Practice is Enlightenment

The Missouri Zen Center’s Spring Egg Hunt takes place this Sunday. It’s a takeoff on the traditional Easter egg hunt. However, since we’re a Buddhist organization, no particular overt belief in the Easter Bunny is required. What’s that you say? An egg hunt doesn’t really sound all that Buddhist? Well, to tell you the truth, it doesn’t sound all that Christian either!

For those readers unfamiliar with the modern Easter egg hunt, it generally involves putting candy or chocolate or perhaps coins inside hollow plastic eggs which are then hidden around the garden just as the Easter Bunny would have hidden them in days gone by. Children seem to love it – the exception being those occasions when the older ones find ten times more eggs than any of the hapless and uninitiated toddlers in their midst.

About this time last year a few of us were standing around after meditation and chatting about the upcoming event. “What do you put inside the eggs?” somebody asked. “Well, we’re Buddhist,” someone deadpanned, “so, of course, they’re empty!” Ba dum bump… No, no, no, they’re not really empty; at least not on the level of mundane reality, anyway. We Buddhists are generally not cruel people. There’ll be something inside, I’m sure – perhaps some edamame, or a little wad of sea vegetable, or maybe even a nugget of granola. Hey, I’m teasing!

We do tend to think of our spiritual practice in terms of an Easter egg hunt sometimes, don’t we? We search through the world’s greatest literature. We comb through the writings of the wisest of teachers. We travel hither and yon to practice and pray and ponder; refine, reflect, and retreat. Now, come on, be honest here… isn’t there just a teensy part of us that half expects to stumble upon a little Easter egg somewhere along the line that’ll crack wide open and overjoy us with – voila! – infinite acceptance, absolute release…, choirs of heavenly angels, a life of unending ease…, enlightenment, Truth, transcendence…, communion with the saints…, supreme wisdom, perfection, nirvana…, oneness with all things…, grace, the face of God, ecstatic union with godhead…, our True Self, heaven, on and on, ad infinitum.

When Buddhist’s speak of emptiness, we are speaking of the ultimate nature of reality – reality beyond individual existence, beyond the duality of self and other, beyond time and space (both of which are predicated on the existence of “things”). But if this is the ultimate nature of reality, then what are we to make of our usual way of thinking about practice as some sort of gradual perfection of our “self” until such time as enlightenment is “attained”. This way of thinking, of course, requires the existence of selves that are at this time deluded but which will at some future time become enlightened. Needless to say this is a very dualistic way of thinking about practice, the self, and the world. It must have been just such a predicament that prompted Dogen Zenji to conclude that practice IS enlightenment. Hmmm…, perhaps we should savor that for a moment. Practice IS enlightenment. Nothing is “attained”.

So, if reading this post has prompted you to conclude that you’ve been on something of an Easter egg hunt – good. But don’t necessarily stop what you’re doing. Simply devote yourself wholeheartedly to your “search” (practice) without anticipating that you’ll ever find that egg. Oh, and if you do happen to find an egg – don’t expect anything but emptiness to be contained therein!

Let me close with three translations of a poem by Dogen which, for me, beautifully conveys the nature of wholehearted practice. The first is from Tanahashi (1985, p. 214); the second is from Heine (1997, p. 117); and the third is from Yoshida (1999, p. 76). I'm also inspired to offer another take on this poem based upon these three versions and my own understanding of the essence of what Dogen is saying. I would be honored if it were to be considered worthy of being called a fourth translation. I'll call this version Practice:

Bowing Formally

A snowy heron

on the snowfield

where winter grass is unseen

hides itself

in its own figure.


A white heron

Hiding itself

In the snowy field,

Where even the winter grass

Cannot be seen.


No winter-grass being seen

A white heron in snowfield

Hides itself in

Its own form.


A white heron

On a snowy field

Loses itself within

The vastness of being.


Heine, S. (1997). The Zen poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

Tanahashi, K. (1985). Moon in a dewdrop: Writings of Zen master Dogen. (Tanahashi, K. ed.) North Point Press; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life, Dogen’s world: Translation of Shushogi, Goroku, Doei. The Missouri Zen Center.

Image Credits

Red and Blue Easter Eggs by Pål Berge via:

Broken Egg by Nuttapong via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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