What am I?

teisho 1234 (2013)

‘I am’ and the question ‘what am I?’ are fundamental. Our very life is a question. There is this constant onward thrust;  life is not static, needing to be put into action by outside forces. All life is inherently active, dynamic.

This dynamism constantly assumes a form: as a flower, a fish, a bird.   In a human being it takes the form of words, thoughts.  When a person asks “what am I?” they look to the words, they look for the meaning of the words.  They look for the meaning of the words “I am.”  But words do not have meaning, meaning has words. What meaning is there that seeks to find expression in the words “I am”?

One has to look at being itself.  What does it mean to be?  This is a special kind of question, because as long as you stay at the level of words or thoughts, concepts or feeling, it is not going to get you very far. Being itself will constantly escape you, because you cannot stand outside being and look at it.

One needs to come home to the truth ‘I am’.  When you do, you do not come to something, to some separate, isolated, unique and different form. The only answer is ‘I am the world.’  The realized person thinks, acts and feels together, not in a dislocated and fractured way.   When Buddha said “when I was awakened, the whole world was awakened with me,” this is another way of saying “I am.”   At the beginning of his verse, Hakuin emphasizes ‘All beings are Buddha.’  All beings are this dynamic living flow.

We are not something.  We take form, but that does not mean we are something. My understanding takes form in words, but that does not mean to say my understanding is words.

There was a paper delivered by a professor at a university, in which he was criticizing the Zen tradition.  He said that Zen Budhists now devote their time to coming to some ineffable experience called Kensho.   Are we simply looking for some experience, some sort of psychological high?   The professor also said that the ethical side of Buddhism has been lost.  That the search for awakening has taken such dominance that the ethical teaching of the arousing of compassion has been lost sight of.  Is this true?

Awakening is not an ineffable experience.  If you have worked hard and long enough, there is joy upon awakening.  But that is not what it is about.  The joy goes.  It is that one now sees the world in a different way, no longer in constant opposition. One can honestly say ‘I am the world.’  Awakening is not an end, the end of work. The work continues, but in the light.

Zazen is a kind of involvement; if one’s mind tends to wander,  a zazen posture can be very helpful. But whether one sits in a special position, or whether one walks or sits in an armchair, if one is involved in this way, concerned in this way, that is zazen.

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Koan 6 in the Mumonkan.

Teisho 1031 (2006)

A flower is held up, and the secret has been revealed. Kashyapa breaks into a smile.

Buddha said, ” My doctrine implies thinking of that which is beyond thought. Performing that which is beyond performance. Speaking of that which is beyond words and practicing that which is beyond practice.”

Thinking – in other words, the mind must be active, but not in the way of conceptual grasping. Any concept, any idea, any image won’t do. Any movement of the mind won’t do.

Doing that which is beyond doing. You are asked: “who is it that walks?” And people answer, “I walk.” But when one walks, one just walks. Just walking. That is it. This is doing beyond doing.

He says, “Speaking of that which is beyond words.” How do you do this? It is speaking without opening the mouth… but I don’t mean mumbling. And practicing that which is beyond practice. Practice must be beyond the self-willed, beyond ‘I am doing it.’ The practice of Thy will be done.

What is called selfless is hard to see, for it is not easy to see the truth. But the one who knows it penetrates the craving. Fundamentally all craving, desire, is for unity, for Oneness. Once we see this we realise there is nothing wrong with the craving, it is the way we try to satisfy it, by giving it one form or another, that is wrong.

For the one who sees it, there is nothing to be seen. The truth cannot be grasped, it cannot be expressed.

There is that sphere wherein is neither earth nor water, fire nor air;
It is not the infinity of space, nor the infinity of perception,
It is not nothingness, nor is it idea or non-idea.
It is neither this world nor the next, nor is it birth.
It is neither the sun nor the moon.
It neither comes nor goes, it neither abides nor passes away.
It is not caused, established, begun, supported.
It is the end of suffering.

What is Mu? What are you?

There is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned.

It is the unborn that walks, that talks. Things do not come and go, there are no things. This is utter freedom, utter peace. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can touch you.

