“I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14.)

I am, the Subject that knows all things, and is known by none. Just as I say the world is, so I say ‘I am’, and I have no doubt that I am. No one, who can forego prejudice and preconception, can have doubts that he, or she, is real and not simply some idea such as “I am the movement of molecules.” As Subject, knowing and ‘I am’ imply each other.

If I were to ask someone, “Are you?” The reply would most likely be, “Yes, I am the body”, or, “I am a person”, or, “I am a woman”, or, “I am a man”. The neurologist would say, “I am the brain.” A priest might well say, “I am the soul.” Yet another person might say, “I do not know what I am, but I am surely something.” All of these are talking about their idea of what they are, and furthermore, about their idea that they are something.

‘That I am and ‘what I am are quite different.

Can I prove to another that I am? No, I cannot possibly prove this. Can I describe to another what I mean when I say, ‘I am’? No, I cannot even do that. If I am not demonstrable, explicable or comunicable, what is the point of my saying that I am?

What is demonstrable, explicable and communicable belongs to the realm of what I am. That I am does not belong to that realm. It cannot be judged by the criteria derived from another, different, realm. Even so, using the word ‘objective’ to mean unbiased by my own desires, wishes, and hopes, the statement ‘I am’ is quite objective, and so should be acceptable as a fact. Furthermore, what is known by a scientist obviously depends on ‘I am’ of the scientist, that is the scientist as Subject.

Insofar as I am indescribable, ungraspable, we cannot discover that I am with the discriminating mind, the mind that we use to make judgments, decisions, assessments; the mind we use to relate to the world in a conceptual way. Because we are unable to use this mind, we come to the conclusion that there is no such state beyond existence, beyond experience, beyond what can be grasped. That I am becomes just a ghost in the machine. The problem is that whenever you try to give a description , it seems as though, because you are using the language of experience, you are talking about an experience.

“I am,” “Who am I?,” “The sound of one hand clapping,” all of these are windows on to ‘I am,” that which always is. I am not prior to the discriminating mind in terms of time; it is not ‘that I am,’  and then I am ceases and the discriminating mind takes over. It is more like when one sees a mountain rising out of the earth, one doesn’t take the earth into account; all that one sees is the mountain. In the magnificent carvings by Rodin, the material that he had used from which to carve the figures is left clearly stated. The figures are sometimes seen emerging out of the stone. In this way there was no doubt that the figure was made of stone.

I am immutable; I am pure awareness, I am all and yet nothing particular. Those who are struggling with the question, “What am I?” could very likely say, “I hear what you say, but what you are saying doesn’t mean anything to me.” And then, if they are truly sincere, they will go on and say, “How can I make it mean something to me?” Regrettably, most often they simply say, “What you are saying does not make any sense to me,” and walk away as though they have said the last word about what does and doesn’t make sense.

But the truly serious person, the person with any degree of humility, says, “What you are saying doesn’t make sense; how can I please make it make sense?”

I am the means, the bridge. The beauty is that I am the means and I am the end. I am also is the way. Remember, Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” This word Way means “the path”; I am the path. But there is also the way that you walk the way. How do you walk the way? In what way do you walk the way? I am the way of the way. And then there is: “What is at the end of the way?” In Chinese the way is the “Tao.” And the Tao, the way, is the end of the way, it is the ultimate of the way; it is, if you like, the goal of the way. I am is both the way and the end of the way. And I am the way of walking the way.

While working on I am, never forget I am. Forget you own name, forget your own face, but never forget I am. This doesn’t mean that you should have I am in the forefront of your consciousness when you are at work. What you should realize when you are at work is your work is I am! When you have time outside sesshin, apart from work on the mat, try to explore what that means. ‘Your work is I am, and I am is the one who does the work.” If you are making a separation, if I am is this but not that, then it is simply another part of experience. But I am the carving and the stone out of which the carving is made. I am the experience and that out of which experience arises.

