Category Archives: self

And then, a new experience


This happens again and again.

A word, a phrase, I have heard hundreds of times, in dharma talks, and so on. Read hundreds of times, in sutras and other texts. This word, today, is “stream.”

Again and again, I have remembered the words of Plato, quoting Heraclitus:

“You could not step twice into the same river.”

Again and again I have heard that life is a stream — the world that is true, all existence, and each sentient being is an ever-flowing stream. We are not the same from one day to the next, from one moment to the next. And I have known, for a long time, that my understanding of this truth is only, was only, an intellectual understanding. I knew I had not attained it, although I believed it, and my mind, my mind understood it.

And then today, thanks to a little text in a magazine (shown above), it entered into me with enormous clarity. I understood it for the first time. It was crazy — I cannot explain exactly how it was different, but it was — so very, very different.

And it lasted only moments. Some moments. I’m left with a kind of vestige of that realization. I am more than I was before, but I am not the same as I was in that moment.

“… I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.

“And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

— The Diamond Sutra, part 3 (p. 3 — trans. Red Pine, 2001)

I have meditated on this again and again, again and again. Today, for a moment, I attained it.

Now, back to work.



It just keeps on getting better


Well, just in case anyone is wondering, I’ll provide a little update. I’m almost at the end of my first determined study of the Diamond Sutra, which I started in July. Yesterday I spent about two and a half hours on chapters 27, 28, and 29. There are only three chapters to go, but it’s really blowing my mind now — so I wasn’t quite ready to complete it today!

I am still sitting for 30 minutes every morning. I went through a very restless period for about a week or two when I kept quitting early almost every day (only about five minutes early, but I was in some weird agitated state, and my one leg hurt and I just couldn’t get past it). That was followed by about five days that were so excellent, I told someone that my legs had fallen off (I was thinking both of Dogen saying “Shed body and mind,” and of the legend about Bodhidharma’s legs falling off when he sat for nine years). Since then, I’ve had both kinds of days.

I went to another three-day silent retreat recently; I think it was my fourth one. Maybe my fifth. No, probably my fourth. Anyway, I realized that it’s quite likely that I will gain some new wisdom each time I go to a retreat, and so, even if they are damned inconvenient and very difficult, I will continue to go. When I’m able. I was inspired by the Zen master, who said he attends about one retreat per month. Whoa. That’s a whole lot of distance on the bodhisattva path, I’d say.

I came across a reference to a new book, Ten Zen Questions, not long ago. I had an Amazon gift certificate, so I bought it — and it’s inspired me to take a more active approach to questioning reality. I think a lot of Western Zen people put a big emphasis on a kind of psychotherapy style of practice — you’re looking deep within yourself to discover your true self, after all. But the explorations recounted in this book keep bringing me back to that Bodhidharma quotation about the mind and reality:

If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.

Another way it appears:

Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.

Now, the author, Susan Blackmore, is definitely using her mind — maybe too much! But her accounts about her experiences on the cushion (and off, to some extent) have prompted me to watch more of the things my mind does — more than just my feelings and reactions and impulses, that is. For example, lying in bed this morning, I asked myself what I actually know (knew) at that moment, when my eyes were still closed. I knew I was on a bed and under covers. Did I “know” what bed I was in? I remembered getting into my own bed last night. But did I really know that was the bed I was in when I woke up — without opening my eyes?

The book and its questions have challenged me to look at memory, at perceptions, at my six senses (the 18 domains) from some new angles, which is very interesting. I am finding that more and more of what I consider to be reality is in fact just stuff in my head.

Another thing I noticed concerned vision (and memory). I was sitting on my cushion and asked myself what I knew about the room (where I always sit). I realized I could not see the floor lamp, which was about 18 inches to my right, but a little behind me. How did I know there was a lamp there? Of course, I remembered it. I bought it recently, to replace an old one that stood in the same spot. I remembered the old lamp too. In fact, I remembered both lamps equally well. So how did I know which one was there?

I feel as if I am pushing the edge of something. Give way, something says, pushing. The edge yields a little and springs back. I’m going to go on pushing it.


Karma and the bus: Grey’s Anatomy


SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the first two episodes in Season 6 (the current season), don’t read any more.

What happened to George made me think about karma. And that led, in turn, to some thinking about no-self.

One way of understanding karma is to see it in terms of cause and effect. The sutras often say we plant a seed (cause), and the kind of fruit (effect) we get depends wholly on that seed. So then you naturally ask, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

What did George ever do to deserve being hit by a bus?

Well, the simple answer is: He walked in front of the bus.

I’m not joking. Seriously, that is cause and effect. Now, if you don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, you don’t know George. George was one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. He had a lot of friends — most of them women. (He wasn’t really close with guys.) He was never mean or cruel. As a doctor, he was super-sensitive.