Buddha held up a flower. What was in this? Would holding up a carrot have been as good? Or a dead cat? Did it have to be a flower? Fortunately it was a flower, much nicer to contemplate. What is the entrance to the Way? A master said, “Do you hear that stream gurgling by? That is the entrance to the Way.” People think he was saying that nature, the countryside, is the Way. But the Way can just as well be found in the back alley of a slum.

Kashyapa smiled. There are three kinds of smile: there is the smile of welcome, (someone meeting their beloved), and there is the smile of accomplishment, (the scholar who solves the problem). And then there is Kashyapa’s smile, the smile that shines through.

The smile is directly related to our practice. It is coming home to that completeness that you ultimately are; you basically are just One, just unity. There is an opening up, a letting go. When Kashyakpa smiled, he wasn’t smiling because he understood Buddha, nor was he smiling to encourage Buddha.

Kashyapa smiled. Then Buddha said, “I have the all-pervading true dharma eye, the marvellous mind of nirvana, the exquisite teaching of formless form. The subtle dharma gate does not rely on words and is transmitted outside the scriptures. I now hand it on to Mahakashyapa.”


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All is open and unobstructed

Teisho 990 (2005) and Teisho 1302 (2013)

You are not what you think you are. There is nothing wrong with you, there is nothing that needs to be eliminated or corrected, there is not even something that needs to be changed. It is as though you are seeing yourself in a distorting mirror. It is the mirror that is the problem, not what is being seen.

There is something that you continuously overlook. You come into a room and you feel the room is there waiting to be seen. It is the room which is primary. The person seeing it is the receptor; the room is the active element. It seems as though there are completely different substances involved: the world one substance and the person another. As a consequence, there is a chasm between me and the world.

This is a highly constructed, intellectual view of the situation. It is a way of understanding, but we should not regard this way of understanding as the way it has to be. Our way of thinking, our logic, insists on either-or: it is either the world or it is me. That the world and me are not two is not allowed by our logic.

Nisargadatta uses the analogy of light: “Just as the colors in this carpet are brought out by light, but light is not the color; so is the world caused by you, but you are not the world.” You cannot separate the light from the color, but we do not see the light, we see the color. When we look around the room, we see tables, chairs, carpets, but we do not see the light. In the same way, when we enter a room we enter as the room; and the awareness as is constant in the same way as light is constant. We can move from room to room and the colors, shapes and forms that we see vary, but the light is the same light.

Hakuin says, “coming and going we never leave home.” It is the constancy of awareness as, or of knowing, that is being referred to. It is not that a source of light travels around the world and I am that point of light. We have to let go of me and mine to enter the constancy of knowing. As long as there is the distinction of separation, we always see in a partial way. As long as we see from the vantage point of a separate entity that is claiming the experience as ‘mine’, we assign a scale of importance. When we are told not to judge good and bad, we are being asked to let go of this partial view of the world.

Though you say ‘it is’ there is nothing that it is. Though you say ‘it is not’ there is nothing that is not can negate. When is and is not are gone beyond, gain and loss are no more. All is open and unobstructed.

Though you say ‘I am’, there is nothing that I am can affirm. What does it mean ‘to be’? This is the essence of our practice. The only answer to this question is to be. There is no way to describe what that means. There is no way, no practice, no technique that will help you to be. This is why it is said that whatever you do is no good.

When people hear it said that all is empty, they think it is a negation. They think it is negating reality – that what one sees does not exist. But it is not a negation because there is nothing to negate.

All the time you affirm that I am something and that the world is something. And you try to practice over and above that. When you ask, ‘what am I?’ you look for what something am I?

All is open and unobstructed – that is how it is right now. It is never otherwise. From the beginning all beings are Buddha. There is no is and no is not. There is no coming and no going. There is no gain and no loss. All of this comes out of the interplay of ideas and thoughts that you generate. All beings are Buddha, this is why there is no coming or going, no gain and no loss.




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Be open to what is.

