No self means no self.

March 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

The Buddhist nun Ayya Khema said that the most difficult aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that there is no individual self who owns the body and mind. That’s quite a bold statement. Outside of an asylum you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe they actually exist. So what can we make of this teaching?

In previous posts I described the self as a concept, in the traditional sense of a concept as an idea that brings together a collection of things under one name. A bed, for instance, is an idea that arises out of the combination of a mattress, duvet, pillows and the need for sleep. The Buddha said that the self is composed of the five aggregates of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and sense consciousness. So the self is a concept that brings the five aggregates together under one name.

When we speak of a bed we do not believe that it is something other than its component parts. Yet when we speak of the self we believe we are talking about something other than its five aggregates. I believe we do this because the aggregates are experienced as something real, so we falsely conclude that the concept that represents it, i.e., the self, must be real, too. But concepts are not real things in the world, they are just ideas about the world.

Even though the self is just an idea, its five aggregates are real and so cannot be ignored. The psychologist Carl Jung pointed this out when he said that the contents of the psyche are not just psychological. They are as real in the experiential sense as anything felt through the physical senses. This appearance of reality adds to our sense that there is something real called the self. But lest you decide that the self may as well be taken as real if you’re going to experience it that way, remember that you also believe in your dreams when you’re sleeping.

At this point I doubt that you are now convinced that there is no self. Especially if you happen to have read Zen Master Hakuin’s account of his first meeting with Shōju Rōjin. He writes of it in “Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave.”

“We arrived in Iiyama, and I was granted an interview with Shōju Rōjin. The old teacher took one look at me and immediately asked, “How do you see Mu?” “No way to lay a hand or foot on it,” I replied. Shōju reached out, pushed the end of my nose with his fingers, and said, “Well, I just got a hand on it!”

Shōju Rōjin was showing Master Hakuin that Mu, our true nature, is real. So you might conclude from this that there is a self. But Shōju Rōjin wasn’t saying that, unless you want to believe that your nose is your real self.

To understand Shōju it would perhaps help if I reminded you that concepts are a sampling of reality. They take specific things from the environment and group them together in a way that makes them appear separate from all other things. Hence the bed is separate from the floor. The floor is different from the wall, which is different from the body, which is different from the self that calls the bed “mine.” That’s what the mind does when it conceptualizes. It makes the true nature of things appear separate when, in reality, there is no separation. Zen Master Dōgen put it this way in his epic work, Shōbōgenzō, where he compared life to being in a boat.

He first wrote, …there is no “I” other than the boat. Then went on to say,

When we are riding in a boat, our body and mind, self and environment, are all “essential parts” of the boat. The whole great earth and the whole empty space are essential parts of the boat. “I” as “life” and “life” as “I” are thus.

In the best sense of the Buddhist principle of dependent origination Dōgen illustrates how everything is an essential part of everything else, which means that everything is connected. “Body and mind, self and environment” are all essential parts of life. That part about self might seem confusing but by it Dōgen meant the five aggregates. It is the “me” referred to the first part of the quote that I now add in its entirety,

Life, for example, is similar to a person riding in a boat. In this boat, “I” use the sails, “I” am at the helm, and “I” pole the boat. Although “I” operate the boat, the boat is carrying “me” and there is no “I” other than the boat. “I” am on the boat and “I” make the boat into the boat.

Dōgen speaks of the “I” and the “me” in terms of the former being the operator and the latter being a passenger. The “I” as operator is what I’ve called in previous posts the bare point of awareness but here Dōgen identifies it as the bare power of awareness. “I” use the sails, “I” am at the helm, and “I” pole the boat. This “I” is not just a passive observer like the “me” being carried through life. It is the active power behind life, the life of the universe and the activity of your life as “me.” It is this “I” that Shōju Rōjin was bringing to Master Hakuin’s attention when he pulled his nose.

This “I” is the same “I” in “you” as it is in “me.” They are not two but One. It is formlessness and emptiness so may be called no self. Yet it is not nothingness so it may be called the True Self, even though in comparison to It “you” and “me” are just illusion. Yet even as illusion we are essential parts that the “I” not only guides and directs though life but also is our Life. Realizing “I” as “life” and “life” as “I” are thus, is enlightenment.


