What is my true and primary purpose as a human-being? That question, mystified, and haunted me at the same time. Depending on how I answered the question, it was going to decide whether I pissed away my "One precious life" or not... was valuable or discardable, or not... respected and worthy of love or not.
For many that question is a very big deal. We're conditioned to believe it's substantive and consequential. Our true and primary purpose or role in life is a way we measure whether we're a so-called "Good" or not so good person. Will we major in minor things, or as Steve Jobs of Apple once said, are we going to "make a ding in the universe?"
When I was younger it was imitating what I heard other people say... fire fighter, and police officer. Later it was a zoologist because I loved animals. Influenced by Catholic school I later wanted to enter the seminary, but changed my mind because there was too much contradiction. Then it was a musician, later wanting to be a poet and writer. During that time being an addict in active addiction, my existence was what I called, "Purposeless purpose," that was a multi-year shit-show. That time in my life, seemed... appeared... like broken purpose... a total waste. The echoing thought in my head was that I would never find a so-called "True and primary purpose."
That thought was shattered by my Zen teacher looking directly into my eyes and telling me... "Though things can seem one way, know that in the long, long life of the Universe, you are not wasting your time. Just wake up. You're merely sleep walking, right now. This moment doesn't necessarily equal the next. You are buddha, not a bumpkin. Do you understand?" At the time, I said "Yes," but didn't really believe my response, terrified of my "Karma." Because of active addiction, I had a lot of regrets; large, medium and small. I wasn't sure people like me, ever really got to be so-called, "Fully whole and wholly free."
Clean from drugs but still densely foggy in my thoughts and feelings, my primary purpose turned to being a "Good recovering addict." Then it was to being a "Good student," which was my big plan for gaining credibility with others; cause as one person told me, "It shows that at least you completed something, and aren't a total piece of shit." It wasn't the best motivation, but it was still motivation. That grew into becoming an addictions counselor. To my surprise that perfectly synced up with Zen training. Zen is a very powerful tool for working with addiction-mind... a mind that suffers and has unique ways of torturing its host. I told myself that if I "Got enlightened, I could go from being a 1.0 version of myself that I regretted to a 2.0 or maybe even 3.0 version of myself if I was lucky; worthy of existing, and not just taking up space. It was being in search of a true and primary purpose that was nothing more than masked desperation of being seen as a failure. I was very fortunate to encounter people who are trained in traditional zen practice. This resulted in discovering purpose as a Zen "Sherpa..." a guide to the inward terrain of self and being-ness.
Today my relationship to the word "Purpose," has changed dramatically. During a recent magazine interview I was asked to describe my practice; especially as it relates to Mentor Garden Zendo, Zen Studies Society, and teaching Zen Buddhism. ZSS is a fine and caring sangha. There are very wonderful, kind-hearted people there. While I have a deep fondness and affection for the traditional forms as they're practiced monastically, to me encountering buddha's masquerading as hungry ghost on the spectrum has been the dojo and dharma hall that intuitively feels like my "True and Primary Purpose." Shinge Roshi sometimes refers to me as her "Street monk," though self-affectionally I prefer "Gutter monk."
My natural Buddha-field is working and caring for what I call the "American untouchables..." We're the people that are diamonds, made by living in the pressure of the roughs of addiction... alcoholism... mental health challenges... economic insecurity... the outsiders, often attacked and traumatized by society in ways that artificially put them beyond the heart and unconditional embrace of society. It's sharing experience, support, and practice with people society considers "Messy," difficult to deal with, sometimes tedious, and time-consuming.
Being "Time-efficient ," and the idea, "The trains must run on time," with such persons isn't on the menu. Feelings, and the people that hold them - that I tend to run into can be a little or a lot messy and sloppy. Authentic Zen practice is about transformation rather than completing simple transactions. While it's possible to be effective, its not possible to be efficient. It's the nature of being a human-being rather than a machine. At the same time these are people who would rarely if ever show up in the monastery or temple. Most times they know that normal people see them as "Other," rather than as authentically a part of them. The cues are often subtle, yet clear. For me it's smarter and wiser to spend as much time as possible in the streets, in whatever direction the dharma seems to Flow. Eventually the interviewer said "You're really an itinerant monk," one who wanders... drifting as a cloud and water person. In Japanese culture, such ordained are called "Unsui." While I received her words with both-hands, they landed strange in my head. Buddha robe isn't just worn on the shoulder... it's place must be in our heart.
"Not all who wander are lost." Though that is indeed my way, to be around when and where people "Need," or have "Use" of me, I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to do so. That could seem like my true and primary purpose... it's also to be with whatever is at hand, and doing my best to meet the moment with completeness. Not enough people do that. Private agendas and purpose tends moves us away from the present moment experience, and the actual needs of the moment.
A long time ago, in a time that seems far, far away, my original Zen master gave a specific teaching that fits with this post. He said, "I, I, I, decide this to be my life... I, I, I, decide that to be my life... I, I, I... because of untrained ego... untrained heart and mind... left to it's own devices a mind can become very self-centered... very self-obsessed... should I say perhaps even possessed... by a mind divided against itself. Such a mind can only collapse not only on itself, but others too. As much as we make think life is your blank canvas to paint on and over, with whatever ego tells us to paint... this canvas called life is not not not passive. It's making choices too. And when we don't accept that Reality, kapow! Pain and it's twin suffering are sure to follow."
In Zen Buddhism, prior to chanting morning sutras, we recite something known as, "Verse of Purification." I'll re-translate it, so that it's perhaps a little more meaningful for those of us who have only known our Western culture and ways.
All the unmanageability,
ever influenced and committed by me,
on account of physical, mental,
emotional, and spiritual insecurity;
governed by fear, unhealthy othering,
and delusion, arising through
body, mouth, and thought,
I now am getting honest with myself and others;
accepting responsibility for my part
in the great catastrophe;
Purifying my heart, and mind,
manifesting wholesome action;
with great determination,
to heal our shared body, speech and mind.
Another way I could put the verse of purification is, the True and Primary purpose of my life is to meet each moment, with authenticity, integrity, kindnessfulness, and completeness. This in my experience, is simple, dynamic and allows for our creative nature to manifest our Buddha-nature... Universal Identity of Loving Presence. How is True and Primary purpose for you as YOU? That could be the practice. Please confirm and see for yourself.
一Dignity and Grace