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Expectation and Aspiration

Expectation is about getting or not getting what we want; aspiration about becoming who we are. Yet it is very hard to speak about "becoming who we are" without conjuring up some idealized image about who we want to become, or imagining some "true" self deep inside waiting to emerge. People often make that mistake when they hear the term " Buddha Nature," imagining it refers to some unrealized potential deep within us that practice is supposed to cultivate or bring to the surface. But "Buddha Nature" refers to what we already are, not what what we're striving to become. Aspiration in practice is simply the willingness to be who we are moment by moment, and a willingness to face that that is ALL we are, not some picture we have of who we want to be or how we want hope to feel. But to say that the self is nothing but this impermanent, ever changing moment-to-moment awareness raises some seemingly paradoxical questions about what happens in the course of practice. How is it that  after years of practice our lives usually seem to be becoming more steady, our relationships more stable and less filled with conflict and drama? Don't we expect of someone who practices that he or she would be a reliable, steadfast individual? But if we think of the self as impermanent, who takes marriage vows, signs a mortgage, or promises to be here next week? There's a kind of Zen sickness that arises from the idea that the beginning and end of realization is nothing but being wholeheartedly in the moment. When I sit I just sit, when I work I just work, when I get drunk I just get drunk, when I get horny I just sleep with my best friend's wife! The problem with this sequence, which sounds funny, but in fact has  been a very real slippery slope for many students and teachers over the years, is I, I, I, I. And that's another basic difference between expectation and aspiration. Expectation is fundamentally PERSONAL - what's in this for ME? Aspiration in a deep sense is IMPERSONAL _ there's nothing in it for ME. To truly be just this moment is not something "I" can do; wholeheartedness is not something "I" practice. Unless that "I" is gradually and progressively dissolved in the moment by the repeated practice of awareness, zazen becomes nothing but another technique the self uses to increase its own power, a spiritual subterfuge for self-enhancement. As our practice becomes impersonal in this sense, it also becomes steadier, because we are less and less buffeted this way and that by a self that is always trying out one strategy after another to get what it wants. Odd as it sounds, compassion is the fruit of this impersonal practice, because true compassion is simply a non-self-centered response to the suffering around us. This is the true ethical core of Zen. When our self-centered stategies and dramas and expectations begin to quiet down, we are finally able to simply respond, and respond with wisdom and compassion.