The Necessity And Futility Of Seeking

Chan master Linji (Jap. Rinzai) is addressing an assembly of students: “What are you seeking? Everywhere you say, ‘There’s something to practice, something to obtain.’ Make no mistake! Even if there were something to be gained by practice, it would be nothing but birth-and-death karma” (The Record of Linji, ed. Sasaki and Kirchner, p. 17).

The spiritual teacher Papaji is noted for having said, “Call off the search.” Is this where we are to begin?

Absolutely not! Rinzai in particular is trying to undercut his students’ ideas that enlightenment is something to gain or to obtain and thus that practice is the vehicle by which enlightenment is to be gotten. This is excellent spiritual instruction for those who have already dived in deep.

The thing is, though, one must begin by diving in deep. And that means, necessarily, one must start off by seeking. It’s just that, after some maturation, it should strike one that one can’t keep this up: that the seeking is now the very thing is taking one away from what it is that one seeks.

“Thus,” Rinzai states bluntly, “the more you chase him the farther away he goes, and the more you seek him the more he turns away” (p. 14).

Absolutely right! For this reason, the nondual teaching provides, at this stage, a teaching that seems to contradict the other early teaching. The early teaching says, “Dang, you better keep polishing that mirror until all the specks of dust and dirt are removed. Get at it!” The later teaching says, “What are you doing, you blind fool? Polishing the mirror? Who’s polishing, with what cloth, and, say, is there a mirror here anyway?”

All seeking bears this contradiction within itself. While at first seeking is necessary, in the end it is an impediment. While at first you must, finally you can’t.

I take it you know the story that David Foster Wallace told in his famous commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. It’s, in fact, a retelling of an old Daoist tale:

Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Not quite, though. For what happens instead is that the young fish start laughing uncontrollably: “Ha ha ha!” they say in unison. “How ridiculous! It’s always only ever been water! We can’t swim anywhere without it, can’t move an inch out of it, and couldn’t leap out of it no matter how hard we tried. Ha ha ha! What a cosmic joke!”