The question of will

Goso asks: A water buffalo walks out of its enclosure. The head, the horns, and the four legs go through, but why doesn’t the tail, too?

If the buffalo goes through, it will fall into the abyss,
If it retreats into the enclosure, it will be butchered.
This little bit of a tail, that is a strange thing indeed! – The Gateless Gate

Nothing can make a true man but the giving up of the will. Indeed, except by giving up our will in all things we cannot achieve anything with God. But if it should come to the point that we gave up all of our will, daring to abandon all things for God’s sake, then we should have done all things, and not before. – Meister Eckhart (Walshe 2009, The Talks of Instruction, p.498)

It seems a paradox that one must be strong-willed in order to advance along the spiritual path, yet at the same time one must abaondon self-will. But this is the truth. The use one makes of the mind to seek liberation is self-deception. The thinking mind is quite happy to go along with all of the learning, the meditation, the various practices and disciplines, because it clings to the conceit that it will gain something. However the mind is the very prison that one seeks to be liberated from.

Erich Fromm (1960) described the quest for liberation from the point of view of the self:

To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient and active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities. Least of all it is passive as far as the growth and liberation of one’s own person are concerned.

Of course, the Messiah will never come to save you, nor will you ever become a buddha, because the “you” who hopes for salvation or liberation never really existed. The problem is one of identity: either I am a separate being which wants liberation, or I am all there is and I want nothing.

First Zeal (Viraya), then Passivity (Ksanti)

Meister Eckhart explains how the mind is active in the beginning of the spiritual journey, and how it must then become passive and allow God to act:

Man has an active intellect, a passive intellect and a potential intellect. The active intellect is ever ready to act, whether it be in God or in creatures, for [in God] it exerts itself rationally in creatures in the way of ordering creatures and bringing them back to their source, or [in a creature] in raising itself to the honour and glory of God. All of that is in its power and its domain, and hence its name active. But when God undertakes the work, the mind must remain passive. . . . In the one case there is activity, where the mind does the work itself; in the other case there is passivity, when God undertakes the work, and then the mind should, nay must, remain still and let God act. . . . But when the mind strives with all its might and with real sincerity, then God takes charge of the mind and its work, and then the mind sees and experiences God. (Walshe, Vol. I, pp. 25-26)

D. T. Suzuki (1929) made the same point in Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra:

Up to the seventh stage (called Duramgama) of Buddhist life, the Bodhisattva has not been free from the sense of making effort for the attainment of a certain definite object; he has so far always been conscious of strain and effort; he has been making a definite attempt at accomplishing something, at bringing forth some tangible result as the outcome of his labour. But he has now completed this part of his work, he has now graduated, so to speak, from an effortful life (prayogikacarya), he is now on the way to a life of Anabhogacarya, where no efforts are made, no consciousness of strain is left.

What will is

The Sanskrit term for will is the word samskara, which are expectations of future events. Will is the opposite of desire. When one desires, one has doubts, and that doubt is an expectation that produces the opposite of what one wants. In will there is no doubt. It is the absolute conviction that something is going to happen, good or bad.

Suzuki (1957) defined will in a lecture to a gathering of psychologists organized by Erich Fromm, in Mexico:

The will in its primary sense is more basic than the intellect because it is the principle that lies at the root of all existences and unites them all in the oneness of being. The rocks are where they are—this is their will. The rivers flow—this is their will. The plants grow—this is their will. The birds fly—this is their will. Human beings talk—this is their will. The seasons change, heaven sends down rain or snow, the Earth occasionally shakes, the waves roll, the stars shine—each of them follows its own will. To be is to will and so is to become. There is absolutely nothing in this world that has not its will. The one great will from which all these wills, infinitely varied, flow is what I call the “Cosmic Unconscious,” which is the zero-reservoir of infinite possibilities. . . .

