The Buddha responded: “Whether they meditate with or without expectations, if they have the wrong ideas and the wrong methods, they will not get any fruit from their meditation. Think about it: Suppose someone wants to have some oil and they put sand into a bowl and then sprinkles it with salt. However much they press it, they will not get oil, for that is not the correct method. Another person is in need of milk and starts pulling on the horns of a young cow. Whether they have any expectations or not, they will not get any milk out of the horn, for that’s not the method. Or, if a person fills a container with water and churns it in order to get butter, they will be left only with water!
BUT, if someone meditates with a wholesome attitude, with right attention and right mindfulness, then whether they have expectations or not, they will gain insight. In this way it is like filling a bowl with oil seeds and pressing them or milking a cow by pulling the udder or filling a container with cream and churning it. It’s the right method.”
--- Majjhima Nikaya
There are quite a few stories in the suttas where the Buddha really comes across with a subtle and sometimes almost sardonic sense of humor, using some pretty funny examples of behavior that is unskillful as he does in this sutta, which is one of my favorites as it is in response to a notion many yoga/meditation practitioners have about expectations. That is, that they are “bad” or a “distraction” and should be dropped.
This notion persists today. In Zen, the idea that we should practice free of all expectations is often held up as an emblematic feature of practice. This idea is sometimes referred to in Suzuki Roshi’s term, “no gaining mind” and that sitting itself (zazen) is “good for nothing” as it’s often said. But this “no gaining mind” and “good for nothing” is mistakenly taken to mean there is no “goal” to practice which is patently absurd.
Expectations can be problematic and is often so for beginners who hold expectations of what meditation is or “should” be and what the goal of practice actually is. And indeed, if one holds too fast to such expectations, they can certainly become obstacles keeping one from seeing what is actually happening or, perhaps worse, by leading them to think what is happening is “wrong.”
When people hear that they should practice with “no gaining mind” and do not have the proper context and understanding, they take it to mean that there is no goal or purpose for practicing. The Japanese term, mushotoku, is make up of mu, which is a negation (no, not); sho means “place, and toku means advantage, gain or profit. So, together, this means “the place where nothing is to be gained.” In this context, “no gaining mind” refers to the mind which penetrates emptiness and dependent origination; the mind where the non-separation of subject and object is experienced.
Dogen Zenji speaks of mushotoku as “Simply do(ing) good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind, you have to awaken to impermanence.” I don’t like the use of the word ego here as it leads to another misunderstanding that ego is itself something negative to drop. A better understanding here is to drop or move beyond attachment to the notion of a essential self-nature. No one sits in zazen without a functioning ego! The idea here, though, is that Dogen’s “goal” of practice is awakening to impermanence. This is the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita) described in The Heart Sutra.
When we sit zazen, in samadhi intimacy with all things, we sit in the place where there is nothing to be gained because it is the place where nothing is lacking. There is no need to grasp at things that are impermanent such as:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.*
Elsewhere, Dogen writes: “When even for a moment you express the Buddha’s seal by sitting upright in samadhi the whole phenomenal world… and the entire sky turns into awakening. Furthermore, all beings… at once obtain pure body and mind, realize the state of great emancipation, and manifest the original face.”
Does this sound like “good for nothing” to you?
Again, without context, it sounds pretty clear that zazen has no purpose at all. But the full quote from Kodo Sawaki is: “What is zazen good for? Good for nothing. As long as this good for nothing practice does not penetrate our bones and we really practice what is good for nothing, it won’t be good for anything.” Sawaki is telling us that in order for meditation to be good for anything, it has to be good for nothing. By making meditation good for nothing, we focus on the doing and not on the benefits we expect. And this was the heart of my first meditation instruction given me by Sw. Satchidananda in 1977 when he told us: “Yes, you have a goal. You wish to get somewhere. In practice; in everyday life. But to get to your goal, you need to attend to what is right now in front of you. If you keep your eyes on the goal, you miss what is here now. So, put your goal on the shelf and attend to now.” If we practice fully now, benefits come. It is cause and effect.
But… and it’s a fairly big “but,” by attending to where you are now, with increased understanding, with a deeper intimacy with experience, the goal may change! That is another reason we should hold expectations lightly. We may start out with the goal of “stress management” and after years of practice the goal may transform to “working for the sake of all beings.”
The Buddha described his path as a “direct path to awakening.” An image he gave was a path through the woods that leads to a pond in the woods. It is certain that if someone walks along that path in the right direction, they will inevitably reach the pond. As the Buddha points out in this sutta, if one practices with right determination, a wholesome mind committed to sila (the ethical training including the five precepts left ignored for the most part by the contemporary Mindfulness Movement), and practicing the method correctly, then insight, understanding, liberation, will be the result.
In the end, he is saying, if you have no expectations but practice unskillfully, you will be no better off – indeed you will be worse off – than someone with expectations following a skillful method. Right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration are aspects of the correct method taught by the Buddha. And so is right view, right motivation, right action, right speech and right livelihood. By holding whatever expectations we may have lightly, we attend to just this, this present moment, in order to see its impermanent, not-self, ultimately unsatisfactory nature. We attend to this moment in order to see the causes and conditions that led to it in order to respond appropriately. This means, if the present moment is one of suffering, we work to end the causes and conditions that led to it and cultivate causes and conditions that lead to less suffering. If the present moment is one of joy, compassion, and equanimity, in seeing the causes and conditions that led to it, we work even harder to continue to sow the seeds of continued freedom from suffering.
*The Diamond Sutra; Section 32