True self is no-self. Does this mean that we are nothing, a kind of ghost in the machine? We are told, “You are not something”. Even so, the ghost of something stalks across the landscape of the mind: it seems that there is something that is “not something.” No-self is like a spirit hidden in the darkness. Perhaps this is how people developed the idea of a soul, or of a spirit. They could see clearly enough that a person is not just the body. But they still had ‘something’ in mind: a sense of something in its absence. But true self is no-self: there is not even an absence.
We live in a world constructed with words and thoughts. Words and thoughts are like a skeleton fleshed out with sensations, emotions and feelings. Because we are so dependant on words and conditioned by thoughts, we are no longer aware of them. Instead our awareness has been trained completely into clustering or freezing around concepts that we believe make up reality
I wonder how a cat sees the world? We have the tendency to imagine the world through the cat’s eyes much as we see the world through our own, but from a lower perspective, from a lower viewpoint, perhaps hazy and dark. But is this how a cat sees? Trying to see the world as a cat sees it is an invitation to step outside the very basic categories, concepts and words by which we structure our perceptions. This is simply an exercise and not by any means a practice. It is a way of trying to stretch the mind, to loosen it up, to be less centred on our habitual way of perceiving.
To return to “true self is no self,” Nisargadatta once said, “I am the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the fullness of happiness.” The beingness of being, what is that? He could have also said, “I am the sound of sound or the color of color. “Mu” is the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing. When you see the world, you do not see the seeing. The seeing of the seeing is the knowingness of the knowing. Gurdjieff said, “You forget yourself.” What is the self that we forget? We do not forget the sense of self; we are always reminding ourselves of it. We are always reaching into the sense of self, into the sensation of being. I deliberately use the expression ‘the sense of self,’ because that is all that it is: a sensation focused around a center. But, like everything else, we take it for granted, we never ask, “From where does the sense of self come?” What is the sense of self? Gurdjieff is not referring to the sense of self when he says that we forget our self. We forget that we are the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing; we forget that we are the reality of it all.
Our sense of self is often accompanied by a certain feeling, a feeling that is habitual, repeated over and over and over again: it might be the feeling of hopelessness, or the feeling of anger, or of anxiety. We have a constant feeling: a kind of spasm within the feelings; it is that spasm that gives us the assurance that we are.
“Who walks?” It is walking that walks, I am the anxiety of anxiety, the laughter of laughter; apart from this there is nothing that I can call ”I”. When I say there is just walking, it seems as though I am reducing a person, you, to a machine. This is what the neuroscientist would like to say: there is just movement of molecules, of impulses along nerves, a concatenation of intricate wiring that is fired, and the action is carried out. He too would say that there is no consciousness in those movements or impulses; there is no intention involved in them. Sure enough, you could look through the most powerful microscope possible, and you would not find any consciousness there. But the neuroscientist is not saying what I am saying when I say, “walking walks.” I am saying that consciousness focused by the sense of self cannot do anything other than register what is happening. ‘No one walks along this path this autumn evening.’
A scientist decided that he would find out how much a soul weighed and so know how much substance is in the soul. So he weighed someone before and after death. I think he found a difference, but it was not the difference of the soul leaving the body. There is no difference in that way because there is no soul that leaves the body. So what is there? What does it mean, “Walking is just walking,” if it does not mean a machine, and if it does not mean that somewhere diffused in that machine, one way or another, there is a ghost that is operating it. You can only answer that by returning to your self, by remembering the self that is no-self. You must return to no-one reading this article. You cannot search in the body. Nor can you go to thoughts and concepts about ‘walking is just walking.’ You walk without any preconceived notions, without even the notion of having no preconceived notions.
What are you? What does “true self is no-self” mean? I am not asking what do the words mean; what is the meaning behind the words? Or, if your practice is Mu!, what is Mu? What is reality? What is is? These are not of course different questions, “What is Mu?” and “Who am I?” Both lead to the same destination. “What is Mu?” is less seductive than “Who am I? The question, “Who am I?” can lead us into subjective states, into sensations, emotions and feelings believing that one or other is the true self. We can lose ourselves in the feeling of subjectivity. Many of us tend to explore feelings in the mistaken belief that we are exploring ourself.
“What does it mean to be?” might be thought to be a harder question. “What does it mean to be?” is another way of asking, “Who am I?” It also is another way of asking, “What is Mu?” What does it mean to be? It is no good trying to understand this in terms of the meaning of the words ‘being’ or ‘existence.’ It is also useless to try to get some feeling of being. Being is beyond any thought, feeling or sensation of being. You must look right into the heart, or right into the light, or perhaps better yet, right into the darkness of being, or right into the darkness of yourself. But it is only obscure, it is only dark, as far as the conscious mind is concerned, because the conscious mind has lived its whole life in artificial light.