The wisdom which reveals itself when the bottom of the unconscious, that is, of the Alayavijnana, is broken through is no other than prajna. The primary will out of which all beings come is not blind and unconscious; it seems so because of our ignorance, which obscures the mirror, making us oblivious even of the fact of its existence. The blindness is on our side and not on the side of the will, which is primarily and fundamentally noetic (thinking) as much as conative (purposeful). The will is prajna plus karuna—wisdom plus love. On the relative, limited, finite plane, the will is seen as revealed fragmentally; that is to say, we are apt to take it as something separated from our mind-activities. But when it reveals itself in the mirror of adarsanajnana, it is “God as he is.” In him prajna is not differentiated from karuna. When one is mentioned, the other inevitably comes along. . . . (Fromm, Suzuki, et al., 1960, p. 43)

As Suzuki explains, there is in truth only one will; everything that happens, happens according to it. Meister Eckhart attempted to capture the glorious expression of this will in the following passage:

In God all things are equal and are God himself. . . . In this likeness or identity God takes such delight that he pours his whole nature and being into it. His pleasure is as great, to take a simile, as that of a horse, let loose to run over a green heath where the ground is level and smooth, to gallop as a horse will, as fast as he can over the greensward—for this is a horse’s pleasure and expresses his nature. It is so with God. It is his pleasure and rapture to discover identity, because he can always put his whole nature into it—for he is this identity itself. (Blakney, pp. 203 et seq.)

Passivity as surrender of the will

In his essay “Passivity in the Buddhist Life” Suzuki explored the highest state of consciousness, that of no effort (anabhisamskara) and no thought (anabhoga). He found a philosophical similarity between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity as regards passivity, which is that both religions place complete faith in a greater power or “other-power” that helps the devotee and purifies him of his sins. Suzuki also devoted part of his essay, “The Koan Exercise,” to the Pure Land school and the practice of reciting the Nembutsu.

Pure Land Buddhism is looked down on by followers of Zen, which emphasizes self-reliance, as is seen in this statement by Hui-neng:

“Good friends, each of you must observe well for himself. Do not mistakenly use your minds! The sutras say to take refuge in the Buddha within yourselves; they do not say to rely on other Buddhas. If you do not rely upon your own natures, there is nothing else on which to rely.” (Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra)

Nevertheless, Suzuki, following Hakuin, tries to show the positive aspects of Pure Land (his family’s sect), and calls the recitation of the Nembutsu “the magic sesame that carries you to the other side of birth and death.”

Surrender of the will to God is of the utmost importance in Christianity, which moreover demands obedience to religious authority in matters of doctrine. Zen takes the opposite approach: it does not provide students with any doctrine, nor are students given answers to metaphysical questions. They are forced to discover the truth for themselves. Zen aims to bring about self-abandonment, not through obedience, but through intense concentration and questioning, leading to a crisis in which the self is exposed in its non-existence. As Suzuki explains,

Zen starts with skepticism, or more appropriately, with quite an unpreoccupied, unprepossessed and thoroughly blank mind. There is in it no postulate of an Absolute or Infinite. Whether there is God, all-creating, all-governing, and all-comprehensive, Zen neither asserts nor denies, for assertion and denial are foreign to Zen, at least in its start. When the monk Ming understood the meaning of the question, “What was your original face you had before you were born of your parents?” set forth by the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, Ming asked the Patriarch if there was any other secret to be explored. The answer was, “If there is any, it will be on your own side.”

In the early years, masters tried to create a “questioning mind” (tai-i) in students by requiring them to pose questions to the master. The responses given were always calculated to puzzle and perplex, to make the student doubt his view of reality.  Masters commonly struck students and verbally humilliated them in order to make them angry, to make them unhappy, to expose the self and the painful prison that it is. Deshan (790-865) used to say, “If you say yes you get thirty blows from my stick; if you say no you get thirty blows just the same.” These blows were referred to as “grandmotherly love.” It wasn’t uncommon for a monk, at the moment of his enlightenment, to return his master’s love by striking him, in the realization that he and the master were the same Self.