The Middle Way

February 25, 2018 § Leave a comment

Thinking about Buddhism doesn’t lead to enlightenment, but it may exhaust all your ideas about what it’s like.

I once read that Zen Master Dogen often used concepts to negate concepts. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do with the last few posts.

Adding to things cannot be better than nothing” looked at how conceptualizing sensory experience adds things to it that isn’t really there. The title of the post, “You can see right through to the bottom” referred to seeing your actual experience before your concepts add these extras. “The Extended Now” introduced Einstein’s idea that what we traditionally call the here and now is actually an experience of different times. “Many Mansions, Many Worlds” suggested that each of us creates our own version of the world that is, in essence, an alternate universe. And “Nagarjuna’s Runner” aimed at showing these worlds to be dynamic, ever-changing activity.

These posts sought to negate, or at least undermine, the concept that there is a solid world ‘out there’ that exists whether we are around or not. How can we believe in such a world when we learn that it is just a collection of events that happened in the past and may happen in the future? When our ‘present’ experience is composed of things that no longer exist or are yet to exist? And doesn’t the Buddha’s statement upon his awakening, “I and all beings everywhere have simultaneously realized liberation,” make a little more sense when we realize that his ‘beings everywhere’ exist in a universe that arose with his own awakening?

Each of us creates our own version of reality that we continue to act upon throughout our lives and which acts upon us as we live. It is an interactive system in which there is no separation between self as the bare point of awareness and the other as the fundamental stuff of the universe. But make no mistake; it is only through the interaction of these two poles of consciousness that the world is given form. Without it, Consciousness may only be described as formlessness and emptiness.

The interaction of consciousness with itself is ceaseless activity that operates under the principle of dependent origination that states all things (i.e., dharmas or objects) arise together in dependence upon all other things and the subject as the bare point of awareness. You are identical with this activity. It forms the content of your life and is your life. Yet because this activity is generated by the interaction of a formless consciousness with itself, it is also emptiness. Realizing that form is emptiness and emptiness is form through meditation and then actualizing it in your daily life is enlightenment.

Balancing life so that it includes existence and non-existence, form and emptiness, is what Buddhists call The Middle Way. Yet this balance, when achieved, cannot be maintained over time. It is not possible to indefinitely maintain a steady state in a constantly changing universe. At best, you aspire to attain this balance in the ceaseless activity of daily life, knowing it is not a thing to which you may cling but a way of life.

Perhaps the story of the Krakatoa and the Fourth Point lighthouse bears repeating here. Before Krakatoa erupted in August of 1883 it thundered for many months, spewing ash and lava. One night the keeper of the Fourth Point lighthouse on an adjacent island was watching this show when a sudden massive explosion was felt coming from deep beneath the volcano. Under the moonlight the keeper watched as in all directions the sea suddenly became as still as a mirror. Then, just like that, the sea’s motion resumed.

Obtaining the middle way is about as rare as seeing the sea completely becalmed under a moonlit sky. And it lasts about as long, too. Nevertheless our practice is to actualize the middle way in our daily life. We practice being in the present moment unclouded by thought, expressing compassion and loving-kindness to all. But as life is constantly presenting us with new challenges there is no set rule for living the middle way. It is not a concept but a way of life in which you just embrace each moment, let it go, then embrace it again.

Many Mansions, Many Worlds.

February 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

In his essay, “The Tenzo Kyokun and Shikantaza,” Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama wrote, “…the world I experience is one I alone can experience, and not anyone else can experience it along with me. To express this as precisely as possible, as I am born, I simultaneously give birth to the world I experience; I live out my life along with that world, and at my death the world I experience also dies.”

Kosho Uchiyama’s words may be considered in relation to quantum mechanics. It says subatomic particles exist in an infinite number of states until they are observed, upon which they collapse into one state. For example, light (i.e., photons) coming from distant suns exist everywhere in the universe as probability waves until it is observed, at which time it becomes localized and become known as stars.