Teisho 1099 (2007)

When one comes home to oneself there is at the same time a profound awareness. It is not an awareness of being, it is awareness as being.  Awareness and being are not the same, but they are not two. It is when we separate them, become aware of the world, of things, that the problems start.  Our true nature is One, whole, complete.  There is that undivided, unseparated, undifferentiated condition which is pure love, pure harmony, pure peace.  We yearn for this, but the problem is that we invest this yearning in situations, in experience.  We want to experience happiness, harmony, love, peace.

Nisargadatta said:  ‘Acceptance of pain, non-resistance, courage and endurance opens deep and perennial sources of happiness.  Pleasure is readily accepted, while all the powers of the self reject pain.  The acceptance of pain is the denial of the self that stands in the way of true happiness. If one gives oneself entirely to physical pain, a level of concentration can be developed which is able to perform miracles.’  When we sit in zazen, inevitably our legs are going to ache. The injunction is not to move under any circumstances. Some Zen Centres do not have this injunction;  people can move whenever they like, in fact, they can join or leave a period of zazen as they wish. It is felt this gives control of what is going on into a person’s own hands. But what they are giving the control to is the person’s ego, and it is that very need for comfort, security and certainty, that needs to be transcended.  The rule of not moving during zazen makes it possible to transcend this habit pattern by staying with the pain.  In other words, to transcend this self-centered centre.

In life pain comes to us: the joints wear out, or one slips on the ice or gets an infection.  Our choice is not whether or not we are going to suffer, have pain or not; our choice is whether we are going to face it intentionally or whether we are going to be a victim of it.  When we sit and stay with the pain during a round of zazen, it enables us to have the same kind of open attitude when pain comes to us in life circumstances. It is not that we do not feel the pain, but that in not resisting it we do not feel the additional pain of  ‘I hurt,’  ‘why me?’ ‘poor me.’  There is nothing you can do about the pain that life brings, but there is something you can do about the ‘I hurt’ pain.  See into this I.   This unique point around which your world revolves. We set up buffers to protect ourselves and the principal buffer is this I.  When it is well established, secure and comfortable, then we feel life is going along well.  But when something knocks it off-kilter, it can no longer perform its buffering activity. Instead, it simply adds to the pain.  And it can be knocked off-kilter, simply by someone bumping into you and failing to apologize.

You are!  This is the most wonderful of truths.  And yet one is trying to be something special, something unique.  One is whole, one is complete, but we try to grasp this in a form: a special doctor, a special accountant, a special teacher, a special woman, a special man….it’s endless and useless because the wholeness that we are cannot be put into a form. Trying to put it into a form is the cause of our suffering.  One just needs to be open to what is.  I am.

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The illusory nature of the limited.

teisho 589 (1998)

This teisho was given on the first day of a sesshin, but if one is seriously working it applies to every day. When you come to a sesshin you must dedicate yourself entirely to the practice. You must be constantly present. Moment by moment one must keep coming back to the practice.

Nisargadatta is asked: “what is this sense of a separate existence?” Unless you have felt for yourself this separateness of your existence, you cannot really ask the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is Mu?’  By this we do not mean just the loneliness of one’s life, but rather to feel oneself as something which is itself and apart.   Unless one has acknowledged the truth that life is suffering, one will not be motivated to practice in an honest way.  If we feel that our suffering is personal, happening just to oneself, and ask why it should happen to me, we can never cut through to the root.  The great perseverance that Hakuin says is necessary for practice, comes from our having seen the terror of the situation, that life is indeed suffering.  We live our lives as though we are separated, isolated, apart, and this is what leads to the vow to see into the truth;  to know for oneself, finally and beyond all doubt, who or what one is.

We have a dualistic understanding, and it is out of this that suffering comes. The only way out is through.  By going through you can see who and what you are.   Seeking a way out is simply an extension of the dualism, and increases the sense of separateness.

Nisargadatta says: “The sense of separation  is a reflection in a separate body of the one reality. In this reflection the unlimited and limited are confused and taken to be the same.” To undo this confusion is the purpose of practice. There is the image of a number of puddles, and each one is reflecting the moon.  Each one reflects the moon in its entirety.  If there are ten puddles, it is not that each puddle reflects a tenth of the moon.  Come home to the truth that there is nothing outside you. You are the moon in its entirety, you can never be separate. But if you try to grasp this totality that you are, if you try to get hold of the moon, you will be faced with constant frustration, inadequacy and insecurity.  When Nisargadatta says that the limited and unlimited are confused, he means that we are trying to grasp or understand the unlimited within a limited experience.  This is what we call ego.  This is the fundamental ignorance.  To undo this confusion is the purpose of practice.