This method of mandatory questioning was formalized in the twelfth century by the assigning of koans, or cases, none of which has an answer that can be expressed verbally. The aim of the koan is to provide a subject for single-minded concentration that excludes all else. This prolonged concentration creates a crisis, in which the non-reality of the self is exposed, thus bringing about an awareness of Self. (See Richard De Martino’s essay, The Human Situation and Zen Buddhism.)

In spite of their opposite approaches, however, both Christianity and Buddhism can lead to enlightenment so long as there is a complete surrender or abandonment of the self. Conversely, neither will lead to enlightenment so long as followers refuse to either surrender or abandon the self. Leaving aside the sin-expiating aspect, the main philosophical difference between them is that Christianity teaches people to surrender an eternal self, the soul, to a personalized God who is like a father, while in Buddhism there is a realization that one is God and that the soul never really existed. But no matter which path one has chosen, one always begins with effort, zeal (viraya), and one always ends with acceptance (ksanti) and the renunciation of self-will, because the will is the water buffalo’s tail.


As unsettling as abandoning the self seems to most people, the abandonment isn’t absolute and it isn’t irreversible. The Buddha said that there was no annihilation in complete enlightenment, and Lester Levenson explained what this means: “The word ‘I’ as you use it to mean your individuality will never, ever leave you. It expands.” When Moses asked God by what name He would be called, God replied, “I am what I am.” I think this sums it up: you are still ‘I,’ but ‘I’ has expanded to include everyone and everything there is. The word ‘individual’ now reverts to its original meaning, which was ‘indivisible’. Lester (2006) described this experience:

Someday you’ll look around and you’ll just see yourself everywhere you look. You’ll have a feeling, you are me, without a question. Without a doubt, you are me.

When you get to top state, you have a consciousness. There’s a constant I, I, I that goes on, on the top state. That’s all you see, hear, feel, think, know, just I, I, I, which is your beingness. A beingness that never changes. Beingness always is. (p. 113)

Most beings don’t remain in the highest state: they return to humanity in varying degrees. Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism expect those formed within their institutions to serve others. And we see in many examples that those who are outside of these institutions are at risk of a lack of proper conduct and of regression into egoity. (There is plenty of corruption within these institutions as well, and they are at risk of becoming irrelevant.) Meister Eckhart in his third sermon discusses the complexities involved in returning from the highest state without losing one’s attainment altogether. As Suzuki points out, the buddhas still have a self-will and are not completely passive, and this means that one can remain detached from the mind and body or re-enter it.

The help of the Buddhas

One of the central doctrines of Buddhism is that the bodhisattva, or enlightened being, chooses not to enter nirvana so that he may lead all beings to liberation. Some choose physical rebirth, and there is something the Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra calls apparitional rebirth. A bodhisattva can create a form and can also help us without a form.  In his autobiography (2003) Lester said,

I knew there were men before me who had discovered what I discovered, like Jesus, and they are still around. They do exist in a body, one made of finer substance than the physical body. They are still with the world, helping those of us who want help. Being in the higher realm, they are far more helpful because they can be anywhere at any moment. They are conscious of the fact that separateness is a dream. they are conscious of their commitment to help those in the dream wake up out of the dream—and know that they, too, are the infinite One.

There is never a time when these great ones are not offering their hands. It’s called grace. To the degree that we open ourselves to it, to that degree we receive it.” (p. 137).

Lester said that he, too, would continue to help us: “Usually those of us who want to come back to help others to that point will come back, just to help others” (

Whatever the reality is, enlightenment may come more readily to those who believe in other-power, that is, the willingness of departed buddhas to help us. Madame Guyon emphasizes that her attainment of union with God was by His grace and not by her own efforts, that her efforts hindered her because they came from self-will.

