teisho 1229 (2010)
What am I? One of the main problems we have is that we do not know how to ask this question in a meaningful way. It is possible to hear this question, or read it, or for someone to give you the question and tell you to work with it, and to never get beyond the words and concepts that support the words.
You are not an experience, you are not a thing. You must go beyond thoughts, ideas, images – anything that can be known is not you. Everything we know and can talk about comes from experience, from some kind of encounter.
That which is beyond the mind and its language, is indescribable. Is it possible for reality to have no quality, no form, no color, sound, taste, touch? How can we ask about this in a meaningful way?
First there must be the recognition that the question is a real one. And yet, in that the question is posed in words and thoughts, it is meaningless. Once we enter into the question ‘what am i?’ we are asking a meaningless question, because the essence of the question, I am, cannot be questioned in this way.
When you are working with this question, you must recognize the twist. We normally think that if there is a question we can ask with sufficient clarity and determination to get an answer, then we will eventually get a positive response. But this is not the case when you work with the question ‘What am I?’ One has to see into the meaninglessness of the question.
Questioning is an experience itself, one can say that it comes from the mind. How can a process of the mind transcend the mind? The only way that this is possible is if the questioner already transcends the mind. It is the questioner that is forgotten. You forget yourself constantly, and then you seek to find yourself. So the twist is not in the question, it is in you. You ignore that which you are questioning. You put it on one side, and then you look to find it. How can one break through the barrier and know what it means to be immutable, unchanging? This leads us into the heart of the matter. The mind is like a seething, changing, surging ocean. The word immutable is the bridge. Explore it, look at it from all directions, dive into it with earnest perseverance. But if you have already forgotten yourself when you do this, it will be useless.
It is said to practice Zen you need great faith, great doubt and great perseverance. Nirsargadatta says one needs great doubt and earnest perseverance; he takes for granted that I am is participating in this, that I am is not forgotten.
You are asking a question that has already been answered, whatever your question is. Arouse the mind that seeks the way, this is the mind of faith. It starts from where it wants to go. You are already immutable. You are already unchanging, but this does not mean that you are fixed. We take it there is an enduring being, and we take unchanging to mean ‘always the same.’ But it is far more subtle than that. One could say that that which changes never changes, that is why it is immutable. It is letting go of the underpinning to existence which is the hardest challenge of all. I am is not a fixed condition, always the same. This is why I am happy, I am sad, I am walking, I am speaking, I am sleeping. There is nothing that puts you into action, your very nature is action. Buddha nature is impermanence. One is looking for an underpinning, a foundation, a ground to our being. But it is only when we rid ourselves of the ground of being that we can hope to be free.
The question ‘what am I?; is a shortened version of the question ‘what is my face before my parents were born?’ But there was no before in terms of time. ‘From the beginning all beings are Buddha.’ But the beginning is not in time, the beginning is always now. And the before is always now.
The question, ‘what is my face before my parents were born?’ cuts away anything and everything, including an historical occurrence. Take away everything, all being, all I am, all I know, take it all away – then you have ‘before my parents were born’. What is there now? It is not nothing. You negate yourself, and then ask ‘What am I?’ But isn’t that what the question asks, for you to negate everything? But you start off believing you are something, believing you must have a cause, something that brought you into existence. But nothing has brought you into existence because you have not been brought into existence.
Questioning is essential because it is the very thrust of existence, of life. The thrust of life is to transcend itself, life is always struggling to go beyond life. But as long as you look in terms of what is, what exists, in terms of something, you have stepped out of the picture. The word itself is the bridge, remember it, think of it, explore it, look at it from all directions. If you simply ask a question in such a way that you are seeking an answer, it is a waste of time. But if you start by recognizing that the questioning is already that which you are seeking, that it is life itself asking the question, then it is within the question that you are going to awaken. The question comes from you, you are already the question. But you have dissipated it in the sands of ignorance. When you question What am I? you are remembering. To remember is to collect together. it is coming home, it is collecting together again. You are not asking about something outside yourself, you must start where you are, because anything that is there at the moment is already it.
Endure all delays and disappointments, because you are working with the impossible. If you work with the possible, you are simply continuing with what is a false start. Suddenly the mind turns around away from the word towards the reality beyond the word. But this beyond is not on the other side, it is here. The mind suddenly wakes up to the realization, it is here all the time.
Nisargadatta says, ‘words are valuable because between the word and its meaning there is a link. and if one investigates the word assiduously, one crosses beyond the concept to the experience at the root of it, which is you.’ Practice is the persistent attempt to cross from the verbal to the non verbal.