To study the Buddha Way is to study the self

December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

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“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self,” wrote Eihei Dogen in his 1233 work, Genjokoan. And to study the self, he continued, “…is to forget the self.”

When the mind is troubled, it is hard to forget the self. Whether sitting in meditation or going about one’s daily routine thoughts continuously crop up. They follow closely on the heels of one another so numerous that they seem interminable. Yet, if you persist in your practice patterns begin to emerge.

You start to see that when no effort is applied otherwise, the same thoughts repeat over and over. Those thoughts coalesce on certain themes that condition how you see the world and yourself. Looking deeper you see those thoughts are personified. Just as some random visual patterns take on the appearance of faces, so do these thoughts seem to belong to someone other than you!

The evolution of humanity involves interacting with others, so it should come as no surprise that, as humans, we routinely imagine we are interacting with others. We do not “talk to ourselves” so much as talk to an imagined other. When we rehearse a speech we imagine we are giving it to others. When we are making a decision we often do so in an inner conversation with interested others and authority figures that exist, for the most part, only in our minds. And, when in conflict, we have unending disputes with inner others that, like Shishi lion dogs placed as the gate of a Buddhist temple, stand as guardians to prevent us from moving forward.  For example…

A common theme in life is the conflict between doing what others say and being self-assertive. A non-assertive person may see him or her self as weak, passive and frightened. Against this self-image there appears a nebulous figure (often projected onto others) that seems to tell us what to do. Both images arise out of a desire to be assertive in the face of opposition, yet both work to prevent self-assertion. These dual guardians are two sides of the same coin that both make up the self and block it from resolving the conflict.

A key to the resolution of any inner conflict is the realization that the dual guardians of self are void of self-existence. That is, they have no existence outside of thought and are therefore unreal, dream illusions. This realization begins with mental alertness.

With an alert mind, as soon as your self-image arises or the other arises to negate self, hold it in the awareness and assert its unreality and falseness. This may take some practice, as it is not uncommon for the dual guardians to arise subtly or flash across the mind so quickly that one doesn’t get a chance to identify them. But with continued practice the process can be slowed and the affirmation made.

Through continued practice you will come to know these two aspects of self to be “just thought” without self-existence. But this takes time. Our deepest conflicts come from our most cherished ideas and deepest fears. Accepting they are founded upon illusion, and that the self is therefore an illusion, does not come easy. Yet if we can see this, if only for a moment, that moment opens us to the underlying Reality that is apart from all thought; and which alone is able to arrest and free us from the birth of all thought. And when thought is arrested, the self is forgotten. But even before that moment, the conflicted self you imagined yourself to be has already been forgotten.

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