I would like to finish this post with a story, which illustrates how ceasing one’s own efforts—giving up—is equivalent to surrendering one’s self-will. It is about Ananda, one of the Buddha’s most esteemed disciples, famous for being able to recite any of the Master’s teachings by heart.

With all his memory and learning, Ananda could not sound the bottom of the Buddha’s wisdom while the latter was still alive. According to tradition, Ananda’s attainment to Arhatship took place at the time of the First Convocation, in which he was not allowed to take part in spite of his twenty-five years’ attendance upon the Buddha. Grieving over the fact, he spent the whole night perambulating in an open square, and when he was about to lay himself down on a couch all exhausted, he all of a sudden came to realize the truth of Buddhism, which with all his knowledge and understanding had escaped him all those years. (Suzuki, 1953, p. 67)

* * *

Suzuki: Self-discipline and the Buddha’s Power (1932)

As long as Paravritti is an experience and not mere understanding, it is evident that self-discipline plays an important role in the Buddhist life. This is insisted upon in the Lanka as is illustrated in the use of such phrases as “Do not rely on others,” “Exert yourselves,” etc. But at the same time we must not forget the fact that the Lanka also emphasizes the necessity of the Buddha’s power being added to the Bodhisattvas in their upward course of spiritual development and in the accomplishment of their great task of world-salvation. . . .

Rinzai (Lin-chi, died 867):

The truly religious man has nothing to do but go on with his life as he finds it in the various circumstances of this worldly existence. He rises quietly in the morning, gets dressed and goes out to his work. When he wants to walk, he walks; when he wants to sit, he sits. He has no hankering after Buddhahood, or the remotest thought of it. How is this possible? A sage of old says, “If you strive after Buddhahood by any conscious contrivances, your Buddha is indeed the source of eternal transmigration.” (“Passivity in the Buddhist Life“)

Meister Eckhart: “The Talks of Instruction” (1990)

(p. 13) People say: ‘Alas, sir, I wish I stood as well with God or had as much devotion and were as much at peace with God as others are, I wish I were like them, or that I were so poor’, or: ‘I can never manage it unless I am there or there, or do this or that; I must get away from it all, or go and live in a cell or a cloister.’

In fact, the reason lies entirely with yourself and with nothing else. It is self-will, though you may not know it or believe it: restlessness never arises in you except from self-will. Though we may think a man should flee these things or seek those things—places or people or methods, or company or deeds—this is not the reason why methods or things hold you back: it is you yourself in the things that prevents you, for you have a wrong attitude toward things.

Therefore start first with yourself, and [renounce] yourself. In truth, unless you flee first from yourself, then wherever you flee to, you will find obstacles and restlessness no matter where it is. If people seek peace in outward things, whether in places or in methods or in people or in deeds or in . . . poverty or in humiliation, however great or of whatever kind all this may be, this is all in vain and brings them no peace. Those who seek thus seek wrongly; the further they go the less they find what they are seeking. They are like a man who has taken a wrong turn: the further he goes, the more he goes astray. But what should he do? He should [renounce] himself to begin with, and then he has abandoned all things. In truth, if a man gave up a kingdom or the whole world and did not give up self, he would have given up nothing. But if a man gives up himself, then whatever he keeps, wealth, honour or whatever it may be, still he has given up everything.

He who [renounces] himself and his own will has left all things as truly as if they were his free possession and completely at his disposal. For that which you don’t want to desire, you have handed over and renounced for God’s sake. That is why our Lord said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, that is, in will. And none should doubt this, for if there were any better way, our Lord would have declared it, just as he said: “If any one would follow me, he must first deny himself’. It all depends on that. Observe yourself, and wherever you find yourself, leave yourself: that is the very best way.

(p. 14) You must know that no man ever left himself so much in this life, but he could find more to leave. There are few who are truly aware of this and who are steadfast in it. It is really an equal exchange and barter: just as much as you go out of all things, just so much, neither more nor less, does God enter in with all that is His—if indeed you go right out of all that is yours. Start with that, and let it cost you all you can afford. And in that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.

