Everything is impermanent; sooner or later everything goes away. Renunciation is a state of non-attachment, acceptance of this going away. Impermanence is, in fact, just another name for perfection.
Leaves fall; debris and garbage accumulate; out of the debris [the way it's used in permaculture] come flowers, greenery, things that we think are lovely. Destruction is necessary. A good forest fire is necessary. The way we interfere with forest fires may not be a good thing.
Without destruction, there could be no new life; and the wonder of life, the constant change, could not be. We must live and die. And this process is perfection itself.
All this change is not, however, what we had in mind. Our drive is not to appreciate the perfection of the universe. Our personal drive is to find a way to endure in our unchanging glory forever. That may seem ridiculous, yet that's what we're doing. And that resistance to change is not attuned with the perfection of life, which is its impermanence.
If life were not impermanent, it couldn't be the wonder that it is. Still, the last thing we like is our own impermanence. Who hasn't noticed the first gray hair and thought, "Uh-oh!"?
So a battle rages in human existence. We refuse to see the truth that's all around us. We don't really see life at all. Our attention is elsewhere. We are engaged in an unending battle with our fears about ourselves and our existence.
If we "want to see life we must be attentive to it. But we're not interested in doing that; we're only interested in the battle to preserve ourselves forever. And of course it is an anxious and futile battle, a battle that can't be won. The one who always wins is death, the "right-hand man" of impermanence.
What we want out of life as we live it is that others reflect our glory. We want our partners to ensure our security, to make us feel wonderful, to give us what we want, so that our anxiety can be eased for a little while.
We look for friends who will at least take the cutting edge off of our fear, the fear that we're not going to be around one day. We don't want to look at that. The funny thing is that our friends are not fooled by us; they see exactly what we're doing. Why do they see it so clearly? Because they're doing it too. They're not interested in our efforts to be the center of the universe.
Yet we wage the battle ceaselessly. We are frantically busy. When our personal attempts to win the battle fail, we may try to find peace in a false form of religion. And people who offer that carrot get rich.
We are desperate for anyone who will tell us, "It's all right. Everything can be wonderful for you." Even in Zen practice we try to find a way around what practice really is, so that we can gain a personal victory.
People often say to me, "Joko, why do you make practice so hard? Why don't you hold out any cookies at all?" But from the point of view of the small self, practice can only be hard.
Practice annihilates the small self, and the small self isn't interested in that one bit.
It can't be expected to greet this annihilation with joy. So there's no cookie that can be held out for the small self, unless we want to be dishonest.
There is another side to practice, however: As our small self dies -- our angry, demanding, complaining, maneuvering, manipulative self -- a real cookie appears: joy and genuine self-confidence.
We begin to taste what it feels like to care about someone else without expecting anything in return. And this is true compassion. How much we have it depends on the rate at which the small self dies. As it dies, here and there we have moments when we see what life is.
Sometimes we can spontaneously act and serve others. And with this growth always comes repentance. When we realize that we have almost constantly hurt ourselves and others, we repent -- and this repentance is itself pure joy.
So let us notice that our often misplaced efforts in zazen [sitting meditation] are to perfect ourselves: we want to be enlightened, we want to be clear, we want to be calm, we want to be wise.
As our sitting settles down into the present moment we say, "Isn't this boring -- the cars going by, my knees hurting, my tummy growling!" We have no interest in the infinite perfection of the universe.
In fact, the infinite perfection of the universe might be the person sitting next to us who breathes noisily or is sweaty. The infinite perfection is this being inconvenienced: "I'm not having it my way at all." At any moment there is just what's happening. Yet we're not interested in that. Instead we're bored.
Our attention goes in another direction. "Forget reality! I'm here to be enlightened!"