mushin & the train of enlightenment

I often feel I’m not getting anywhere in my practice and that usually coincides with things in my environment going to pieces.  My behaviour gets out of whack or my thoughts spiral out or I just feel a general sense of lack.  Nothing seems to be working or satisfying.  In these periods of agitation, I will do one of two things: let my formal practice lapse or become obsessive about it.  Either way, it’s not fun. When I read the Parable of Mushin in Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Joko Beck, it became my favourite story about practice and the unseen ways in which it works on us.

To preface a bit: I don’t experience love and work as different.  To me, they are both verbs, processes with no start or finish.  Loving and working flow together seamlessly – until I become confused about the intention of loving what I love and how to work with it.  In practice, I feel a process of loving the entirety of the experience: lighting the candles, arranging the cushions, setting the incense stick in the sand, placing the rakusu over my head, approaching the cushion, sitting, and so on.  I feel my body working into each transition effortlessly at times, a struggle at others.  Over time things have shifted, one way then another.  It wasn’t always like this, nor is it always like this.  So when I lose sight of how to keep loving the working of practice, I am grateful for the Parable of Mushin.

This is my compressed version.  The full version is worth the read.

Joe was also known as Mushin because he was really into dharma studies.  He was also very unskillful so he ended up losing his job and his wife.  He decided in the middle of this catastrophe, he was at least going to have enlightenment – whatever it took.  So he got a book called “How to Catch the Train of Enlightenment”, studied it with great care, followed all the directions, and went to the train station to catch the Train of Enlightenment.  Well, you guessed it – the train came and went without Joe being able to get on it.  Not being one to give up, he dove into practice and was relentless at it.  Other people read the book too and came by the station only to suffer the same results.  Over time, people also brought their kids and the station became a little community.  Like all communities, living together created demands like the need for child care, shelter, food, lessons for kids who should be in school.  Joe, looking around, noticed all this and began to set up huts and dining rooms and all the things communities take for granted will appear just because they need it.  Of course, he had little time for meditation or other practices that would get him on that train.  He began to get angry and resentful.  “You know, I’m only interested in enlightenment.  Those other people get to watch the Train and what am I doing really?”  Then one day, he re-discovered zazen and practiced that.  Given the hub-bub of organizing care for this community, it was a quiet way to enter the day.  It allowed him a sense of peace and others, frustrated with not catching the Train,  joined him.  They could hear the Train roar by, but they were too busy taking care of everyone to get on it or worry about missing it.  Over the years, Mushin had the chance to see many people come and go; some stayed to watch for the Train, others gave up and went home, others joined his care-taking community. He found himself able to accept whatever and whoever was present.

But Mushin was tired.  This was hard work, all this loving care.  And there was no Enlightenment Train to give him some reinforcement to keep practicing.

The ending of the parable is probably obvious.  But I like to stop here when I recall the story or read it back to myself.  It leaves me with many questions about the nature, purpose, and epiphenomenon of practice.

What are the things that are being cultivated in the middle of or because of my dissatisfaction?

Thank you for practicing,


3 thoughts on “mushin & the train of enlightenment

  1. One translation of the word “Dukkha” is, enduring or endurance. What is being cultivated is an intimate look at suffering.
    My experience of suffering is always about my own, and it is usually in relation to something outside of me.
    When I reach those spiritually arid times it’s usually in relation to something inside me.
    It may feel like one but that ain’t no desert.

    • Hi Helmut! Thank you for this insight. I kept wanting the last word to read as “dessert”! The story of Mushin reminds me constantly that I can’t always see what’s growing around me nor is what I want as evidence of good practice evidence at all! It’s a bit about faith – which I sense may be “endurance”.

  2. Good reminder: while I’m sitting and waiting rather than being, all kinds of dissatisfaction arises. In the meantime while waiting, I am ‘doing’ other things’.

    Sometimes those things surprise me as they bring insight, but it is usually through hindsight…

    I keep hearing that train….

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