No Separate Thing

I am grateful to have come upon a path that asked me to “buck up,” to throw myself in completely, to take my yearnings for awakening seriously, and to commit to an arduous road. I am grateful because this is how life is. Life is vigorous. My teacher didn’t ask me to give up family,…

By Ejo McMullen

Stromabwärts e (Downstream e), 2015. Hiroko Nakajima. Ink on handmade paper. 57 x 76.5 cm. ©Hiroko Nakajima. Courtesy of Japan Art, Frankfurt.

I am grateful to have come upon a path that asked me to “buck up,” to throw myself in completely, to take my yearnings for awakening seriously, and to commit to an arduous road. I am grateful because this is how life is. Life is vigorous. My teacher didn’t ask me to give up family, job, or commitment to reforming society; instead, he invited me into my own life of striving, into the dynamic force of embodiment, whatever shape that might take.

The practice of virya paramita, or vigor, is best when it is straightforward—not reliant on a clear idea about what, how, or why, but enacted directly. Too often, a clear idea feels sufficient, and that sense of sufficiency gets in the way straightforward doing. Direct enacting reveals the depths that our figuring mind doesn’t even consider. The perfection of vigor is the practice of this straightforwardness, both the subject and the mode of inquiry.

When we talk about vigor in terms of the perfections, it is not vigor just for vigor’s sake. We are talking about vigor that is liberating.

Buddhism has always prized great effort. The legend of the Buddha centers on his great effort to know and liberate suffering, to win victory over greed, hate, and delusion. Following his example and that of countless ancestors since, we put ourselves forward on the path. We don’t just think abstractly about what might be true—we put ourselves in fully, unreservedly, to uncover the noble truth of suffering. This total commitment is the only way to become a servant of liberation.

The practice of vigor is here, in this present step. How do we walk right now? What result is here, immediately, in the step itself—not what happens later, but what is immediately true in this stepping? Virya paramita gives us an immediate gateway. We don’t need a complicated, sophisticated, or subtle understanding to practice vigor. Dharma is not an explanation; it is an invitation to liberate suffering. It is not an abstract truth but a means to help transform, to live, to conceive, and to care for each other in a different way.

So, try. Make great effort to live, think, be vigor. Walking through the gate, responding to the invitation, see how this simple intention is so deeply profound. The roots go down past our seeing. The trying might feel shallow at first, but with each step, the direct effort connects with the depths. What is enacted directly in the realm of phenomena is subtle, is deeply important, and has everything to do with responding to suffering. In every situation, in every encounter, there is the opportunity to perfect this practice.

The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras teach of the bodhisattvas donning the “great armor.” That is how the hero engages in the fight against delusion: to wear the great armor, the armor of vowing to cross over (paramita) together with all beings. That is the armor: the thought that I will step forward to lead all beings to total freedom and ease. But in that stepping, I step with the actualization, with the understanding, that there is no leader, and there is no one that is led. There is only the perfection, only the crossing over.

This is the core of the Prajnaparamita teachings. The sutras do not say, “There is no one, no leader, no one to be led, so let’s go take a nap.” The armor is what allows the hero to go out and meet ignorance, to meet greed and hatred, and then to live without them as the inevitable center of life. The armor the bodhisattva uses for this battle is nothing more than this vow to cross over, together, even though there is no separate thing.

So bodhisattvas do not just force themselves onto the battlefield to cut down what is inconvenient or problematic. This warrior’s armor is the wholeness. The intention to awaken is not separate, not separating. As I touch, I am touched; as I see, I am seen. There is an alive world in which I am not a problem. I can walk forward with energy, with the freedom of my intention. I can take care of things.

I can do my best. That is different from being right. It is paying attention while taking a step.
Bodies are completely reliant on the fact of gravity: skeletons do the work of organizing in relation to gravity; muscular systems respond to gravity for locomotion; vestibular systems enact a sense of balance in response to gravity and locate the axis of our individual standing. This may be the origin of our sense that there is a single world. Our whole human setup, even the way we conceive of a world articulated through space, is conditioned by gravity. This is just like our body of practice. The gravity of responsibility, of responding to the world and making choices, is where the body of practice and awakening has form, where real growth can happen.