Before Kosho Uchiyama was born, what was to become his experience existed in this infinite number, or formless, states. His birth simultaneously gave birth to the world he experienced and when he died that world also died. Everyone’s experience is like this, coming about as a result of an interaction of the observer and the formless universe of infinite states. This is not merely a psychological experience but an actual giving of form to a universe that would otherwise remain merely as a probability.

It is important to understand that the observer being referred to is not the ego. It is the “I” as the simple bare point of awareness around which the ego is constructed. Where this “I” is before birth and where it goes at death is not the subject of this post. And in a way that is not a real question anyways. What matters most is that the “I” in each of us only collapses particular parts of the infinite number of states the universe can take. Even when standing side-by-side looking at stars, each of us collapses different photons coming from those stars. Only you can know the parts you collapse, just as only I can know the parts I collapse. This means that each of us is experiencing a different or alternate version of the same reality or universe.

The role of the observer, as this is called, is a touchy subject in quantum mechanics. Many do not like to admit that the observer plays any role in the formation of the universe. To get around this, they proposed that it only appears that a collapse into one state has occurred as a result of an observation. In this view every state collapses but does so in alternate universes where we cannot see it. In other words, creation does not simply consist of one universe but a multiple number of universes or multiverse.

Technically the existence of multiple universes is a hypothetical outcome of the theoretical model that arises out of quantum mechanics. As far as hypothetical outcomes of theoretical models go, this one is pretty dicey because there is no way to prove it. But it occurs to me that we do not need to negate the role of consciousness to have multiple universes. We already know that each of us is experiencing an alternate version of reality. Each version fits the description of an alternate universe in that each is a different collapse of the infinite number of probable collapses. So may we not say that each of us are living in our own parallel, yet alternate, universes created by the interaction of bare points of awareness with probability waves?

Each of us lives in an alternate universe or version of reality that comes into existence as we are born and ends as we die. Master Hung-chih (1091–1157) expressed this as,

There is neither mind nor world to rely on

Yet do the two interact, mutually.


Kosho Uchiyama expressed it by saying, “the world forms the contents of my self.” He went on to say, “When we do zazen, we personally experience this clearly; we become nothing other than ourselves.” Zen Master Dogen expressed it as the self being ‘verified by all things’. And when he said, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

We see in these statements that zazen is an awakening to the reality of dependent origination, the Buddhist principle that states all dharmas (i.e., objects, including the self) arise in interdependence with all other dharmas. In zazen we experience this as body and mind dropping away, leaving the bare point of awareness and the world indistinguishable. Awakening to this reality, to the inseparable nature of the other and I, is Realization.


Just sitting

Attending to the present moment

The universe unfolds naturally.


Just sitting

Breathing in and out

Buddha nature is actualized.

Nagarjuna’s Runner

January 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

A while back I read of a physicist who said the fundamental “stuff” of the universe isn’t matter or energy, but information. I had to smile at that remark for to me it showed the physicist’s ignorance of his own philosophy of science that states science can make no claim to the fundamental stuff of the universe. It can only study the way this stuff (in philosophy called the thing-in-itself) acts in relationship to other stuff. That relationship is expressed as information, so in saying that information is the stuff of the universe the physicist was engaging in the logical fallacy known as a circular argument.

Quantum mechanics is more aligned to the philosophy of science. This branch of physics says that it really doesn’t matter what quantum mechanics is about because there is no actual world of electrons, photons, quarks, etc. There is only a description of the world that uses these terms and it works in describing what is observed.

The traditional line of scientific inquiry is to study ‘things’ as if they existed independently of the observer. In most situations this approach works quite well until, that is, you start to study the quantum world of the very small. It is here, where the traditional ideas of causality, time and space breakdown, that the observer or consciousness plays a noticeable role.

It is by way of experimental observation that the quantum world is known. Prior to observation the quantum world exists (for mathematical purposes) only as a probability wave. Once an observation is made this world ‘collapses’ into something that can be described in quantum terms. Much to the discomfort of many scientists, in the world of quantum mechanics observation means conscious observation. This means that consciousness and the quantum world are inseparable.

