To Study The Self

Sallie Jiko Tisdale
Sallie Jiko Tisdale

Sallie Jiko Tisdale – from April 1997

Keep your eye on the fierce lion up on the altar. Today I’m going to talk about what it means to study the self. I’ll begin with two quotes to bear in mind. The first is from William Wordsworth in 1807, a poem:

“The world is too much with us
Late and soon
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

The second quote is Dogen: “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.”

I want to get at this what it means to study the self, and what forgetting the self is all about from a couple of different angles. Soto Zen people repeat this Dogen quote fairly often. While familiar, it also seems new and a little strange to me because we don’t stop and say “what is this thing we call the self.” We talk a lot about dropping the self and forgetting the self, but what is the self in the first place? Sometimes to answer is completely impossible because the self seems to be everything. I think that everyone sitting here has a pretty good sense of anicca, constant change in all forms. In the midst of all this change we experience, our self is often the one thing that seems stable, like a boat in a rocky sea. The more we experience chaotic phenomena, the more we see change all around us, the tighter we cling to that sense of self. It seems the one thing that continues. So by the time we reach adult age, we’re very skilled at seeking validation for what we feel ourselves to be. We have a lot of questions, such as “Am I okay? Am I alright? Do you like me?” I have always been so sympathetic with Sally Fields. I thought she said it for everybody: “You really like me!” “Am I attractive? How’s my hair?” These questions come up in lots of different ways, and some are big and some are small. “Be my friend. Are you impressed with what I know and do?”

We ask these questions of the world, and we get answers. Sometimes the answer is “yes”, and even if “yes” is always the answer, it doesn’t get at the real question. So we can live our entire lives in this perpetual cycle of asking for affirmation from the world, getting it, and feeling like that’s not it. That’s not it. So we ask again and again. That’s when the boat in the rocky sea turns into a cage. Yesterday I worked with the metaphor of a cage quite a lot, because that’s how it has often felt to me. I’ll be sitting on my cushion, so painfully self-conscious, that I feel like I’m in a little tiny cage with iron bars. These bars are made up of all the habits of body, speech and mind that we develop to meet the world. There’s a point where you feel completely powerless to get out of the cage. “I vow on my cushion not to meet the world in such and such way.” The minute I’m off my cushion, I’m right up against those bars and meeting the world in that way. Real intimacy and real security is actually blocked in all these attempts to defend ourselves and our cage. When we cling to a sense of the self, this me as being permanent and separate from other people, then we realize that the whole world is us. If we are threatened or hurt or we die, god forbid, the whole universe is threatened. So our need to defend becomes very strong. The other problem, besides the anguish of self-consciousness we feel in this cage, is that cages are really hard. We bump people, we hurt people. We get bruised when our cages shake. We bang our cage and it bangs other people, and they get bruised. I sometimes have an image of people walking the streets and whamming into each other. It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?

The word dukkha is sometimes translated as disatisfactoriness, the sense of not being at peace. Also it’s sometimes referred to as existential suffering, the feeling that comes up when we struggle with our sense of existence. That is why I began with Wordsworth’s quote: “The world is too much with us.” In my cage I feel that the world weighs on me and I can’t escape. There’s a smothering feeling of being unfree. The odd thing that brings us to practice is that the more tightly we hold our sense of self, the more the world weighs on us and the more threatened we feel and so on. The more that we expend effort to be safe, the more that moving through an ocean of other people is like pushing things out of the way, like moving through syrup sometimes. Buddhism teaches us that all of this experience, the cycle of threat and defense, the bars of habits and so on, is the merest wisp, a phantasm. The term “ignorance” in Buddhism refers to the specific delusion that we are separate from each other; that we are separate from other forms; that we are permanent and that we move through change. Our true self, also called original nature, is always with us trying to get this cage open. That’s why we’re sitting here and that’s why, as hard as I tried not to practice, and as hard as I tried to get out of this place, I couldn’t leave. I had to keep coming back to my bed of thorns here. I realize now that I always will because something so mysterious happens here. The mind that seeks the way brings continually me back here. Very slowly through my anguished self-consciousness on the cushion the door of this cage slowly opens. There are moments of liberation.