So when we talk about vigor in terms of the perfections, it is not vigor just for vigor’s sake. We are talking about vigor that is liberating. This is about the energy that comes from realizing our responsibility toward, and our entanglement with, beings and things. Vigor as a perfection is the striving that aims at actualizing mutuality—not understanding it but revealing the actuality with the step taken now. The whole body of buddha practice is oriented in this response.

There is a legend from the Jataka tales that speaks to vigor. These stories of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s previous lives are not supposed to be objectively or historically true; they are about what is essentially true. In this story, as told in Nagarjuna’s collection, Marvelous Stories from the Perfection of Wisdom, the Buddha’s vigor is on display:

Shakyamuni Buddha in a previous life was the leader of a group of merchants. He led the merchants into a precipitous and difficult place. There, a rakshasa ghost blocked their way with his hands, saying, “You must stop. Don’t move. I will not permit you to go.”

The leader of the merchants then hit him with his right fist. The fist immediately stuck to the ghost such that he was unable to pull it away. Next, he hit it with his left fist and was also unable to pull it away. He kicked him with his right foot and it, too, became stuck. Next he kicked it with his left foot and then the same thing happened. He used his head to butt it, whereupon it immediately became stuck in just the same way.

The ghost asked, “Now that you are in this fix, what do you propose to do now? Has your mind given up or not?”

He replied, “Although I continue to be bound up in these five ways, my mind will never be forced to cease by you. I will use the power of vigor to carry on the fight with you. I’m determined not to retreat.”

At this point the ghost felt delighted and thought, This man’s really got guts. He then told the man, “Your power of vigor is immense. You definitely won’t give up. I’ll turn you loose and allow you to leave.”

—adapted from the translation by Bhikshu Dharmamitra

At first read, the moral of the story is simply to never give up, an important message in itself—but pay attention to the image. This band of travelers has encountered a rakshasa, a fantastic, massive being that shifts shapes and devours humans. A rakshasa is not “evil” in any dualistic sense. It is a being of unbridled energy and appetite, something that can’t be gotten hold of. It can’t be planned for or controlled. It is life itself, the raw, unbridled energy that animates and destroys. “Here I am! I am a problem because I am dynamic. You can’t pin me down. I am ungraspable. I will eat you and all your friends!”

So the guide of this group—the Buddha Shakyamuni in a previous life—meets the vigor of the rakshasa, the vigor of life, with his best shot. Punch with the right hand. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t bounce off, either. That isn’t how rakshasa, or life, operates. He gets stuck, as we all do. Facing an ungraspable and impenetrable problem, this thing that can’t be manipulated or controlled, of course he gets stuck. BAM with the left—stuck! Right kick—stuck! Left kick—stuck! With both hand and both feet stuck, with all the “moving around” and “working with” completely trapped, he goes for the headbutt.

This is where the story turns. How unwilling we are to include the head. I may be willing to stop manipulating (with my hands), to stay present (by not walking away with my feet), but to let my head (my perspective) get stuck—that is no easy task. Real problems, problems full of the energy of the world—I’m not going to overcome them with punches and kicks. Maybe the only way I can really know about the freedom of my spirit is to become totally entangled. If I’m holding anything back, like my head, I’m probably back here saying, “You know this situation is really terrible. This is a horrible situation. I can’t believe this. So-and-so. This and that….” I still believe I’m seeing a world out there, just as it is. But the headbutt—that takes guts. It takes guts to get stuck, to put yourself completely inside the thing, but that is where vitality comes from. It’s where vitality lives, where the mind and spirit are free.

Total investment in the vow of liberation means not holding out a world of objects to a subject, not fixing the world. It means no leverage and no stasis, total investment, total engagement, losing my perspective as truth. To find the vigor, to find the vitality to face brutality, which surrounds me and flows through me, is no easy thing. In whatever sense I am a guide to myself as well as others, I must feel for the weight, feel for the gravity of responsibility. That is the guide. The guide doesn’t know everything; the guide is simply paying attention. No limb can be spared—I can’t keep some part of myself separate. If I want us to be free, I’m going to have to risk everything. I’m going to have to get completely, not partially, stuck.