Rephrasing the above we may say that, in general, science is interested in the relationship of two or more things. Where the quantum world is concerned, science must include the role of consciousness for its study to be inclusive. If we pare this down even further, we may say that science studies the interaction of the thing-in-itself and consciousness.

The important part of this simplification is that the known part is the interaction, not the thing-in-itself or the observer. These two can never be known in their entirety as a quantifiable figure or as an object of thought. The Buddhist expresses this unknowability by saying, “you can’t bite your own teeth and can’t taste your own tongue.” And in the Bible in Exodus 33:20, it is expressed by God telling Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”

Those of you who have read this far may be thinking that it’s taking me a long time to bring this horse to the water trough. I felt this preamble necessary to clearly explain the Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna’s (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) statement on running and the runner. A statement he used to illustrate that there is no persistent self.

Nagarjuna said, “there is no runner beside the action of running and that outside of running there is no runner.” A scientist might say the same thing if he remembers that his area of study is the interaction of things, and not the thing-in-itself.

It may be easier to see this if we think in quantum terms. We may only say something about a sub-atomic particle when it is observed, otherwise it has no actual form that we may talk about. If we observe it as moving from point a to point b, and then substitute the word moving with running, we may say that the particle is a runner. Once our observation stops, however, both the runner and the running cease to be. The particle goes back to just being a probability, meaning that it did not persist in time.

Just as the scientist would say that there is no such thing as a persistent sub-atomic particle, so the Buddhist says there is no persistent self. Neither, however, are being nihilistic. They are merely saying that we can say nothing about the fundamental stuff of the universe or consciousness. In practice, we can only see their interaction.

Before the horse finishes drinking I’d like to apply this to the Zen practice of shikantaza or ‘just sitting’. Most people don’t know what to make of this practice. Their rational minds tell them that there must be something more to it than just sitting. Yet from the perspective of this post, that’s all it is. It’s just sitting between the unquantifiable object and the unquantifiable subject.

Thinking continues during shikantaza but you don’t try to stop it. Instead, awareness just returns again and again to the present moment and the act of sitting. As the thoughts that temporarily flash through the mind become less of a distraction you’ll discover another layer of thinking. These are the deeper concepts that have been directing your thinking, dictating what you think about yourself and the world. Once again, there is no attempt to change these thoughts. The practice is to ‘just sit’.

During the process of just sitting you’ll notice a more persistent concept called the “I” which takes on the roll of ‘the sitter’. Nagarjuna’s words should guide you here. “There is no runner beside the action of running,” means there is no sitter beside the action of sitting. “And that outside of running there is no runner” means, outside of action there is no self. In other words, the “I” that you think is sitting is just another thought distracting you from the act of ‘just sitting’. And like all other thoughts and concepts it may be dropped.

Shikantaza is the actualization of your true nature realized as the action of sitting with body and mind fallen away. Here, body and mind are defined as the concepts assigned to the fundamental stuff of the universe (the body) and to consciousness (the mind). When they fall away you realize Emptiness and that its true manifestation is action or Life. To repeat Nagarjuna, “there is only the act of running.”


You can see right through to the bottom.

January 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

Most believe that the senses do a fairly good job of presenting us with what is actually ‘out there’ in the real world. But the brain doesn’t just reproduce what the senses give it. It reworks it into a conceptual experience.

Back in the 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries, astronomers identified faint objects in the night sky that they called “nebulae” because of their fuzzy appearance. During those times the idea of a galaxy, and that our sun was part of one, wasn’t part of the astronomer’s conceptual framework. It was only in the 1920’s that their existence was established by better telescopes and the nebulae determined to be galaxies.

In the 1950’s astronomers identified numerous objects whose spectrums were found to be markedly red-shifted, indicating the objects were flying away from us at speeds up to 40% or more of that of light. A debate began among astronomers. Were these quasi-stellar objects red-shifted by deep gravitational wells? Did some form of antimatter or a white hole end of a wormhole cause it? The answer came in the 1970’s after more data was collected and conceptual models were sufficiently developed. These quasars, as they were called, were extremely distant galaxies whose red-shift was caused by space itself expanding over great distances.

