teisho 1310 (2013)
Someone asked Huang Po, ‘What is implied by seeing into our true nature?’ Isn’t there a contradiction here? Is there a true nature you can see into, something that you can perceive? It is the same when you are asking ‘Who am I?’ What are you asking about? The problem in Zen practice is not to find an answer but to find the real question. As long as you ask the wrong question, you are going to waste your time.
What does this question mean? Is there a seer and something that is seen? Huang Po replied that true nature and the perception of it are one.
The belief that there is someone who perceives and something that is perceived is basic to the illusion of reality. It is this illusion that we must struggle to work with. But if you struggle with it without appreciating the nature of the problem, you are simply going to perpetuate the problem; you are going to perpetuate the sense of separation, which is the major illusion: the illusion that there are two – that there is emptiness or mind and there is form.
When asking ‘Who am I?’ the question and the answer are the same. There is not a self to be seen and grasped. Faith is the leap across the chasm of separation.
There is the koan ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ With the sound of two hands clapping, it can be approached in the normal belief that there is the hearing and there are the hands clapping. But the sound of one hand clapping is not separate from the hearing. To see into this koan you have to see into the nature of hearing. Normally we overlook hearing, overlook seeing, focus only on what is heard or what is seen.
If when you are working with ‘who am I?’ you feel that you must find out who you are, that you must find something you can identify as ‘I’, you are simply perpetuating the illusion of separation. ‘I am’ and the question ‘who am I?’ are not different.
If you form a concept of the true nature of anything as being visible or audible, you allow a dharma of separation to arise. After years of working with ‘who am I?’ it can become very subtle, but it is still something, over there, outside, it is still an attainment, something I can get that I do not have at the moment; with it will come awakening. But the question ‘who am I?’ is an invitation to the wonderful mystery of being.
The perceived cannot perceive. If you are looking for that which you think you are, you are looking for the perceived, when in fact it is the perceiver, the perceiving, and this is what you are ignoring.
All beings have been free from bondage from the very beginning. This is how it is now, this is how it is when you are born, and this is how it is when you die.
What is freedom? It is unrestricted openness. Freedom is not living in a world without limits; when you live in a world you automatically take on all the limitations of that world. There is no separation – freedom and bondage, purity and illusion – it is only from the viewpoint of illusion that you can get freedom and bondage. When you come to awakening it is to realise there is no awakening. Awakened and unawakened are the results of living in the illusory world of separation. If you set awakening up as a goal, as an ambition, you are perpetuating the very division, the very illusion you feel awakening is going to free you from.