The Shadowy Self

June 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Since we are provided with both a body and a mind, we grasp onto the physical forms we see: since we are provided with both a body and a mind, we cling to the sounds we hear. As a consequence, we make ourselves inseparable from all things, (and see ourselves, as if) we are some shadowy figure ‘lodging’ in a mirror…” (Zen Master Dōgen)

The ultimate aim of Buddhist practice is to awaken us from the false identification with this shadowy figure we call the self so we may realize our true nature. Yet our belief in the reality of this self is so strong that we often fail to hear the message that it is nothing but a shadow of mind. It is perhaps only when we are old that we come to late to realize that, as Ikkyu wrote,

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
 The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
 No spring breeze even at this late date,
 Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

It’s difficult to give up our shadowy self, yet the path to liberation lies in doing just that.

Part of that difficulty lies in our steadfast belief that thought, including the thought of self, represents something real and solid. So we come to believe that if we think, there must be a permanent “I” behind the thinking. Yet Buddhists ask we go beyond this assumption to delve into our true nature, as does Bassui when he wrote,

What is this mind?
 Who is hearing these sounds?
 Do not mistake any state for
 Self-realization, but continue
 To ask yourself even more intensely,
 What is it that hears?

So Buddhism affirms that there is sound but does not conclude that there is a permanent self that hears. Buddhism does not solidify the self but only says that there is hearing, that there is seeing, tasting and living. Nothing extra is added to our experience. As Basho wrote,

I am one
 Who eats his breakfast,
 Gazing at the morning-glories

Still. To realize no self we need to cease our identification with the self. We need to stop identifying with the ego and stop believing in the reality of shadows. So when we sit in meditation we train ourselves to just observe. We train ourselves to see the unreality of thought so that we no longer run after it, or run from it. We train ourselves to just be with thought, and to just be.


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