Excerpted with permission from Idiot's Guides: Zen Living by Domyo Burk
No matter how many things you recognize are not part of your self-essence, you can still persist in believ-ing you have one. After all, it just feels like you do. Even if you manage to let the mind settle in zazen, and refrain from identifying any of your thoughts and feelings as self, there’s you sitting zazen!
Many Zen teachings and methods are aimed at getting you to drop this self illusion. One of my favorites is to imagine that you are long dead, but somehow, strangely, still aware. If you like, you can imagine your bleached-out skull sitting in a deserted, sunny meadow (go ahead and make it sunny, this isn’t supposed to be depressing). You have been dead for 100 years, so all the people who would personally remember you are also gone. Anything you worked for or possessed in life has disappeared or belongs to someone else. Many of the things you cared deeply about look very different, because things have changed so much. Your inventions or passions or causes may be obsolete. Given all of this, who are you? You can still imagine inherently ex-isting, but in what way? Then you think of being dead 300 years, or 500. This is a good exercise for focus-ing in on your belief in self-essence.
If you keep studying your self illusion, in the course of meditation you can notice something radical: when you are thinking, you have a conviction of self-essence. When you aren’t thinking, or at least not doing so consciously, the sense of self isn’t there. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to make this observation, be-cause the second you make it you are thinking. After a while, however, you are able to notice the moment of self-concept arising. Noticing it arise, you know there was a period of time when it wasn’t there.
This absolutely convincing sense of inherent, enduring existence—on which you have based everything—comes and goes! You’ve already stripped away all the things the self identifies with, and now you’ve called into question the only piece of evidence you have left: you feel like you inherently exist. If you don’t have that feeling for a period of time, either your feeling-sense is fallible, or … maybe … you don’t exist the way you think you do.
“If you realize that your activities are not based on thought alone, you let go of thought. Strangely enough, whether you think about it or not, the heavy meal in your stomach gets digested completely. When sleeping, we continue breathing the neces-sary number of breaths per minute and the ‘I’ continues to live. What on earth is this ‘I’? I can’t help but feel that this ‘I’ is the self that is connected with the universe.” — Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912–1998), from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo