened yet, Xuefeng’s story should be an inspiration. At the age of 12 he wanted to become a monk and he eventually went to work at a local temple. By the time he was 17 he had received the precepts and been ordained. But it was almost 30 years from the time that Xuefeng was ordained until the time that he came to full realization, and during that time he studied with some of the finest masters in all of China. In spite of all of his visits to various masters, and studying under the great Master Deshan, Xuefeng didn’t come to enlightenment until one encounter with his dharma brother, Yantou. This koan is the story of what happened.