It is seeing the illusory nature of the limited.  There are no limitations, because there is nothing that can limit you because there is nothing outside of you; there is nothing prior to you.  You have not come from somewhere nor are you going somewhere.

The questioner asked: “Does death not undo this confusion?” Nisargadatta replied: “In death only the body dies. Life does not, awareness does not, reality does not. Life is never so alive as after death.” If we use again the illustration of the puddles, the puddles dry up, but the moon is unaffected.

What is there after death?  Life and death are not a beginning and end, but the nature of impermanence.  As long as I believe there is something outside me, then I can believe that I come from somewhere.  When one asks “who am I?” or “what is Mu?” one is investigating this question: what is there outside me?  How can I find that which lies outside of me?

Death is the ultimate limit of me.  So what is death? When you ask ‘who am I? or ‘What is Mu?’ you are also asking ‘what is death?’   You must not try to find some kind of solace or reassurance in your practice.  Don’t use your practice as a barrier against death. If you do you create death, death will be something that is real.  With death the brain is no more and all the activities that arise as a consequence of the brain can no longer be. The chief of these is thought.  Thought and memory are not knowing, they are modifications of knowing, in the same way that seeing and hearing are modifications.

Nisargadatta says, “Only the unborn is deathless.” Find what it is that never sleeps and never wakes – its pale reflection is our sense of I. ”  The sense of I is the limited and unlimited, the weed and the flower.

The questioner asks, ‘how do I find this that never sleeps?’ And Nisargadatta responds: “How do you go about finding anything? It is by keeping your mind and heart on it.”  From the beginning to the end of sesshin, keep  your heart and mind on it.  Ache for it, groan for it, cry for it – but stay with it.  “There must be interest and steady remembrance.To remember what needs to be remembered is the secret of success. You come to it through earnestness.”  Earnestness is the willingness to pay the price for sincerity.  One looks for how one can pay, not how one can reap the harvest. Start from wherever you are, whatever it is; get to know that. “Earnestness will give you the qualifications and the opportunity.  What is important is to be free from contradictions. The goal and the way must not be on different levels.”  If you want to be perfect you have to start with your imperfection. If you work hard and honestly you will find that the imperfection is the perfection you have been seeking; that the goal and the way are not only on the same level, they are the same substance.

When you see into your true nature you realise that every step of the way was necessary, that nothing was ever out of place. That nothing indeed can ever be out of place. “Tenacity of purpose and  honesty in pursuit will bring you to your goal.”

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With awakening one acquires nothing

teisho 1293 (2012)

The Diamond sutra is one of the sutras of the Prajna Paramita tradition.  The Prajna Paramita wipes it all away, it describes your face before your parents were born.  The Pajna Paramita hridaya is also a perfect description of death.  But not the death of the physical body. It is the death that on the one hand we seek so ardently with our practice, and at the same time resist with all of our power, even while we practice.  It is this total contradiction that is the basis of the ongoing struggle of zazen.

We must get into perspective what we are doing.  We need to come to terms with its completely radical nature.  It is the radicalness of Buddhism that we constantly miss.  We feel we practice Zen in order to make our life more comfortable, we think that in some way we are going to find peace, that we are going to understand more, that we are going to get something out of it.  But Buddhism sweeps away the very idea of a self that can be at peace.

The Diamond sutra is a gem of wisdom and I urge you to read it, ponder it and come to terms with it.  It begins with a description of the daily activity of Buddha. “One day at breakfast time the world honored one put on his robe, and carrying his bowl made his way into the city to beg for his food.  He begged from door to door, according to the rule. This done, he returned to his retreat and ate his meal. When he had finished he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat and sat down.”  This is the activity of a fully awakened person. What is important is the ordinariness of what is being described, just an old man going about his daily routine.  To appreciate what this means, that everyday mind is the way, we have to allow the sense of self to wither away.