In the above two instances we find the science of the day unable to explain phenomena that is later determined to be a specific thing or class of things. It is tempting to believe that these ‘things’ were always there as they are known today, and that astronomers just needed better instruments to see them. But to identify them there also had to be a refinement of concepts and, in some cases, the development of new concepts that built upon the accepted conceptual framework of the time. All of which implies that if we used different concepts then our experience would also be different.

Today astronomers have a new mystery called dark matter to fit into their conceptual framework. A few have proposed that the solution is to rework the present framework, i.e., rewrite the general laws of relativity, so that dark matter can be discounted. Most reject this approach out of a belief that dark matter does exist, even though they have never directly observed it. Another thing science cannot yet ‘see’ is dark energy; a hypothetical energy of an unknown type that astronomers believe is responsible for the observed acceleration of the universe. How we come to experience dark matter and dark energy will eventually depend on the concepts science develops to know them.

In his book, “You Have To Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight,” Dainin Katagiri writes, “Like physics and biology, Buddhism is an attempt to study things as they are. But in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, what we study is something more than what appears as objects to our minds.”

“More than what appears as objects to our minds” is the object as it is before given conceptual form. It is, in effect, formlessness. Or, if you prefer, it is a sea of constantly changing energy existing in n-dimensional space, where n is an unknown quantity.

Zazen, states Katagiri, is the way to study this formless sea of energy. It is the way to know things “before we conceptualize about them” and “before we fall into thought.” Where the scientist finds a fuzzy object or a quasi-stellar object, he studies it in order to develop more and better concepts. But in zazen we just stay in that first moment of discovery without looking for any idea beyond it. By just being here, we learn to see the interconnectedness of everything. We see the Whole.

There are many advantages to conceptual thinking. From it come the many scientific advances that make our lives easier. But concepts also leave us feeling separate and alone in a world of solid parts that seem to work against each other and us. If, however, we were to practice staying in the first moment, i.e., the present moment, we would learn to see right through to the bottom of our concepts to know Reality as it really is in its numberless dimensions.

The Chinese poet Han-shan wrote,

The clear water sparkles like crystal,

You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.

My mind is free from every thought,

Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.

Since it cannot be wantonly roused,

Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.

When you have learned to know in this way

You will know there is no inside or out!

From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan

Idle Thoughts While Walking Joshu’s Dog.

November 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha nature?”

Joshu replied, “Mu!”

Writings and talks on the koan “Joshu’s Dog” often invite us to place ourselves in the sandals of the monk who asked the question, “Has a dog Buddha nature or not?” Some go on to suggest that the monk is really asking if he, himself, has Buddha nature.

A core belief of Buddhism is that every sentient being has Buddha nature. In the previous post I suggested that core beliefs form the cornerstone of the self. If you take one away, the self begins to fall apart. If the monk is questioning his core belief we may suppose that he is at a crossroads or even in crisis. Perhaps he has failed to realize his own essence, so is now wondering if he has any Buddha nature at all. Instead of assuring him on this matter Joshu unhesitatingly says, “Mu!” which means “no” or “no thing” in Chinese.

Putting ourselves in the monk’s position might be easier if we consider that he’s really asking about his own worth or value. This is a question that we can all identify with because we have all asked it on multiple occasions. Yet when it is asked of Joshu he does not say we are good, he does not say we are bad. Following the Zen statement that “One should not discuss a dream,” he says ‘no thing’ and in doing so invites us to go beyond good and bad.

How we view our selves, as worthy or unworthy, is a core value of a self that is, after all, just a collection of thought that we have falsely identified as our true nature. Of this Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku wrote,

“Although it is nothing but dreamlike, illusory fancied thoughts, it can block the Great Matter of seeing into one’s own nature more effectively than an army of a hundred thousand demons. Sometimes it is called illusory thoughts, sometimes the root of birth and death, sometimes the passions, sometimes a demon. It is one thing with many names, but if you examine it closely you will find that what it comes down to is one concept: that the self is real.”

