After a Sunday night lecture at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa said to his students: “If you discard all thoughts of attainment, you will then come to see the real purpose of your quest. Some of you want to reach enlightenment quickly and as soon as possible become Zen masters. But as long as you have a thought like this, you’ll never attain anything. Just cut off all thoughts and conceptions, then, as you work hard on your kong-an, all your questions and doubts will come to form one great mass. This mass will grow and grow, until you don’t care about eating or sleeping or anything but finding the answer to the great question. When you reach this state, enlightenment won’t be far away.”
Student — If we didn’t want to get enlightened, why would we be taking the trouble to come here?
Soen-sa — Desire and aspiration are two different things. The idea that you want to achieve something in Zen meditation is basically selfish. “I want to get enlightened” means “I want to get enlightened.” But aspiration isn’t for myself, it isn’t a merely individual desire, it transcends the idea of self. It is desire without attachment. If enlightenment comes, good. If it doesn’t come, good. Only don’t touch. Actually, this is enlightenment.
Student — Could you explain why?
Soen-sa — Originally there is no enlightenment. If I attain enlightenment, it’s not enlightenment. As the Heart Sutra says, there is “no attainment, with nothing to attain.” Enlightenment isn’t enlightenment. It’s just a teaching word.
Student — What does it teach?
Soen-sa — When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, sleep.
Student — Sometimes I feel that meditating is very selfish. I really don’t feel I’m going to help others get enlightened by sitting Zen. I don’t even know what that means.
Soen-sa — What are you? What is this self that is feeling selfish? If you understand this, you’ll know that there is no real difference between your self and all beings in the universe. Ultimately, they are one and the same. You include all beings. So if you’re coming here for yourself, you’re coming for all beings.
Student — What you said is as clear as day. But I still feel selfish when I come here and my children want me to be with them at home.
Soen-sa — Let me ask you this: If you could do anything your heart desires, what would you want to do most of all?
Student (laughing) — Get enlightened.
Soen-sa — And after you get enlightened, what will you do then?
Student (after a few moments) — I don’t know. (Laughter.)
Soen-sa — You want most of all to attain enlightenment. And you don’t know what in the world you’ll do with it. That not knowing is your true self. As long as you keep the desire to attain enlightenment, you’ll never attain. But desire brings you here to sit Zen. So come and sit. That is a first step.