When we sit down to do zazen we are full of our desires and our wants and the expectation that these will be satisfied. We are looking for some supreme culmination. But when you are practicing you are not going towards any kind of acquisition. This is why you are asked not to have goals or any intention. It is the eroding of our expectations which is the essence of the practice. It is seeing into the desire, the sense that I am worthy of something tremendous. It is not something that is real that dies, it is something illusory.

How are you going to recognize an awakened person?  Originally there were thirty-two characteristics by which to recognize an awakened person, but these characteristics are simply ideas we have, the expectations we have. Wherever there are material characteristics there is delusion.  If you recognize that all characteristics are no characteristics, then you perceive the Tathagata.

It is a very subtle truth that is being offered.  It isn’t the denial or the rejection of expectations,  it is simply seeing their totally illusory characteristics. We are not trying to solve the problem of our existence; we are going in the direction of seeing there is no problem, there is no existence.

How will I recognize when I come to awakening?  In the Diamond sutra the Buddha asks Subhuti, ‘has the Tathagata a teaching to give?’   And Subhuti says, ‘ the Tathagata has nothing to teach.’    Yet the whole sutra is a teaching:  it is cutting away all ideas of a teaching, including the idea of no teaching. Buddha says, ‘your view of the world is a view of the world.’  If you can see this, the whole burden of your life will be released.  Included in your view of the world is all the suffering, all the disappointments,  frustrations, anxieties.  You think they are real, that they are substantial, but it is your view of your anxiety, your frustration which is at issue. It is you that holds it all suspended in being.

When you are really practicing, one begins to get glimpses of the insubstantiality of our lives, of the ephemeral nature of our lives.  But it comes in an inverted way and we feel terrible anxiety. As we get older these crises come on us more readily, and if we can only learn to recognize a crises as a possibility, that in itself would make all the hours sitting on the tan worthwhile.

As long as we live in experience, we will always be restless.  That is why it is so important to get a glimpse of the truth, that from the beginning not a thing is. It is perceiving that beyond it all what is is, and that it is not illusory.

With words we are able to fix and stabilize things and this is why the idea of impermanence is unreal to us.  We cannot make sense of ‘from the beginning not a thing is.’

‘Through the consummation of incomparable awakening one acquires not a thing, that is why it is called consummation of incomparable awakening.’  To put that more simply, with a deep awakening one acquires nothing.  One simply comes to. In coming and going one never leaves home:  there is no where to go to or come from.  If you are the totality, what are you going to move in relation to?

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Everyday mind is the way

teisho 1118 (2008)

One of the things that many people feel is that there is a higher self, a real self, a cosmic self, and that we have to make contact with that higher self.  And so the tendency is to look outside, to feel the true self is something other, something different.  But everyday mind is the way.

Because we believe ‘I am something’ we are bound.  Freedom arises with ‘I am’.  Walking, talking, sleeping, eating – it is all everyday mind.  It is all the miracle of everyday mind.  And yet we look for some other self to appear, a higher self. The self is one, it is always now; you are that self. You have ideas of what you have been or will be. The ideas of what you have been are what we call memory, the ideas of what you will be are what we call goals. When we have memories, we say they are in the past; when we have goals, they are in the future.  But they are both ideas, and ideas are now.

We live in a world of ideas. We should make a distinction between ideas and thoughts or concepts.  An idea is both a view and a viewpoint.  We structure the world with ideas. And because everything is an idea as far as we are concerned, we feel ‘I am an idea’ amongst all the other ideas.  When we try to see into our true nature, we try to get the real idea, the right idea.  But the self is not an idea.

We can sum up the drama of existence in the following way: hold out your hands with the left palm up, and the right hand above it, palm down.  Then push the left hand down with the right hand and push the right hand up with the left hand. Do this for a little while and you will wear yourself out.  This is what we call life. Then just drop your hands down, stop the pushing up and down. Where there has been conflict, effort, struggle, strife, longing for change, there is instead the freedom of a Spring morning. Nothing missing, nothing absent, nothing needs to be done.

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