I feel so frustrated when I hear people assessing and criticizing the movements that are facing down the systemic racial injustice of North American society. This is not an intellectual exercise. This is our shared life. This is the body of awakening burning in our streets. Understanding with the head held back is nothing but complaining about stuck hands and arms. To be in true relation means to be stuck together, because in actuality, we are already stuck together. There is no avoiding it. Meeting a rakshasa is meeting myself, meeting the karma of this life. The only way to be vital is to be one, to embrace all the causes and conditions of this life—not apart from the rakshasa, but with it.

The social and political structures of the United States are also, for those of us who have grown up here, the structures of our hearts. Because of this, it is easy for us to confuse vigor with domination. Woven into the fabric of this country is a freedom based on domination. We need to take stock of that. The twisted karma of the USA, from its inception, has been to cut off some people from freedom for the purpose of supporting the dominator’s idea of, and desire for, freedom. For our predecessors, freedom meant ownership: ownership of land and material assets, but also ownership of people. We have made some progress, but still, we remain enmeshed in this karma. We need to see it clearly, because vigor that is animated by domination never points toward liberation. The image of the spiritual hero is vital, but without a full embrace of our roots, we get drawn back into domination, again and again. The image of the hero becomes our excuse for riding roughshod over ourselves and others, or the signal that I am not worthy to be included in freedom.

The paramitas invite us not just to embrace an image and then force it onto ourselves, not just to hold it at arm’s length and assess, but to enter and explore. What would it mean for me to come forward in my full power? What is my heroic self? Not my idea, but my own place of strength. What is that? And how is it connected to all that is within me and around me? The freedom of the step we take, the immediate step, is not in our “rightness,” not in our assessment of our conformity to the idea. Freedom comes from aliveness, not from coloring within the lines.

When there is no end in sight, this is where we need for vigor to become something much more profound than just trying harder.

How is it that I decide what to do? What to think? How to be? At the center of our exploration, our inquiry into suffering and liberation from suffering, is intention. The way intention is enacted, the way it is held, the way it is cultivated—these are what form the type of world we live in. This is true immediately, as the way that we experience the world; our experience is created through the way that we intend. But the world spread out over time is also created by the way that we intend. Things are constructed that have durability. The physical things are the least durable; the ideas, the prejudices, the contours and textures of our collective being—these endure.

Inevitably, because we must face these enduring formations, the path will lead to great difficulty, to our own incapacity to resolve the enduring karma of our lives. We will have to make difficult choices, be stuck with the conundrum of what it means to work hard even when there is no end in sight. This is where we need for vigor to become something much more profound than just trying harder. This is where we get stuck—where our heart breaks. It’s also where we have the chance for a truly authentic response.

Difficult choices and sincere responses hurt. And they should hurt—the hurt speaks to the incapacity to respond to suffering. So take the pain gladly. It is needed. It is gravity. The karma is needed to show how to live more freely with others.

Liberating vigor is partisan. There will be no traction without caring about something particular and embodied that can be touched with your body, heart, or mind. Where a response is necessary, vigor is partisan because it is not abstract. Wholeness is never abstract. Abstraction can’t take a stand in the world. This isn’t political partisanship—it is being a partisan of liberation, not in the form of an idea but as the actual lives of those with whom you share your life. Stand with your sisters and your brothers. Stand with liberation. Stand with the possibility that the world is not just how it is but also how we make it.

But know, also, that when you lose the abstraction, you will never be right. Just take this step; let gravity pull you forward. Make mistake after mistake, for the sake of the world.

Ejo McMullen

Ejo McMullen

Ejo McMullen moved to Japan in his late teens and stayed into his twenties, teaching secondary school and eventually receiving ordination and training at Daijoji Monastery in Kanazawa. He is the abbot of Buddha Eye Temple in Eugene, Oregon, where he has served since its founding in 2004, and is also secretary of the Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office in Los Angeles.