Face in the Direction of your North Star

After I wrote the long post about the 4 Noble Truths, I also felt that I could answer my son using the idea of Right Intention or Right aspiration or Right vow; all different translations of the Second Limb of the 8-fold Path.

Semantically speaking, I’ve trained myself not to use the word “goal”. Goals are always seen in terms of success and failure and they are always seen in terms of the future. Did I accomplish my goal or not? I find that this way of thinking produces suffering. It makes me feel that my life may be better or worse in the future and that takes me away from vitally engaging with what’s happening right now and what is in front of my nose. And yet, we still have desires for what we want in life and we still need a direction to our efforts.

Dogen helped me so much in the Tenzo Kyokun, his writing on how to be the cook at the monastery, when he wrote that each moment has a direction. When we are standing or sitting, we are always facing in a certain direction.  In this very moment, We are in the process of heading somewhere.

I use in my teaching the idea of having a North Star. In the old days, the sailors negotiated their journey on the seas by the stars and the North Star was the primo indicator of where they were. And yet because of the weather, the currents, and the waves, they never headed in a straight line directly into the north star. There were a lot of zigs and zags. However, the sailors can always recalibrate their journey and correct their position so they are again heading towards where they want to go.

We practice with this aspirational question. What is my North Star? That can be answered in the spiritual realm by our deepest vows and it also can be answered in our daily life by what direction are you heading in? Life is a process, like a journey, and we are constantly negotiating the Way by zigging and zagging and recalibrating  our course.

In Buddhist spirituality, our deepest North Stars are our vows like the Bodhisattva Vows,

  1. Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
  2. Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
  3. The dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
  4. Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.

But we can also take this idea of a “direction and not a goal” into our everyday decisions. If you want to be a Doctor, you need to head in that direction. If you want to be an artist, head that way. Knowing that the journey is circuitous, every day you negotiate the Way, what is being presented? What are the conditions of this day? How has the weather changed this year or the next decade and try to follow the North Star of your direction you’ve chosen for your life.

It seems that in the spiritual realm, our vows don’t change that much. They are a deep current of inspiration and guidance. But in our human life, our directions and circumstances change a lot. For example, I didn’t know I wanted to have children until I was 40 and that decision changed my life drastically. I have changed careers three times in my life. My spirituality keeps me stable and my story unfolds as my individual story rides the currents of my karma and my life process as a human being unfolding.

From Uchiyama Roshi, “Refining your Life”, in the chapter on Direction and goal:

To express this concretely in terms of our daily attitude, it means to live without projecting goals while yet having a direction. Since everything is impermanent, there is no way of telling what might happen to us in the next instant – we could very well die! To set up a goal or a purpose is to invite disappointment by seeing things move in a direction contrary to these goals. Yet, we are certainly in trouble if we decide that since we have no future goals or expectations, there is no present direction.

In this world of impermanence, we have no idea of what may occur during the night; maybe there will be an earthquake or a disastrous fire, war may break out, or perhaps a revolution might erupt, or we ourselves could very well meet death. Nevertheless, we are told in the Tenzo Kyokun to prepare the gruel for the following morning and make a plan for lunch. Moreover, we are to do this as tonight’s work. In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established. Yet, our direction for right now is clear: prepare tomorrow’s gruel. Here is where our awakening to the impermanence of all things become manifest, while at the same time our activity manifests our recognition of the law of cause and effect. In the routine matter of preparing tomorrow’s gruel as this evening’s work, lies the key to the attitude necessary for coping with this absolute contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect.