The Human Fulfillment Checklist

I just got back from a week at Green Gulch Farm, part of a covert mission a friendly experiment to infiltrate and destroy American Zen to see if I would enjoy doing residential practice there at some point.

One afternoon after my work was done, I went to the snack area by the kitchen to spy and started talking to a guy I knew from my time at Tassajara. I mentioned that I'm coming back to the United States soon. We were eating peanut butter on toast, and drinking tea. There were apples and bananas on the snack table as well.

"What do you think about American Buddhism so far?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," I said.

"It's pretty fun," he smiled. "There are snacks."


Green Gulch is pretty lovely. There's zazen, and then you work really hard and get really tired, so you can fall asleep early. People are nice, things are relatively well-organized, there's enough food, and there are a couple people I respect and could learn from. That's basically a functional monastery in a nutshell. So part of me wants to go. This last week I've been thinking hard about where to go when I come back to the United States, and I'm being confronted by a variety of options. When I dream about coming back to America, this is where my brain goes to in terms of things I want:

  • Love!
  • Lots of money!
  • Education on things I am passionate about!
  • Fulfilling professional work!
  • To practice true Buddha-dharma sincerely and completely!
  • Nice clothes!
  • Snacks!

All of these things seem like very pressing needs-- essential to my "personal development"--, and of course I want to chose a scenario where I can have as many of them as possible. In our modern society sometimes it seems like a given that we should have all of our dreams fulfilled. Especially for people born into educated and/or upper-middle class backgrounds, there seems to be a kind of Human Fulfillment Checklist, and if we haven't checked off the right number of items on the list, we think we are failing or incomplete. 

But the truth is, I would be very lucky to have just one of these things from the Human Fulfillment Checklist in my life. Some people have none of those things. Okay, snacks isn't such an unrealistic expectation. And while it might be very possible to have a life with both money and love (and snacks), I don't think it's possible to have all of the things on that list at the same time. 

I know one of the promises of this age is that we can have it all; we can have fulfilling relationships, spirituality, good food, work that makes us happy. We can live in spiritual abundance. But the truth is, doing one of the items on the checklist means doing some other things less well. "Work that makes us happy" often means "work that pays less than boring, mindless work." "Work that makes us happy" is often a job that needs a second job to pay the rent. "Love," no matter how joyful and fulfilling, can also be a vacuum of time and energy; spouses need our love, attention, and commitment, and children need diapers, clothes, books, and food (and love and attention!). "Education" means less money and less time for work (and love, and practice).

And then there's good old Buddha-dharma, which seems to be the most time-consuming of all. Practicing the Buddha-dharma-- at least how I'm talking about-- means spending a lot of time in silence, or in isolated conditions. I really believe, because I've verified for myself, that if you truly want to practice Buddhism, if that's the only thing you want to do in your life, then the material side will happen. The money and food will happen. There will always be communities and organizations throughout the world which support people who want to practice full time, but it takes really committing to practicing full time to have people meet your spiritual yearning with material support.

Dogen wrote in the Zuimonki:

I have never read in the collection of all the Buddhist sutras of a single buddha or patriarch who transmitted the dharma in the three countries, dying of starvation or cold. In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it.  

I used to think of this as a terrifyingly large leap of faith, but now I see it in more practical, rational terms. Basically he's saying that people support monks who practice sincerely. And it's true. They do! I've been very lucky to receive a lot of material support by strangers, friends, and teachers, but I'm pretty sure it's because they have an idea I'm some kind of spiritual badass (not really sure why). This is how big dharma centers work as well; there's always space for people who want to practice badly enough. "Wanting it badly enough," though, usually means giving up most, if not all of the items on the Human Fulfillment Checklist, at least for a period of time. Even snacks, depending on the situation.

Basically, I'm starting to view Dogen's view on material support and the dharma like that song in Chicago, when the queen of the cell block sings, "When you're good to mama, mama's good to you... There's a lot of favors I'm prepared to do, you do one for mama, she'll do one for you." If you are good to the dharma, it will be good to you. You won't get rich, but you will get something. Actually, what you will get in return is the opportunity to practice, which sometimes feels like enough and sometimes feels woefully insufficient. Did I just compare the dharma to a cell block queen rationing out cigarettes and magazines? Why yes I did. It's not an entirely unproblematic relationship.

As I work on making a decision about where to live and work in January, part of me is striving to check all of the things off the Human Fulfillment Checklist, but another part of me knows I will make my life a lot easier for myself if I just focus on one, and maybe two of the things on that list. And I suspect that what is a priority now will in all likelihood shift over the years. I have different priorities now than when I was five, fifteen, or twenty five years old. Education, work, practice, and love will be important in different ways at different times for me.

I remember a few years ago having some kind of pressing problem and calling my teacher on the phone. He listened to what I had to say and then said very sincerely and very simply, as if this were an entirely new concept to me, "You know Gesshin, your problem is that you want too many things."

I laughed really, really hard into the phone. 


  1. Good fun. "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Gautama Buddha when asked, "Uhmm. . .what?" Gassho

  2. Good luck, Gesshin, and happy landings!


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