ManjusriManjusri sits on the lion of ego, the lion of the self. The lion’s eyes are wide awake and its teeth are showing. The ego feels this wind of liberation and races to hide. It finds the corner of the cage. As they say, you can run, but you can’t hide. One of the seeming paradoxes of dropping the self is that we do not really pursue this practice in a serious manner if we don’t have healthy integrated personalities. People who have borderline personalities or severe problems with mental function probably shouldn’t be doing this practice. Most of us here have probably benefited from counseling, and I think most people who try to pursue a religious path can benefit from counseling at one time or another, because we live in a very crazy world with a lot of contradictory messages, and by the time we’re adult we’ve absorbed a lot of contradictions. One of them is that we have been taught that we are our sensations. We say “I am angry,” “I am scared,” “I am happy.” Instead of “I feel anger,” “I feel happiness.” We know this to be a lie when we say “I am angry.” Although we feel our whole bodies fill with anger, we know that it will pass. We don’t speak accurately about our own experience. Counseling can really help us clarify habits and conditioning, and help us get a handle on how we interact with people. These are all important things just for meeting the world, but it’s only the beginning of practice.

One of the ways that people stray on this path is when they hear the phrase “this very self is Buddha,” then thinking that fairly integrated personality is all we need. Work on the personality develops a good foundation, but it’s the beginning. Once we become self-aware then start sitting and studying seriously, we can take the next vital step which is to ask “who is self-aware?” This is a place beyond psychology, and this is the dangerous step of practice. In the Sung dynasty in China there were two dominant forms of Buddhism. Over time the two became blended in some communities. Pure Land practice is to call on Amitabha, or Amida in Japanese. “Namu Amida Butsu” is repeated as a mantra as your meditation. This creates a contradiction, or a koan when blending with the Zen tradition. Pure Lane practice cultivates a sense of a Buddha separate from yourself that you are reaching toward, while the Zen tradition tends to snatch away anything separate.

One approach was to give monks the koan: “who is reciting Buddha’s name?” That’s the whole koan right there: the point being to shift attention away some “other” and bringing attention back to the self who experiences and reaches. This is not a distant historical story. When Kyogen was telling me this, I felt strongly that this is a question that we are all asking in different forms on our cushion. There is an expression that most of you have heard which is “to raise the doubt-mass.” The doubt-mass is that full weight of the question that brings you to practice. Often when we start practice it is not clear what the question is, there’s just a sense of questioning: doubting, seeking. You could call it the question mass if you wanted. Gradually the question starts to take form. For some people it’s “what do I do?” “What is it?” “What do I seek?” For others, “how do I do this?” These questions boil down as we practice, so “why do I come back here” becomes this painful “why?” “How do I do it” becomes the more concentrated “how?” What’s left is this enormous “doubt-mass.” We become the question “who?” Who seeks; who suffers; who yearns; who sits here; who is self-aware. Mumon says “arouse the mass of doubt with your whole body.” I like that because it takes us back to the fact that sitting on this cushion, doing this practice right now, is a essential to raising the doubt-mass; just sitting.

Let’s go back to “study the self.” The first part of studying the self is to simply look. You can’t forget something if you don’t know what it is. We can’t drop it until we’re ready to move past it. This is very difficult because we have to accept what we see. We have to accept that right here, right now, this is what we’re working with. This is what I have. As soon as we see that we see that everything we hold onto changes. The body changes. That’s easy enough to accept. Our thoughts and our opinions change. Well, I know that I don’t believe what I did when I was twenty-one. That too is easy enough to accept. Eventually we get to that existential question of what moves from moment to moment. I’m not the person I was at thirty. I’m not the person I was at fifteen. Yet, I feel that I am. That question in the back of the mind: “and yet – there’s me.” What moves from moment to moment?

