October 2, 2014

Dangerous Zeal

In meditation we enter the realm of selflessness (or egolessness). When we meditate there is no urge or desire for meditation, there is only beautiful meditation. Problems occur only when we stop meditating to return to the ego’s realm of desires and opinions about what is and what is not - Samsara. The Buddha gave a solution: the Eightfold Path. No other religion has offered a Path so simple, direct, and effective.

He was seeking advice. He was neatly dressed and his manner was deferent - timid, even. I offered him a seat and handed him a cup of hot tea. He took the tea but looked at me hesitantly when I gestured toward a chair.

"What’s wrong?"

He hesitated. "You’re going to think I’m crazy," he said sheepishly. "I’m well-- it’s, um, uncomfortable for me to sit down."

I’d heard this problem before. "You’ve overdone it on the cushion, haven’t you?"

He laughed and nodded. "Big time. I sat sesshin and managed to aggravate an old hemorrhoid and damaged a nerve to boot. The pain is excruciating."

His problem was going to cause him more than just physical pain, for, as we talked, he explained that he had taken time off from work to attend the five day sesshin and his employer hadn’t been happy about the loss of time. He worked with computers and now he was completely unable to sit at a console. Worse, he explained, he had no health insurance and since the injury wasn’t work-related, he couldn’t claim disability. Now his debts were mounting and his job was in jeopardy. I understood his problem, although I was still uncertain how he wanted me to help. Did he want money? A place to stay? A letter of recommendation for employment? He said no, it wasn’t any of these.

"I’m eager to deepen my Zen. Are there other ways to meditate that don’t involve sitting?"

I wish the problem were rare enough so that I could say I could hardly believe his question. Unfortunately, it’s a common enough problem. We call it Zen Greed. I asked him if he knew the story about the goose that laid the golden eggs. He acted surprised, as if I had changed the subject, he recounted the fable to me and asked what the essay had to do with his question.

"It has to do with Greed." I said. "Greed is greed. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s for money or for achieving an altered state of consciousness."

I was reminded of a woman who once came to me with a similar problem and shared the story with him. She had become so engulfed in her meditation practice that she had lost all interest in taking care of her home and family. She was eventually fired from her job and, to make matters worse, her husband divorced her and took custody of the children. I asked him if he thought this was what the Buddha intended. He only looked at me quizzically.


We all know Aesop’s sad story: A farmer discovers that he has a goose that lays a golden egg every day. Each morning he can’t wait to get to the nest to collect it. Hurry up! More! More! Finally he gets carried away with greed for the egg and, in his haste, decides that the goose must be full of eggs. He cuts the goose open to get them all out and, naturally, kills the goose and never gets another golden egg.

When I first discovered the beauty and wonder of meditation it was like finding one of these golden eggs - it was something of exquisite value that I had never expected nor imagined. I, too, was slow to see the dangers of excessive enthusiasm for the practice. The more I wanted to meditate, the more I became torn by conflict over it, neglecting responsibilities I had never before questioned. Finding one golden egg wasn’t enough. I wanted more.

That’s what Zen Greed does. Meditation can seduce as easily as gold. All too often, the more we meditate, the more we want to meditate. We usually have to learn the hard way that whenever we overindulge ourselves in the pleasure of it, we invite disaster. Even meditation, if not practiced in moderation and if not balanced with other Chan disciplines, can create many unsuspected problems.

Before I encountered Chan, I experimented with disciplines from other traditions, mostly Vipassana and Japanese-style Zazen. Both emphasized sitting meditation over other forms of practice. After many months of "riding the pillow" I started becoming overzealous with the practice. I was convinced that all problems could be solved with meditation. Whenever I had problems I blamed them on a lack of adequate meditation time. Only grudgingly did I attend to my chores and other responsibilities. I wasn’t content until I was back on the pillow. When I encountered the Southern school Mahayana tradition of Chan I soon became aware of a bigger picture.

In meditation we enter the realm of selflessness (or egolessness). When we meditate there is no urge or desire for meditation, there is only beautiful meditation. Problems occur only when we stop meditating to return to the ego’s realm of desires and opinions about what is and what is not - Samsara. The Buddha gave a solution: the Eightfold Path. No other religion has offered a Path so simple, direct, and effective.

I had known about the Eightfold Path for many years, but had never considered it a guide for practice: it had only held an intellectual interest. In those days I had mistakenly thought that Right Meditation was the pillar of spiritual discipline and achievement and that Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, the other seven of the eight, all took second place to meditation. Then I became aware that meditation was only one part of the picture. I discovered that when I wasn’t practicing meditation there were other Chan practices I could engage in, practices that were equally as rewarding as meditation. When doing chores I could practice Right Mindfulness; when talking with a friend I could practice Right Speech; when driving a car I could practice Right Action… In short, I discovered I could practice Chan all the time. My Zen Greed was cured and, I like to think, my whole Zen Mind benefited from the cure.

The Eightfold Path is a powerful model that helps us develop our Chan. Following this model prevents us from getting stuck in any particular practice or in any particular frame of mind or reference. It keeps us on our toes, helping us to pay attention to every aspect of our lives. No single One of the Eight holds the key to success in Chan: they are all important and they all work together to form a complete system, a successful regimen. Taken in isolation, any practice poses a threat simply because it’s isolated: it’s like trying to walk with only one leg.


I don’t know if I helped him or not. Sometimes we plant a seed and have to wait a bit for it to sprout. As he left I reminded him again that not until we abandon the desire to possess all the golden eggs at once can we ever be content to abide in this glorious, ever-present moment. If we keep attending to that Eightfold model, we’ll acquire more than patience; we’ll acquire the joyful spontaneity of Beginner’s Mind. And when that goose lays the next golden egg, we’ll be so surprised and delighted to receive it.

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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