Another problem that goes along with this question, “What is Mu?” is that we are used to the idea that when we apply the mind, we apply the mind in abstractions and relationships. We deal in generalities, in universals. But to practice is to come to what is given, concretely, now. without any presumptions, or expectations. You cannot even rely on Mu to be ‘something’ that continues into the next moment. You have to investigate again, and again, and again. It is not enough simply to have come to a conclusion. You must come to a new way of being.
One might ask, “If I am beyond words, what shall I look with?” The question is a good one. In a way, the answer is “Nothing. Let it be. Don’t look.” Do you remember the koan where the non-Buddhist asked the Buddha, “Don’t give me words, don’t give me silence.” Buddha just sat. What does “just sitting” mean? Buddha is not answering the question. Buddha just sat, and in that just sitting is everything: it is silence and talking, it is sitting and standing. When you are working on “Who am I?” you must ‘just sit.’ If you do this, then the restlessness and distress, the constant movement of the mind will surge up. You will then tend to leave ‘just sitting’ and launch yourself into the torrent of mental agitation. But no. You must be anchored. This is one of the reasons why we have the zazen posture, and why the zazen posture is so important. But, the posture must be a good posture, the back straight, the centre of gravity low. This gives us at least a physical anchoring, a stability, and because of this stability this other, deeper, immutable stability that we are can ‘appear’ as the absence of everything else. Immutability, the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the immutability that you are, is the ultimate security. Immutable stability is impregnable. It is the ultimate refuge because you see there is no need for a refuge. When you are asking this question “What am I?” or “What is Mu?” you are returning to “Buddha just sat.” You are returning to the immutability that you are, the ‘unmovability’ that you are.
As long as you read in the abstract all that I am writing, it will mean nothing to you. The personality cannot feed on the abstract because what is abstracted is reality. As a personality ‘I’ have all kinds of desires, needs, lacks; all kinds of conflicts, worries, confusion. Taking what I have said as a theory will mean that it has no life and does not touch what is essential in life. This is a complaint made so often: “I came for bread and you gave me stones.” For this reason we have a very high turnover in people practicing Zen at the Montreal Zen Center. Most people come for some solace, or they are looking for some kind of medication. Their life is in turmoil, or their life is in ruins, or their life is totally and utterly unsatisfactory, and they look for a magic potion, they look for it in a new collection of concepts and words.
The mind has a kind of ‘Midas’ touch. Instead of turning everything to gold, it turns bread into stones. People come and they are given a question, “Who are you?” and they cannot relate struggling with this question “Who am I?” with the torment of, “Does she love me or doesn’t she love me?” or “Is this cancer or isn’t it cancer?” or “Will I get the sack or won’t I get the sack?” Most have a sense of the weariness and the slackness of life. And they are told to ask the question, “Who am I?” What connection does this question have with my misery? How will it deal with any of that torment of life in any way whatsoever? Of course, it does not have any connection. If you stay only with the words, with the thoughts, “What am I?” you just go from the reality of being to a dead castle of thoughts.
A man once said to me, “It is the privilege of a human being not to solve his problems but to step outside them.” It took me many years to realize how true that is. This is how it is. As long as you nag away at problems, as long as you feel they are what is of concern, then of course, they will be what is of concern. They will be of concern because by nagging at them you affirm them. You made the problems in the first place, and by wanting now to get rid of them, you are perpetuating the problems. Stepping outside can be likened to a person who is having a very difficult dream, a nightmare; the best thing you can do for that person is to wake them up.
We are not saying that awakening means that you have no problems. Somebody asked Nisargadatta, “Do you have problems?” and he said, “Yes, I have problems. As long as one has a body, one suffers.” Someone said to Buddha, “The good Gautama neither knows nor sees suffering.” And Buddha replied, “It is not that I do not know suffering, do not see it. I know it; I see it.”
But the absolute quality of the problems, their ‘do or die’ aspect, the feeling that my whole life is ruined or threatened because of this or that, all that drops away along with the spasm . I lose the sense of being identified with what comes up. I still have to solve problems that arise, but I do not have to be identified with them.
It is not so much that we step outside the problems: we realize that we are already outside them. We can then see thoughts, ideas and worries just like we would see the crowd passing by if we were standing in St. Catherine Street on a busy day. We do not get into the middle of the crowd and try to stop it; we do not hold our arms out to stop the flow. People just pass by. In just being, we do not stop the flow. The flow is just a flow.
Because we take our problems for granted, we consider that this is how it has to be. Some people do not even realize that they suffer. They are suffering terribly, but they are so convinced that this is how it has to be that they no longer see it as suffering. This was brought home to me very starkly, one day. When I was working in a company, I had to ask my boss for time off in order to go to sesshins. He asked me one day, “What exactly are you doing? Why are you doing all this?” I said, “Well, I’m like most people. My life is suffering. I suffer quite a deal, and I want to see the source of it and find what I can do about it.” He said, “You say everyone suffers? I don’t suffer.” He looked at me out of haunted eyes and said, “I don’t suffer. How can you say everyone suffers?” I asked myself at that moment, “This man does not know he suffers! How is that possible?” We take our suffering for granted. We feel this is how it has to be. There is no alternative. By practicing zazen, we do not get rid of problems. We no longer see them in an absolute way; our problems are no longer absolute, we realize that we suffer.
When people asked Buddha, “Is this the case?” he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” Or they would ask him, “Is this not the case?” and he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” Or they would ask, “Is it both the case and not the case?” and again he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” In other words, see it from that point of view, it is a viewpoint. We say that Buddhism does not aim at giving correct knowledge or a correct viewpoint. Buddha is not saying, “Look, I have the truth.” What he is saying is, “It is a viewpoint”. Moreover, Buddha is not saying, “It is only a viewpoint.”
Let me tell you a story about when I was young. I used to love going to the Tuppenny Rush. Tuppennce was two pence, two pennies, and the rush was because you had to get into the ‘cinema’ first. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get a seat. I used to go to see the Saturday films, which would be projected onto an ordinary bed sheet.
Sometimes, when the film was well underway, somebody might want something that was behind the screen, and he would go behind using a flashlight. Of course, that ruined the film. Here’s this guy galloping along on his horse trying to get this Indian, and, all of a sudden, he is obliterated by the light of a flashlight shining at the back of the screen. In other words, I would see the film without seeing it as having an absolute reality. The light defused the tension; it takes the poison out of it. I’m offering you awakening; to awaken to the viewpoint, the iewpoint that is your life. You’re not living your life; you are living your viewpoint of your life. The viewpoint is the flashlight behind the screen. You live your life, not the life.
If you feel that your life is in a mess, do not try to sort out the mess. You need to see it as a viewpoint, as a way of seeing. The way that you see your life is just one way of seeing it. You think it is the only way of seeing it. It’s not that there is a better way of seeing it, but what you think of as your life is a way of seeing it. To realize, to waken to the viewpoint, will be like a flashlight behind the screen. Your life will no longer have that stark, absolute reality that you think, indeed are quite sure that it has. You relinquish your identification with it. You say, “I am that.” You are not that. All that you can say is “I am.” In this way you let go of the sense of being inevitably involved, of having to be involved, of having to resolve the tangle of life.
Nisargadatta says, “What you believe you need is not what you need.” What you believe you have to do about your life, you do not have to do. Your life will be lived whatever you do. The die is cast now. When we were young there were forks on the road that we could take ― there were many of them when we were young ― but every fork we took reduced the number of the forks we could take until eventually the road is set out before us. Now all we have to do is walk it. But who is it that walks? This is important, not the road that you walk. A homeless man living on the streets in Austin, Texas, wrote an interesting book. He described a thoroughly interesting life, thoroughly exciting, and thoroughly worthwhile, although he didn’t work at all and had no home. Reading his account, I thought, “That sounds a fascinating life. Perhaps I could try that, perhaps I could become homeless.” What you believe you need is not what you need. We set up barriers to climb over, and, having climbed over them we build more barriers, and we get weary, and we say, life is just climbing over barriers all the time; why isn’t it more smooth going? Then we build up another barrier and start climbing over it.
Once we see––and we do not have to see very deeply––but once we see there is a way of stepping outside, of no longer being identified with our anxieties and worries, then that is that: I am not that. Once we see, “I am not that,” then we knows this truly is the way. I am…that is all. Everything is an illusion and an obstacle. By seeing you life as a viewpoint you can see that all experience is experience; it is not experience of ‘something’; it is not the experience of a reality outside the experience. Reality is given to it by your identification with it. Because you say, “I am it,” it, whatever ‘it’ is, becomes real. If I am a confused life, then that life is a very real confused life. ‘I am’ is too simple. We ask, “Is that all? Just to see that I am?” Refusing the simple, people say, “I am hungry for bread, but you give me stones.” To return to what you already are is too simple and so therefore too difficult.