Think of I am! Use your ordinary intellectual mind to think about it until your intellectual mind breaks under the strain. I don’t mean that it literally breaks down, but it just says, “this is enough, I can’t do it. There’s nothing I can think of in any way that is going to help this.” Prove it for yourself! It is said countless times that this is the case, but how many people have really sat down and said, “To hell with this, I’m going to work this one out for myself. I’ll think it through”, and really given their mind to saying, “Okay, I am is not something; now what does that mean, I am is not something? I am is emptiness, what does that mean? I am is everything, what does that mean? I am is immutable, what does that mean? He asks me, ‘What colour am I ? what does he mean?” Think about it! And, of course, one doesn’t know where or how to start thinking about it! The mind is numb in connection with this question; “What “I am?” But then have faith. Countless people have broken through this koan. And in breaking through this koan they have demonstrated that this immutability, this peace that surpasses understanding, this love that springs out naturally and constantly, all are revealed by penetrating I am. I am not some new experiment; I am not some “New Age” gimmick.

You will get to the point where you say, “I don’t know what to do,” and it is only then that the practice really begins. Up until then you have always had the belief that you knew what to do with this koan. This means that you were still juggling it using the discriminating mind, you felt that you were going to pin it down

Of course you are going to be disappointed. Every time you recognizes the failure of the discriminating mind to be able to handle the koan, you are disappointed. This discriminating mind is a most marvellous toy. And there is no reason why we should throw it away, but we must get it into its proper place. It should be the servant, but, unfortunately, it has become the master.

Nevertheless we must put up with all disappointments and continue on, until suddenly the mind turns around. In the Lankavatara Sutra, this is called Paravritti. The sutra talks about the turnabout that we call kensho. The turnabout in the manas, in the heart, the viewpoint, the very depths of the mind itself, and the fundamental contradiction is loosened. Suddenly the mind turns around, away from the words “I am” towards the reality beyond the words.

Many people, after they have read half a page of Zen, start talking about how wicked words are. Any kind of thought you express, they rush up to you and say, “But you shouldn’t be thinking; if you are practicing Zen, how can you possibly think, how can you possibly use words, how can you possibly define terms?” The English philosopher Locke said, “Words are money for fools, but counters for the wise.” It is said that Buddha used words as words. That is, he used words as counters. The words God, Christ, Buddha, me, I and you; these are all words! But, at the same time, words are containers. They contain. What is important is what they contain. A Master said, “When you know what a word contains, then you can throw the word away.”

Now I am contains everything. How is it possible that I am can contain everything? What does that mean: “I am contains everything”? Nothing is outside I am. I am the wall, the house, the car and the road. There is just I am. Only I am. Now what does that mean? Be puzzled, be concerned. At one level, I am are just a nonsense syllables: but there is no reason why I am should not be nonsense syllables as well as containing everything. Don’t get trapped into some mystical view of I am. It isn’t mystical at all, it is right before your face; it is your face–– your face before your parents were born. Repeated attempts to go beyond the word is what is called meditation; this is Zazen.

I am Buddha-nature, one’s true-self, one’s own-self. What does Buddha-nature mean? What does true-self, own-self mean? Hakuin says, “Our true-self is no-self.” When we are asking “Who?” what does it mean, “our true-self is no-self”? The I is No-I. Muga in Japanese. Mu we are familiar with, and ga means I: No-I. When you are asking “Who am I?” who is this no-I? “No one walks along this path this autumn evening.” Who is this no-one? But be very careful, do to fall into the trap! It is not simply that if you say it enough times it will be enough. It needs that spark of intelligence.

Meister Eckhart quoted an ancient philosopher who said, “I am aware of something that sparkles in my intelligence; I clearly perceive it is somewhat but what I cannot grasp. Yet methinks if I could only seize it I should know all truth.” St Augustine said something very similar, “ I am conscious of something within me that plays before my soul and is as a light dancing in front of it. Were this brought to steadiness and perfection in me it would surely be eternal life.” You bring it to steadiness and perfection with the very intelligence that has created it. And when we talk about intelligence, it is that sparkle of the mind.

Of course, I am using a metaphor when I talk about “the sparkle of the mind”. When one uses the word ‘spark’, some people tend to think in terms of the sparklers that you get on fireworks day. There is a sparkle; there is an intensity, a ripple, a clarity. It is that leaven of the mind, it is that mind which is aroused without resting on anything. If you hear a really funny story it awakens a light right in the heart of things, an opening in the very heart of things. It is the same when you ‘see into.’ If you have some particular puzzle or problem, you can suddenly see into the solution, “Oh, of course!” This is what we are talking about, this intelligence. And that intelligence needs to be used.