When we believe the self is real we get caught up in whether a dog has Buddha nature or not, which is the Zen equivalent of asking, “Why do I feel so bad?” The question is meaningless because it is arises out of a false identification of the “I” with the feeling state called “bad.” It’s dung on a stick. The answer, however, isn’t meaningless because mu asserts that you are neither good nor bad. You are ‘no thing’. Not as in nothingness, the opposite of existence, but as That which comprehends all thought but is never itself thinkable.

In koan introspection, realizing that you are mu, no thing or no self requires the development of great doubt. Doubt that your concept of self is what you truly are, not doubt in your ability to realize this. So each time you find yourself believing that you are good or not good, worthy or unworthy, you cut through this belief with the sword of mu. If you don’t believe you can because you are too weak, cut through that belief with the sword of mu. When you drop the sword, pick it up again. Keep cutting until you have cut your way through the forest of thought. “Then,” as Mumon said in his comment on the koan, “your previous lesser knowledge disappears.” The self you believed was you is no longer seen to be real.

When you’ve reached the point where the self is seen as just a collection of thought, you automatically ask, “What am I?” You are but you are not thought or feeling. You cannot think or feel your way to an answer so the mind pauses. At this point  the light of awareness may now turn back upon itself to know itself as mu. But if you say instead that you are this or that, “If you say yes or no, you lose your own Buddha-nature.”

You are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.

September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

The title of this post comes from Mumon’s comment on the koan “MU” in which he states that if you cannot pass through the barrier Mu then you are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses. The bushes and grasses he refers to are whatever we cling to that verifies our existence. They are our social standing, religious beliefs, money, habitual thoughts, various ideas and whatever else we use to establish a personal identity. That personal identity is the steady state self discussed in the last three posts. In the context of Mumon’s commentary, it is the ghost. It is therefore ironic that the loss of one’s personal supports is felt to be the death of self when this self is a ghost!

The steady state self has also been compared to a bubble floating on the ocean. As individuals we identify with our bubbles and fear their bursting. Yet when it does suddenly burst there arises the opportunity to realize one’s true identity as the ocean. This is why Tibetan Buddhists consider the moment of physical death to be so auspicious. It provides one last opportunity to realize our true nature, if it has not already been realized in the life just ending.

Of course, we do not wish to wait until we die before attaining enlightenment so we practice meditation to purify ourselves. That means eliminating attachment to whatever supports our personal identity and “completely exhausting,” as stated in Mumon’s comment, “the ways of ordinary mind.”

It may seem contrary to Mumon’s directions but one way of exhausting the ways of ordinary mind is to use its ability to think abstractly to make things simpler. An example of this is collecting all the things that go into making a personal identity and calling them ‘bushes and grasses’. Calling the self a steady state system is another example that, if done correctly, severs attachment to the self and it’s possessions. But while doing this we must not forget that these are just abstractions. As with pure science, when a more inclusive way of thinking comes along we must be willing to drop the old expression for the new. Otherwise we have just replaced one ghost with another.

One way to discover the inclusivity of a line of thought is to test it. Does it expand your understanding of Buddhist literature and make your meditation smoother? Does it help you throw away wrong knowledge and mistaken understanding? If so, it is a useful tool but remember that no matter how abstract your thinking becomes it can only take you so far. If you want heaven to tremble and the earth to quake you must go beyond thinking.

Mu, as a word, is the ultimate abstraction. It is the ultimate thought that includes within it all the philosophy and scriptures that have ever been written or ever will be written. It takes the one who uses it all the way to the highest reaches of human thought where he or she may touch the lowest level of Christ or Buddha consciousness (i.e., your true nature). It is so abstract that it even includes itself or, put another way, negates itself so that thought is left behind altogether.

Putting it in his most abstract terms Mumon wrote, “Do not construe Mu as nothingness and do not conceive it in terms of existence or non-existence.” It is, “All manifest, actual and alive.” And Life is never an abstraction.

A dog! Buddha nature!

All manifest, actual and alive.

But with the slightest touch of yes and no

Dead your body, lost your soul.

Where Am I?

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