You have to ask why a guy like that would get killed in a brutal, painful way — and at a young age. How can that be right?

Karma isn’t about right or wrong. Some people would say George must have done something really awful in a past life — that would explain why he had this painful death. That view assumes that death is a bad thing for the person who dies. But if you watched the season opener of Grey’s Anatomy, you know who’s really suffering — his friends, and his mom. They are all suffering a lot. But George — he’s gone. Do you think the dead suffer?

Now, being hit by the bus would be horribly painful. Pain is suffering. And for the short time George lived after he was struck by the bus, he probably felt a lot of physical and emotional pain. The direct “seed” of all that pain is the bus. And why did George step in front of a moving bus? To save a life. Someone else’s life.

What kind of cruel universe rewards a hero — someone who saves a life — with horrible pain and anguish? Stop. The universe isn’t cruel. It isn’t good, either. The universe simply is. A common word used in English-language texts about Buddhism is suchness. It is as it is. Just that.

George’s intention was to save the woman who stepped into the path of the bus. It was a good intention. And that seed bore very good fruit — the woman’s life was saved. All her friends and family were spared the terrible suffering that George’s friends and family are experiencing now. George’s intention bore wonderful fruit.

What if George had simply been walking down the sidewalk and been killed by a bus that ran off the road? Then there would have been no intention on George’s part. Yet his friends and family would suffer just the same.

I think when people die, the greater suffering occurs among those who miss them. What George’s friends at Seattle Grace are experiencing is their loss of their friend, and it’s affecting each one of them in an individual way.

This is where I started thinking about self and no-self. All the bits and pieces of George’s life up to that moment had made him into a person who would save someone else’s life at the cost of his own. And each one of us is also a conglomeration of bits and pieces. We have not deliberately chosen each bit or each piece — they come from all over, starting at the moment we are conceived.

But no-self acknowledges that we can unwind or unravel those bits and pieces. We can reconstruct ourselves (with time, with Right Effort). That’s why karma is not destiny. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says you could wipe out all your previous bad karma if you practiced with diligence and attained the perfection of wisdom.

If you could unwind George’s life and examine it, you would see how his impulse to save the woman from the bus fitted perfectly with his whole persona. Whether it was the best use of his talents or his potential — well, that’s not how cause-and-effect works. If you make a decision that yields immediate fruit, then you forfeit the future. If you plant a seed that’s going to take 20 years to bear fruit, maybe you will not be around to harvest that fruit.

In other words, karma can be viewed as a system, just as the whole universe is a system. Everything is interconnected and linked. Each of us influences other people, and other people influence us. But we’re not just leaves blowing in the wind.

We do make decisions. We are able to choose.


The fire-boy, chasing fire


Experience the oneness of all things and all beings:

All the universe is an unceasing process, pursuing things and making them the self, pursuing the self and making it things.

This comes from the chapter titled Ikka Myoju in Dogen’s Shobogenzo (The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, tr. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, p. 33). Dogen said the only way to experience this truth is through zazen, or sitting meditation. We can read and study and chant and listen to Dharma talks for 1,000 years, but without zazen, we realize nothing.

He was, in fact, rather insistent on this point. Not only did he compose the Fukanzazengi to praise the benefits of sitting meditation; he also spent the first chapter of Shobogenzo doing the same.

I keep working on the teaching of no-self.

“Pursuing things and making them the self”: This begins when we are babies. I think it might start when we grab our toes and perceive them as our own, as part of the body, connected to us. We construct a self with I, me, mine — my toes, my hunger, my contentment, my toys. We add things to the heap as we grow older — my accomplishments, my pain, my money, my car. All of this adding is done with the mind only.

“Pursuing the self and making it things”: What am I? Am I this house, this son or daughter, this husband or wife? Am I this gun or computer or cash register or mixing bowl? Am I this set of beliefs I have adopted? Am I these clothes I wear? Am I these shoes?

The story of the fire-boy is retold here.


Shen: Spirit, heart, mind


I heard about Shen from an acupuncturist. She practices in the Five Elements tradition — that is to say, a traditional school of Chinese medicine.

I was intrigued by the idea of Shen when she told me that a medical practitioner looks into a patient’s eyes to assess the Shen. “What do you see there?” I asked. She said that it’s the strength of human spirit.

State of the Shen is said to be visible in the eyes. Healthy Shen produces bright, shining eyes, with vitality. Disturbed Shen produces dull eyes, which seem to have a curtain in front of them — as if no one were behind them. Often seen in those with long-term emotional problems or after serious shock (even a shock that occurred a long time ago). Source: Sacred Lotus Arts

That made me think of something Brad Warner wrote in his most recent book (which I have lent out, so I can’t quote it exactly). Referring to someone who had died, he said the same thing that used to look out from her eyes is what looks out from my eyes and your eyes.

Yes, exactly.


Investigation of no-self


I’m at a funny (funny = strange, not funny = amusing) place in my practice. I’m working to investigate the self, the “I” we all perceive. I expect that eventually this will lead me to an attainment of emptiness. The difficulty is to sit without wanting to reach a goal. I am struggling to investigate this “I” without having any focus on getting to the bottom of it.

This is “funny” because I believe that I know how to do this — that my training over the past year has prepared me for this stage — but at the same time, I have no idea what to do. Our instructions in the Kwan Um school are to ask “What am I?” and reply “Don’t know.” I asked a Zen master about this recently: If I’m asking and answering a question, I’m using words, and therefore, I am thinking. Is this correct?

He said sometimes thinking is necessary. And I experienced one of those “Aaahhh” moments.

Skillful means, yes? There are no shortcuts in Zen practice. You can’t jump-start to the thinking part before you have learned how not to think, to sit without thinking, and not to attach to thinking.

Still, this is damned difficult! Also, I have found that I am really distracted when I have a head cold, and I’ve just gone through my second head cold of the new year. I’m not usually one to get sick, so I’m frustrated by that, and doubly frustrated by my poor concentration. But everything changes, and the cold symptoms will be gone soon, and presumably my ability to focus will improve.


(For a post related to illness, see Meditating on Sudafed at the blog Dharma Folk.)

You and your self


Sometimes you’ve just GOT to link to a post: Holy Crap is one of those posts. John Herberger wrote about how having a wide-open relationship with the self is as hard as (harder than) any two-person relationship you’ve ever worked on.

Because just as with any relationship we have that grows deeper, the relationship with the self as it opens, brings to the surface all the dark stuff, all the shit, all the obstacles — anxieties, triggers, the raw-ness, the mistrust that comes from being in love and getting closer.

Yes, peeling that onion is not all sweetness and light. I find it a bit scary, because I don’t know what’s under the next layer!

It’s good that we only need to go one layer at a time.


Moving onward in meditation


Time to increase the length of my morning meditation practice, I decided several days ago. For more than one year, I have sat for 20 minutes each morning, before having my coffee. Once seemingly endless, the 20 minutes have come to seem short. So, what am I waiting for?

A little over-ambitious, I tried for 45 minutes. The first day I tried it, that went well. The second day, not so well. Then I began suffering from a bad head cold. I changed the timer to 30 minutes, and that was hard — well before the timer chimed, I felt light-headed because of the cold symptoms. It was very interesting trying to fight through the sensation that I was about to faint!

Finally, on Thursday, the cold symptoms lessened, and I had a good 30-minute sit (with no fear of fainting).

The work done on the cushion continues to be challenging. For me, it is still mostly just maintaining focus on the breath. But I have recently begun an investigation of the Self — gosh, that sounds so snooty! What I mean is, I have started going past “What am I? Don’t know” and on to examining where “Self” might be, if there were one. I was influenced somewhat by John Daido Loori’s repeated references (see link) to “this bag of skin,” meaning the body, and I focused for a while on how the brain (not the mind) controls the body. I also focused a bit on physical sensations and how they cannot far exceed the physical location of the body.

I can’t tell exactly where this will lead, but it all seems correct to me.


Constantly redefining ourselves


Trying to discover what we really are is the practice of understanding “no-self.” Insisting that there is a self means we cannot let go of attachments — the self is a big attachment!

There also seems to be something that is frequently called “the watcher,” that which seems to be observing all this, and perhaps this is really the “I” in question. Strangely, the watcher cannot be found, can it? It seems to sometimes be our eyes, but sometimes not, sometimes it seems to be images in our head and sometimes something that is separate from them and yet watching the images in our head. Sometimes it seems to be our body, but sometimes it seems to be watching our body. Isn’t it strange how we are so used to this constant redefinition of ourselves that we never stop to question it? Question it! This odd sense of an unfindable watcher to which all of this is happening yet which is seemingly separate from all that is happening, which sometimes seems in control of “us” and yet which sometimes seems at the mercy of reality: what is it really? What is going on here?

One of my teachers once wisely said, “If you are observing it, then it isn’t you by definition!” Notice that the whole of reality seems to be observed. (Source: Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, by Daniel Ingram)

No-self is closely related to emptiness. If all things have no self-nature, then they are empty. Everything is always changing, so it follows that they have no essence, no fundamental permanence. I begin to see that impermanence and emptiness and no-self are like one, or aspects of one another.