Some people say it is like boring with an acetylene torch, those torches that can cut though metal. You have this brilliant flame, this acetylene torch burning in hara. This invites images; see it just as a pointer. Harada roshi used to say, “There is a blind Buddha in the hara, make him see!” If you are working on I am, the way to do so is to make the blind Buddha see. If you are working on Mu!, make the blind Buddha see. This is meditation.

Hearing something like this some people say, “I thought you said that you are not supposed to do anything.” There was a man at the last Workshop who just wouldn’t stop arguing, because in the French edition of The Butterfly’s Dream the last chapter starts by saying that Zen is realizing that there is nothing that needs to be done. He thought this meant doing nothing, that one just has to “sit and hope for the best.” “Not-doing” is nothing like that. Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, name it what you will, there is the need for penetration! And this penetration is exhausting and exacting. But it is not “doing something,” strangely enough. To arouse the mind without resting it on anything – you can squeeze all the muscles of your body, and you can squeeze all the muscles of your mind, but the very mind that does this is the mind you have to open. How can you take a step to the place you already are? And yet if you don’t take that step, you will never be at home where you already are.

Here is the true test of your practice. Of course, often we just have to use muscles, we just push, we do anything, we do everything. We squeeze our hands, we clench our teeth, furrow the eyebrows, and we do all of these things. They have to be done. They have to be passed through.

Sometimes the mind is so hippity-hoppity one looks for a pain just to sit with, to stop this mind clippity-clopping along. This too has to be done. If you are desperate enough, you will do anything. But then, as you penetrate further, there is just a still, still burning: the still point of the turning world, as T.S.Eliot would say. An unmoving motion. A dynamism.

In the beginning was the word, and everything has flowed from the word. And to get back to the beginning – and this doesn’t mean to say the beginning in time, but the beginning as the source of it all – we must go beyond the word. It is as simple as that. Just go beyond the word I am. Just go beyond the word ‘I’. But we have backed up ‘I’ with so much baggage. And I am is so ungraspable, so impenetrable, that we don’t even know how to start, let alone get before ‘I’. And yet this must be done. Get home, get there, where it all started from, and where it all is at the moment anyway.

When I talk like this some people throw up their hands and say, “Well, I don’t know what he is talking about. This is all too much for me. Zen is very complex.” And I always say, “It is not Zen that is complex, it is you who are complex.” It is extremely simple. Just be there before complexity arises, before any kind of this and that, yes and no, up and down, me and you arises.

There is only one way to come to awakening and that is to stop living in delusions. This does not mean you have to give up your present way of life: your marriage, your job or what you are doing and go away to a monastery. This, indeed, is the worst thing you can do. You take all your troubles with you, and you have acquired a whole new set that you have to work with when you get there. No, where you are is good enough, but how can you stop living in delusions? Of course there is a lot in our life that we can simplify, there is a lot that we do that is quite unnecessary. Certainly, looking at television comes high among them. If you waste your time looking at television, then how are you ever going to get the energy or the effort to get beyond this barrier? It is not a question of giving up all the things that one is satisfied with about oneself and one’s life, all one’s sources of comfort, but rather seeing what use you are making of them. Seeing how you are using all of this in order to insure that you do not wake up. Paradoxical, but true.

People say, “I want to come to awakening.” But awakening has nothing for the personality at all. There is no use to awakening, it is useless. And all that the personality knows as useful is that which in some way will make it more comfortable, enhance its power, or enhance its satisfaction. This is what is useful to the personality. Of course the unknown has no use for the personality. I am not putting practice down when I say that it has no use, I am elevating it beyond any possibility of judging it in that way, beyond any possibility of putting a price on it. “The pearl of great price”, this is what I are talking about. We sometimes ask ourselves, particularly when we begin, “What is the use of this sitting?” No use at all. Be quite clear to yourself about it. It is useless. You have solved that problem, you have answered that question. Now let us get on with the practice.