I ask people, “What are you?” and so often they are unable to respond because they are trying to tell me what they are. Instead of returning to what they are–– or perhaps it is better to say, to that they are–– instead of being, they try to think of an answer, they try to give a ‘thought structure’. This is the way the mind is conditioned to work. But the only response to the question “What are you?” is simply to be. In the same way the answer to the question “Who is it that walks?” is simply to walk. There is nothing else but being; there isn’t something that is. Being is. You do not need to be something to be. That “something to be” is an unnecessary addition. It is the dream. And it is the total entanglement of your life.
Many of us believe, “If I practice, I’m going to get understanding; I’m going to get high level experience; I’m going to reach high spiritual states; I’m going to become a good person, a loving person,” and all of the other acquisitions we believe will come with awakening. We come to practice with the sense of “I want to get.” A frequent complaint that I hear in dokusan is, “I haven’t got anything at all out of this practice. I have been practicing, how long have I been practicing, and I haven’t got anything, nothing.” Practicing to acquire is like gold imagining that an addition of copper will improve it. A philosopher said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” ‘I am’ is to will one thing. Purification is seeing that you simply are. Purification is not rejection of the impure; it is seeing that you are. It is knowing that you know. Circling around the question, “What am I?” fiddling with it, discussing it, looking at it from different angles, assessing it, protesting about it, all this is simply vanity.
Someone might say, “Seeing that I am is easier said than done. Seeing that I am is like being told to just get rid of my life. Undoubtedly the entanglement of life comes from the content of the mind. But the mind is there is in all its confusion.” But, where do we get the certainty that the mind is there other than from the mind? Our reaction to the situation is part of the situation. A painter is part of the painting. We have this tendency to separate the mind and say, “The mind over there is the problem.” But we fail to recognize that that statement, “The mind over there is the problem” is the mind at work. It is similar to when someone says, “I know I’ve got a big ego.” It is the big ego that is talking. All that we do and think ultimately is in order to protect, nourish and support the mind itself, but it is the mind itself that does all of this nourishing. It all comes out of the fact that I have to be! This is why Rinzai asks, “What is the use of waiting until you have opened your mind?”
The compulsion to be is the compulsion to survive. I have to survive; I have to be. “Having to be” is the problem. When we sit following the breath, involved with the koan, or just sitting, we are letting go of the compulsion, the necessity, to be”. This is why people get upset when they are told to “step outside the problem.” They think, “Even though my life is a mess, I have to be that life, because there isn’t anything else. That is what I am. Without that I am nothing. I am a vacancy. I am a void. I’d sooner have a disastrous life than be nothing.” But again, it is the mind, the “having to be” that has to be. The mind has to have the mind.
In the entrance to the Montreal Zen Center zendo building you will find a statue as well as a picture of a carp. These are to remind us constantly, as we come through the entrance into the zendo, of what we are coming to do. The carp swims up against the stream, and we are going against the current. The current is the current “having to be.” To let go of “having to be” is to go against the current. “Just being” is letting go of the compulsion “I have to be.” Coming home to the truth that you are, breaks the lynch pin that holds you to the illusion of life. Stepping outside the illusion takes you beyond experience.
But, then, how do you step outside the troubled mind?
By returning to the truth that you are. And how do you do that? You ask the question “What am I?” and whatever offers itself to you is a viewpoint. Anything that you can experience is a viewpoint. In other words, you are simply letting go of your identification with the viewpoint. You are breaking the connection. Practice is a long journey because we are thoroughly identified with the mind, but each time we come back to the question, if we really enter into the question, or rather each time we really allow the question to be, we cut another link and another tie has been broken.
The statement, “Stay with the questioning. Allow the questioning to be,” is too simple. We get a thought, “Well this is interesting,” and before we knows it, we have wandered into the never never land of endless thought. We are right back into misery again. We want to be entertained. Practice is too boring, people say. “When I do zazen I get bored.” Although getting bored is natural, we reject it and seek drama. We stir up whatever will, one way or another, distract and provide drama and action. It is so hard and requires such discipline to realize that there is only one thread throughout practice: to stay with the questioning, be the questioning. Let nothing else intervene. Lose interest in thoughts. As Nisargadatta would say, “Stay beyond all thoughts in silent being awareness. It is not progress, for what you have come to is already there waiting for you.” Coming and going we never leave home.
Thank you. Hope you are well.
Brilliant, clear, and deep-reading this piece is hearing Freedom speaking. thank you
I’d still like to come to a Zen workshop with you hopefully in the near future .