One of the most misunderstood and misused teachings in Zen is that of “no gaining” mind. It is often quoted, typically without context, and suggested as an exhortation for a practice which takes “no goal” as its goal. This is a misunderstanding, quite far from the meaning of this phrase and the application it has to Buddhist practice.
In Japanese the term is 無所得 pronounced “mushotoku.” Taking each character separately; “mu” is a negation, “sho” means place, and “toku” means advantage, gain, profit. So the literal meaning is “the place where there is nothing to be gained” or nothing to which we can be attached. From there it is easy to understand that “no gaining” is a teaching of “no false discrimination,” or you might say abiding in the non-separation between subject and object. That is, “no gaining” mind refers to that mind which sees emptiness and interconnectedness as one.
For Zen Master Eihei Dogen this phrase appears in relation to egolessness, particularly in “Shobogenzo–Zuimonki,” a collection of pithy sayings by Dogen, as recorded by his disciple Koun Ejo in about 1234 CE. In this short compilation we hear Dogen’s constant exhortation to zazen, and to practice that fully engages body and mind without the expectation of gain. He says,
Simply do good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind you have to awaken to impermanence.
Thus, Dogen’s idea of the goal of practice is quite clearly described – awakening to impermance. This echoes the opening lines of the Heart Sutra in which it is said that Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, was relieved of all suffering simply by “seeing” that body and mind are empty of permanent existence.
Sitting in zazen, experiencing our fundamental non-separation from all things, coming from the place where there is nothing to be gained, we also come to understand that there is nothing we lack. There is no need to look outside of ourselves for acknowledgement, no need to hope that our teacher will give us something special, no need to grasp at things that are always flying away. Instead, we can fully express, from within, harmony and the wish to benefit others, because they are none other than us.