Unconditioned Peace

What would it take for you to really be at peace? I’ll let the question hover in the air for just a moment…

Okay, so what did you come up with? Would it take a change of jobs – a little less stress and a little more money? Does your retirement account need to reach some certain level? Do you need to find that perfect life companion – someone who’ll make even the most mundane aspects of daily living seem just a little bit brighter? Hey, maybe all you need is for the little one to start sleeping soundly through the night! The fact is, there’s always something, isn’t there? There’s always something standing between us and contentment. There are always some conditions that have to be set up just so before we can finally be at peace.

I suspect that such tendencies are deeply rooted in our DNA. After all, in the realm of nature – red in tooth and claw – survival doesn’t go to the complacent, the contented, or the peaceful. Survival goes to the hyper-vigilant. Survival goes to those whose number one concern is for survival. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by resting on the success of our last hunt or basking long in the warm glow of our fires. We got here because we could always feel just a little bit safer, we could always have just a little bit more, we could always watch just a little bit more closely. Ah, but what constitutes enough – enough vigilance, enough stored food, enough preparation for impending hardship? After all, we have to sleep sometime! And that is where our propensity for comparing ourselves to others most surely comes from. You see, the one who lags behind becomes the prey. The one who fails to make a straight enough spear loses the meat. The one with the smallest cache of food risks not having quite enough. So keeping an eye on what others have and how we measure up to them is a way for us to ascertain our own prospects for survival. It’s a way for us to feel assured that we’re doing enough. This is our shared human karma.

Rosan Yoshida talks about karma in a little bit different way than many teachers do. He refers to it as habit energy. Karma is habit energy. Our DNA has been transmitted down through the ages – carrying with it the information necessary for our survival as human beings – passing forward that which will bring to life in each of us the habit energy that our survival requires. Then, over the course of our upbringing, we acquire new habit energy that takes this basic human form and gives it personality and individuality. We begin acquiring our own unique karma. We become our "selves."

Evolution is fascinating. Sometimes it plods along for millions of years without very much of anything happening, and then at other times enormous changes seem to happen overnight. Think about all the insects that swirl around your porch light in the summertime. Over the course of millions of years they acquired the karma, the habit energy, of seeking out the light; and for millions of years that meant moving towards the sun and its warmth and its ability to dry out dew-moistened wings. But now all over the world are millions and millions of false suns luring hapless insects toward their deaths in the scorching heat of our porch lights. They’ve not yet evolved the ability to discern the false suns from the real one. The karma that once aided their survival now dooms them prematurely. You probably know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

We humans are not all that different from the insects swirling about our porch lights. We have this tremendous storehouse of karma – of habit energy – driving us forward, making us vigilant, ensuring that we survive. The only problem is that it largely blinds us to the fact that our survival is hardly even in question anymore – at least not in developed parts of the world. No, not every disease has been conquered, and there is still food insecurity in even this wealthiest of countries. For the most part, though, no matter how affluent we become, we still approach life with the same perceived sense of lack as if we were naked in the jungle. Unfortunately, our obsession with security has become more of a liability than an asset. It is actually hastening our destruction rather than ensuring our survival.

Just as the insects need to wake up to the false suns in their midst, so we need to wake up to the peace that is already ours. We only need to open up to it. True peace is not dependent upon anything being accomplished first. True peace is not dependent upon us setting up certain conditions outside of ourselves. True peace is simply a matter of stopping what we are doing. When we engage in sitting meditation we are stopping our habit energy – our karma. Our body becomes still, our mind becomes still, our emotions become still, and as all of these aspects of our karma become still we wake up to the peace that is within us all the while – unconditioned peace – nirvana.

Rosan Yoshida refers to nirvana as the “windless state.” Usually we exist in a state in which we are buffeted by the winds of craving and aversion born of our karma-driven existence. When we bring our habit energy to a halt, though, these winds become still. Think of a candle flame burning brightly in a room without any breezes or disturbance. Such a still flame illuminates the entire room without casting false shadows. In such a state all is seen clearly, all is at peace – unconditioned peace. Oh, sure enough, our habit energy is strong, and after we rise up from zazen we soon begin feeling our karma pushing and pulling us back into our old ways of being. Our flame begins flickering and casting false shadows once again. That is why we keep sitting. Because day after day and week after week, as we catch glimpse after glimpse of this unconditioned peace, we begin to change our karma, we become more adept at discerning the false suns from the real one, and we begin to live the life that we always thought required something outside of ourselves.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

DNA Green courtesy of jscreationzs via:


  1. Thank you. A lovely explanation of why we sit. How do you always know what I need to hear/read?

  2. Beautiful Maku! You should send this to a popular website/journal/magazine to be published. All should read it. I will pass it on.


  3. Hello K! Actually, I suppose it is not all that much of a coincidence. I have wanted to provide enough guidance related to sitting such that anybody who happens upon this blog and is moved to meditate for the first time will be able to do so. My blog posts and your practice might be in synch in that regard.

    BTW, in case it is not already obvious, the various tips related to posture and physical stillness are not merely stylistic or protocol-related admonitions. Every time we adjust during sitting, swallow, feel the need to take a deep chest breath, react to a twinge of pain, etc. our habit energy is being stirred up and we are reminded that “we” are meditating. Thus, paying attention to the fundamentals allows us to become as still as possible, thereby allowing us to experience the “dropping off of body and mind” that Dogen refers to.

    Stacey, thank you so much! And thanks for passing posts on to others.

  4. I have trouble staying still. This post (and your comment) just changed my perspective. Thanks!


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