(p. 26) God’s intent in all things is that we should give up our will. . . . Nothing can make a true man but the giving up of the will. Indeed, except by giving up our will in all things we cannot achieve anything with God. But if it should come to the point that we gave up all of our will, daring to abandon all things for God’s sake, then we should have done all things, and not before.

Madame Guyon (1648-1717)

The following, from “A Short and Easy Method of Prayer” (1875) landed Mme. Guyon in prison for nine years, even though it was lauded, printed and widely disseminated by Catholic clergymen.



Abandonment is the casting off of all care of ourselves, to leave ourselves to be guided entirely by God.

All Christians are exhorted to abandonment, for it is said to all, “Take no thought for the morrow; for your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things” (Matt. vi. 32, 34). . . . Abandonment, then, ought to be an utter leaving of ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly, in the hands of God, forgetting ourselves, and thinking only of God. By this means the heart is kept always free and contented.

Practically it should be a continual loss of our own will in the will of God, a renunciation of all natural inclinations, however good they may appear, in order that we may be left free to choose only as God chooses: we should be indifferent to all things, whether temporal or spiritual, for the body or the soul; leaving the past in forgetfulness, the future to providence, and giving the present to God.

D. T. Suzuki: (1929)

When thus the Bodhisattva, discarding all effortful works, attains to the effortless state of consciousness, he enters upon the eighth stage known as Acala, the Immovable. But we must remember that effortlessness is the outcome of intense effort, and that when the former is not preceded by the latter, it can never be realised. Says the Dasabhumika: “It is like a man who in a dream finds himself drowning in a river; he musters all his courage and is determined at all costs to get out of it. And because of these very efforts and desperate contrivances he is awakened from the dream and when thus awakened he at once perceives that no further doings are needed now. So with the Bodhisattva: because of the great determination and the constant strivings that he has put forward in order to save all beings from drowning in the river of ignorance and confusion, he has at last reached, the eighth stage, and once here all his conscious efforts are set aside, his perception is not obstructed by dualistic views, nor by appearances.” (pp. 224-225)

Meister Eckhart

If then, I were asked what is a poor man who wants nothing, I should reply as follows. As long as a man is so disposed that it is his will with which he would do the most beloved will of God, that man has not the poverty we are speaking about: for that man has a will to serve God’s will—and that is not true poverty! For a man to possess true poverty he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not. For I declare by the eternal truth, as long as you have the will to do the will of God, and longing for eternity and God, you are not poor: for a poor man is one who wills nothing and desires nothing. (Sermon Eighty Seven)

Conze, Edward (1975). The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press.

Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Richard de Martino (1960). Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, N.Y., Harper Colophon Books.

Goddard, Dwight (1932). A Buddhist Bible (First Edition). (

Guyon, J. M. B. de La Mot (1875). A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle.

Levenson, Lester (2003). No Attachments, No Aversions: The Autobiography of a Master. Sherman Oaks, CA, Lawrence Crane Enterprises, Inc.

Levenson, Lester (2006). The Power of Love: Learn How to Be in the Now. Sherman Oaks, California: Lawrence Crane Enterprises, Inc. ISBN No. 0-9778726-090000

Meister Eckhart (Raymond B. Blakney, translator) (1941). Meister Eckhart. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London, Rider and Company.

Suzuki, D. T. (1932). The-Lankavatara-Sutra: A Mahayana Text. Translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit. (

Suzuki, D. T. (1998). Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers (originally published in 1929).

Suzuki, D. T. (1957). Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. London and New York, Routledge Classics.

Walshe, M. O’C. (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume I. Element Books Limited, UK.

Walshe, M. O’C. (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume II. Element Books Limited, UK.

Walshe, M.O’C. (1990). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume III. Element Books Limited, UK.

Paramhansa Yogananda (1946). Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: The Philosophical Library.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s