There are two aspects to practice. One is coming to I am, to awakening, coming home, coming to see the source out of which it all arises; seeing into while being that which is beyond form, beyond identity, beyond any kind of structure. But the other aspect of our practice is to see the machine that we are, the mechanics of the machine that we are. Gurdjieff always used to say that the human being is a machine.

A Behaviourist wrote a long book on Gurdjieff because he thought Gurdjieff meant what the Behaviourist means by saying that a human being is a machine. But Gurdjieff was talking of the human being as a perpetual motion machine or wheel of samsara that turns unendingly.

We must see into our mechanicalness, and by that I do not mean the simple absent minded behaviour that we do, but rather the total “interactingness” of what we do. We do what we do because we are what we are.

The unknowable is what we call reality. Reality cannot be known, we cannot know reality. As long as we feel that we can know reality then we are living on the brink of the chute that sends us into this world in which we are tied up in our own consciousness. A dreadful sense of claustrophobia can afflict us, particularly when we begin to awaken a little in the depths. We have a sense of being bound in our own mind, tied up in our own mind. This claustrophobia sometimes creates a deep anguish, a panic, or an acute anxiety in us. It can create a kind of nausea and tension. We have at the same time a feeling of having nothing to hold on to. But we must go on then. This is good news: in practice terror is good news.

People say that practice is boring. Not interesting. When you get bored, particularly when you are sitting with dryness, the tense arid dryness that comes, make up your mind that you are really going to investigate it. Not intellectually or conceptually so that you can describe it to somebody or analyze it or find out its source in past situations or anything like that. But you are really going to know what it feels like to be bored. You are really going to take this on and be as bored as you can. Find a way so that you can increase the sense of being bored so that you really, really know what being bored is. Get beyond this lust for interest, for glitter.

Only when you are satiated by all the interesting things can you really practice. This doesn’t mean one has to start living it up and going through all the sins of the world. What are you looking for? What do you want? First of all, be honest. Say what you want. To say that you want awakening is just flapping your gums. What do you want? And just keep pressing home with that question; what do I want? Any time something is offered up, look at it and say, “What does this mean? What will this give? What will this do?” Look at it, get it, see it, and then one realizes, “No, that is not really what I want.”

Hubert Benoit, the French writer, said, “What we really want is light and movement. When we can’t have light and movement, we will settle for light and stillness. And if we can’t have light and stillness, then we will have darkness and movement. But what we won’t have is darkness and stillness.” And it is this revulsion, this backing away from darkness and stillness, this wanting to stir the mind again, that keeps us in an agitated state. During daily living it is extremely difficult to resist this, but during sesshin there is nothing to disturb you. The point of a sesshin (the fact that we dim the lights, that we try to keep everything as quiet as possible, that we ask people to blow their noses outside the Zendo so there is not this shattering noise that goes through if a person does this sort of thing,) is to give you the opportunity to throw yourself totally into this search, beyond the glitter and titillations of existence, into this which is the source of it all, but which, when you are seeing it from the outside, is simply darkness and stillness.

Reality has no content or form. This is why it can’t be known. One looks around and says, “But the room is real. Surely the content of reality is the room”. No. The content of the room is what you perceive. And what you perceive with is reality. Because of you, the room is real; it is not because the room is real that you see it.

For the personality, practice is like going towards death. But “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Each one of us has our own work to do. Don’t ever compare yourself with another person. You are incomparable. Like someone said, “Everything is unique, there is no difference”. Your work is your work. By this, we don’t mean ‘you’ the personality. That which supports and underlies the personality, is working out its destiny. All that the personality can do is not get in the way. By giving ourselves over to the practice, by being totally one with “I am!” or being totally one with “What am I?,” we ensure that we don’t get in the way. If our practice is following the breath, then all is just following the breath. Remember, when you are practicing, that Buddha said, “You must practice as though your hair is on fire.” But you must also practice in such a way that it is like going into a lake without making a ripple; like going into a forest without disturbing a blade of grass.



Dogen taught Fukan Zazengi, “To practice the Way single-heartedly is, in itself, awakening.

There is no gap between practice and awakening or zazen and daily life. I do not struggle and sweat to come to awakening. I struggle to let go of the illusion that I am not awakened, the illusion that, to be fulfilled, I need something in experience. But I do not even know of this illusion until I practice.


