Thursday, April 5, 2018


A puzzled man asked the buddha: "I have heard that some monks meditate with expectations, others meditate with no expectations, and yet others are indifferent to the result. What is the best?"

The buddha answered: "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 a man wants to have some oil and he puts sand into a bowl and then sprinkles it with salt. However much he presses it, he will not get oil, for that is not the method. Another person is in need of milk. She starts pulling the horns of a young cow. Whether she has any expectations or not, she will not get any milk out of the horn, for that is not the correct method. Of, if someone fills a jar with water and churns it in order to get butter, they will be left only with water.

"But... if somebody meditates with a wholesome attitude, with right attention and mindfulness, then whether they have expectations of not they will gain insight. It's like filling a bowl with oil seeds and pressing them or milking a cow by pulling the udders or filling a jar with cream and churning it. It's the right method."
---Majjhima Nikaya

There are some stories in the suttas where the buddha really comes across with a subtle sense of humor, using some pretty funny examples of behavior that is unskillful. This is one of my favorites and I especially enjoy that it's in response to a question about expectations.

How many of us have heard -- perhaps repeatedly -- that we need to practice free of all expectations? In zen, it's been held up as a kind of emblematic feature of practice. And certainly, I am not denying that expectations can become a hindrance to practice. A beginner especially can fall victim to expecting things that are ultimately not possible or unrealistic or even nor useful. Also, if one holds too fast to expectations, they can become an obstacle keeping one from seeing what is actually happening because they are focused on what they expect to happen.

That said, though, it's a bit ingenuous to suggest that anyone actually takes up this practice, which can be incredibly challenging, completely free of expectations. Perhaps with greater experience, expectations become less relevant, but the response of the buddha is pointing out that whether one has expectations or not, if one practices with right determination, a wholesome mind (which I take to be one committed to sila (the ethical training including the five precepts), and practicing the method correctly, then insight, awakening, will be the result.

This points out the importance of practice, and of practicing correctly. Right attention and right mindfulness are aspects of correct method. Attention needs to be focused on what is free of reactivity so that mindfulness -- which includes an analysis of how what is arose, what keeps it present, what leads to its passing away -- can be honed and directed. It is this which leads to the insights that embody and promote liberation.

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