The first two lines of the Xin Xin Ming (“Verses on Faith-Mind”) are
Attaining the Great Way is not difficult,
Just avoid picking and choosing.
In other words, becoming enlightened is not difficult for those who have no preferences. But how can we avoid having preferences? Every day we pick and choose what to eat and what to wear. We choose our cars and homes and friends. We usually spend a lot of time picking and choosing what to do with our bodies. We decide where to go, what kind of work to do, and how we should look in the eyes of others. When you think about it, you realize that 99.9% of our thoughts revolve around how we can get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. Our incessant mental chatter is all about our self-clinging, an endless series of calls out to the universe to satisfy our preferences.
In fact, there is so much picking and choosing that I’m not sure where exactly we could find any room to trim. It’s like life is a picking-and-choosing triage center in which our preferences are tested against one another in a competition for significance. Some choices are kind of “meh”; for example, you don’t really need to get worked up over whether you end up with vanilla or chocolate ice cream. At the opposite extreme, however, there are times when picking and choosing might seem absolutely necessary.
For example, I was sailing on Lake Michigan the other day when a wind blew up out of the north. In the space of about ten minutes, the wind speed at the top of the mast was at gale force strength. The potential for the boat to capsize was suddenly upon us. The captain had to figure out what to do. He had to pick and choose from multiple options, or we might have found ourselves in water that was barely above freezing, five miles from shore, with no one around to rescue us. (Apparently, the captain chose well, or I wouldn’t be giving this talk now.)
Of course, my point is not that picking and choosing is sometimes necessary (as in boating) and sometimes not (as in choosing from 31 flavors of ice cream). If that is how you look at it, then you might think you can pick and choose your way to enlightenment. You fall into the absurd position of picking and choosing what you’re going to avoid picking and choosing. If that’s not a neurotic view of life, I don’t know what is.
But when you look deeply into the nature of picking and choosing, you discover something very special: You discover that picking and choosing is your whole life. Life is the ocean of preferences that you have to sail on.
So if everything is a matter of picking and choosing, can you ever hope to attain the Great Way? You cannot pick and choose your way to nirvana. You can’t include some things and exclude some others and call that “attaining the Great Way.” A way that does not include all things and all beings is not great. But look! Therein lies the sailing yarn that will save your life: the waves of the ocean of picking and choosing wash the sky, and fish do not drown.
Attaining the Great Way? What an absurd idea!