passing-the-flameWhen I first came to Kyogen with this – about fourteen years ago, the metaphor he used then was “what moves from one candle to the next when the candle is lit?” That’s a very common image. If you take a seal and you stamp hot wax, what moves from the seal into the wax? It’s a good image of karma, especially from physical birth to physical birth. But it doesn’t answer that question, what is that sense of “me” that moves from moment to moment? So now I am working with this more modern image of movies, of film. If you put a camera in front of a tree, and you just let the camera run for hours – days – and then you look at the film frame, by frame, by frame, then from one frame to the next nothing seems to change. These are the moments of our lives. From yesterday to today, it doesn’t seem like I change very much. I still very clearly recognize my state of mind. I recognize my body and how it feels. It’s very familiar, frame by frame. But after a hundred frames, a thousand frames or ten thousand frames, things clearly, obviously change. The leaves open, the light changes, the shadows move and all the while internal change is happening in the tree constantly. Growth, sap moving, cells dividing. If you left the camera running for years, it would show much more physical change. It will appear to be a slightly different tree, but with much the same shape. This is an image that is working for me much better now, and does express what my life feels like. The five-year old that I used to be that seems so familiar and yet not me, is my sapling. Yet I am not she. Every cell has changed. Every psychological moment has changed. The tree has the essentially the same shape over time because of karma. The conditioning, the predisposition which causes our births both in the large sense of this body and the more local sense of this moment, will always affect the shape of the self we feel ourselves to be.

One of the questions that come up that we all long to know is how did all this begin, and where does it end? How did I get to this birth, and what’s going to happen in my next birth? This is the question that even the Buddha refused to answer. He kept his mouth shut. People asked him this all the time, and he always just sat there serenely and refused to answer because it’s not the important mystery. The important mystery is what to do right now? Who are you right now? What do you do now? How will you be here? So we start sitting and we’ve got this question coming up. We start looking at ourselves. “Ok, I’m looking at myself. Why am I really here? Because I want to drop it, I want no-self.” This is another dangerous time; beginning to have concepts of no-self. This is like a little bigger cage. It can feel really wonderful to get a hold of the idea that the self can fall away and that we can have more room to move and be less trapped by our habits of body and mind, but we get really infatuated with the idea of no-self, no permanent self. That just becomes a new cage, a new concept; something else that’s outside us that we’re reaching for.

I want to go back to the Pure Land practice of calling on the Buddha’s name. This is what’s called an “other-power” practice. Zazen is considered a “self -power” practice, but that doesn’t mean that we only do self-power. Actually, when we begin in one place we end up in the other. Self-power alone can lead to a delusion that “this very self is Buddha.” “Since awakening is natural, I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to work at it.” But it’s also a delusion to think that all you have to do is work at it. So if we begin with ‘other-power’, calling the Buddha’s name, which is faith and certainty, eventually we realize that effort and discipline will be required. But if you begin with discipline and you get to pushing every day you will, guaranteed, get to a place where that’s not enough you will have to jump off the pole of faith letting go of self-reliance.

So the next thing that Dogen says in this quote is that to “forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.” This is one of my all-time, number one hits of Dogen. “The myriad things” or “the ten thousand things,” “the hundred grasses” – a lot of phrases come up expressing this same point. Cranky old Dogen becomes so joyful and so full of optimism and hope. Myriad things are this world of form and change. It’s also the world of space and time, it’s just moments in Indra’s net of time and space, it’s birth and death and it’s form and emptiness. They’re all entwined. This is part of the koan. Nothing in this web stays the same but there’s no place else to go. What does that mean? How we each approach this question is one way that our karmic flavor will manifest. Whatever your doubt-mass is, it’ll be your doubt-mass, not mine. My doubt-mass will not be yours because we are each conditioned in unique ways by our karma and our predisposition. So our paths will be slightly different in flavor. Shaped or perfumed, if you want, by our karma, even though it’s the same path.