 As most of you know, I am no longer able to participate in as many of the Center’s activities as I would like. To make up for this I have been publishing the blog, and also have written two books: Nectar from Heaven and What more do you want?.    A third, a booklet of 50 pages, has just been published.  It is on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan.  This Dogen masterpiece is the first chapter of his Shobogenzo, and has been the subject of discussion and commentary through the years.    I have given a new version of this koan, which incidentally was originally written as a letter addressed to a layman.  It is published as a booklet because it is an ideal text for meditation.  It is not a book to sit down and read, but one to return to again and again, and each time derive more understanding and inspiration.

Book cover

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8 Responses to “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14.)

  1. Mohammed says:

    Thanks so much for these blogs that you send time to time, it is so inspiring, and more real, that explain the difficulty that you will live with, even if you practice for many years, the practice will only help us to be aware what is happening in us, and that is so liberating.

    What I love about your blogs and books, its gives us the information, not the illusion, I was reading many books from different authors, every one promise a salvation, but with you, I am aware there is no salvation, it’s just to be aware what is happening in us, there is no end of suffering, just be there and see what it’s as it’s.

    Thanks a lot,

  2. Jacqueline V. says:

    You have often spoken to us about boredom, the desert, the aridity of practice. And yet over time in our practice we learn that, as one of the hardest things, boredom is also a great opportunity. In a graduation address, David Foster Wallace said “It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

  3. Ilbero Ferrato (LB) says:

    The very end of the blog is what resonated in me…..going into the lake and not making a ripple or going into the forest and not disturbing a blade of grass. Is it that if one is the “me” then it is inevitable that the ripple happens or the blade of grass is disturbed? Is it that if one is still the “me” but enters the lake as a ripple or the forest as a blade of grass then the ripple does not disturb the lake because it is the lake and the blade of grass is not disturbed because it is another blade of grass entering the forest?
    I have just recently become a member of the centre (for the second time, though the first time was of very short duration). I have attended 3 workshops over the last 30 years. The first in 1984,I think. The second a few years back and the third this October 2014. Your presentations did not deviate in any way across the span of these 30 years…that was reassuring to see that what IS, still IS. Yet, strangely, in this span of time what struck me was how you entered the zendo on each of the occasions. In 1984, it was a physical fit and quietly vibrant man in his mid 50’s who welcomed us. A few years ago, you walked in with the aid of a cane, but the stillness was ever evident. This October. 2014, you gingerly made your way in with the use of a walker……but the center of stillness itself had not waned. I felt reassured that though the body was in decline, whatever it is that “enlivens” it is as strong as ever. I am hoping that this third time around, I will be able to avail myself of your guidance in my practice. And thank you for your books which over the years have been their own form of guidance.

    Ilbero Ferrato. (LB)

    • Albert Low says:

      “Going into the lake….” means that one does not disturb by trying to make something happen. At it best, practice that does not disturb is shikantaza. When one follows the breath, one does just that: follow the breath. Just as it is very difficult to go into the lake without making a ripple, so it is very difficult to just follow the breath

  4. Macleod says:

    When you say that something is working its destiny out underneath the qualms of our personality what do you mean? The Catholic in me thinks there is some meaning in suffering and existence. And balks a bit when certain Buddhists say that there is absoloutely nothing at all being worked out in conditioned/illusory reality. Please elaborate.

    • Albert Low says:

      Thank you for your question.

      Each of us is drawn by unity. If one wishes to call that unity, God, or Buddha, or Krsihna so be it. Zen prefers what might be called the ‘apophatic way’ negating any attempt to name what is basic and essential. It is this attraction, even drive, to unity that is ‘working out its destiny. Unfortunately it is constantly thwarted by our turning this drive into desires.

      To say that suffering and existence have a meaning is to guild the lilly. Existence does not have a meaning, although it is, or rather has the potential to be, intensely meaningful.

      You say that you balk a bit when certain Buddhists say that there is absolutely nothing at all being worked out in conditioned/illusory reality. I am with you 100% This kind of comment can only come from a very shallow mind with a very shallow appreciation of life.

  5. Albert Low says:

    If you cannot b bored you cannot create. To avoid boredom is to float on the surface of life and never penetrate to its depths

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