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Values, Purpose, and Drive

A reflection on how we can be both more skillful and effective in meeting the cries of the world.

07/14/17 04:22:pm

Greetings from Chicago! Today in Zazen I realized that we need to be most alive to our values, purpose, and drive, and that if we can connect people strongly to these three existential qualities they will have astonishing capacities, especially when they come together. Obviously, values provide the foundation of our actions. Sincerity simply means acting in accord with our values. Shame arises when we have not acted in accord with our values or when our values themselves have been revealed to us as lacking or inadequate. 

So it is extremely important to reflect on our values: where they came from, what they are, and how well they accord with wisdom, compassion, and clarity. In our Zen Buddhist tradition, the paramount value is the Bodhisattva vow, to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings. Six aspects of this vow are expressed as the six paramitas, or practices of perfection: generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom. 

Sometimes people have a simplistic notion of values. For example, they might say their core value is “family.” But family is a topic, not a value. Where one person’s value around family might be “keep my family safe in a dangerous world,” another person’s might be “share adventures and experiences with family in a wide, fascinating, and kaleidoscopic world.” This is why it is necessary to inquire, especially beyond simplistic slogans: What does it mean to keep a family safe? For one person, for example, it might mean guns and locks; for another, lots of helpful information. so again, the universal solvent is curiosity. We go deeper with every question: What threat most concerns you? What troubles have you faced in the past? and so on. 

But clarity about our values is not enough. We need a direction for mobilizing and expressing them in the world. We need a purpose, or a set of congruent purposes. Raising a healthy, sane, caring child is a purpose, for example. Such an effort entails other purposes, such as ensuring health care, quality schools, and so forth. Of course, every healthy set of purposes now includes the major challenge of restoring the health of our environment. 

So our values and purposes give meaning and direction in our lives. But there is one more critical factor: drive. In Buddhism the term for this is virya, energy, and it is exemplified in the Zen expression “to practice as if your hair is on fire.” This conveys the sense of urgency and dedication required, but not the scope. I would say we need to practice as if our world is on fire, because it is. 

We keenly sense our limited, puny capacities as lone individuals in the face of global catastrophes and large-scale human needs. I once described this as trying to fill Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. But we do not have millions of kalpas ahead of us. We must find ways to amplify our efforts. The best one I know of is to find others who share your values and purposes, and join forces. then join these streams and join again until a mighty river of shared effort and intention rolls out, carrying vast energetic care for the whole world. Don’t wait. You must find your partners in the urgent, profound, and healing work ahead. 

My domain is spiritual practice, the incubator for healthy, life-sustaining values and clarity of purpose. But I cannot provide the drive. That is the bottomless resource found in each and every person, no matter how obscured it may be by despair, dread, anxiety, and self-doubt. I know that luminous life force is there. I cannot forget it, and I feel a bit part of my work is helping people remember it. 

Why are we here? We are here to save the planet, to nourish and support all living beings, and to live life as the Buddhas we are. Sometimes we have to help each other recall who we truly are. 

This is not a trivial task.

So many things get in the way: everyday tasks, layers of habitual conditioning, past trauma, alarming events and circumstances in the world, difficulties in relationships, losses, and a sense that something is lacking, in ourselves or in our world. But all of these can and must be relinquished as unnecessary distractions and hindrances to our values, purposes, and drive—our vow, in other words. When we stay connected in this way, our limitations are merely a way our contribution gets shaped, and we begin to develop skillful means for working with them, in ourselves and in others. 

Remember the Buddha’s story in the Lotus Sutra of the father whose children are playing in a burning house. This is our present world situation. Will we be the children, blissfully and stubbornly playing with our toys as the flames devour us, or will we be the desperate but resourceful father who skillfully entices those children to come outside for even better toys? What will it take to bring a whole civilization out of the flames it's created for itself, playing with matches? We need to find out—and soon. 

So there is a genuine emergency here, and it is an emergency of human consciousness, as the Buddha taught. We must continue to help people wake up, feel empowered, and take action, together. As a sangha we are learning how to do this, together. As we take what we are learning back out into our everyday lives, we bring it into practice. That is my deepest hope for a suffering world.

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