[From the Genjokoan:] To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.
As Shohaku Okumura says in Realizing Genjokoan, the word translated as “to study” is narau, which means “to get accustomed to,” or “to become familiar with.” This isn’t intellectual study.
To put it another way, “to become familiar with the Buddha Way is to become familiar with the self.” I also like the translation “to learn,” which makes it, “to learn the Buddha Way is to learn the self.”
What is the nature of this self we are becoming familiar with, or learning?
We are taught in Buddhism that we should see beyond, and let go of attachment to, our “small” self – the karmically conditioned self, the self of details and relative relationships: our body, thoughts, emotions, opinions, desires, possessions, abilities, etc.
Do we study this “self”? Isn’t the point to forget that self? Aren’t we told from the beginning that this small self is empty of inherent, enduring self-nature and doesn’t even really exist the way we think it does?
But we do study the Buddha Way, at first, by studying the small self. It’s the only self we know. And we “study” it even though, as Okumura points out, this suggests a separation between “I,” “the self,” and the “Buddha Way” – and there really is no such separation. At first, however, we feel there is – and that’s where we have to start.
In zazen, and in whatever stillness we can summon in the rest of our life, we pay attention to ourselves. This doesn’t mean getting caught up in the details, but observing carefully. What do we think? What do we feel? What triggers us? When do we feel small and defensive, and when do we feel relaxed and intimate? Why do we feel what we feel? What do we fear? What do we hope for? Who do we think we are? What is it like when our self-consciousness falls away for a moment? What makes that happen?
We don’t have to intellectually investigate these questions, and we don’t have to go through them systematically like a course of required study. We just cultivate awareness of what’s going on in our life. We become familiar with our own living.
The online Oxford dictionary (www.oxforddictionaries.com) defines self in three ways:
- A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.
- A person’s particular nature or personality; the qualities that make a person individual or unique.
- One’s own interests or pleasure.
We let these conventional aspects of self go when we sit zazen. Eventually we start to see how ephemeral all the aspects of small self are. We gain insight when we manage to maintain awareness through moments when, as Okumura says, we open the hand of thought and we are nobody.
And yet – we’re still there. Who’s still there? Why do we continue to talk about self? Why does Dogen say, “Sitting is itself the true form of the self?” Why does he say “All things coming and carrying our practice-enlightenment through the self is realization?”
Even though in a moment of prajna all things participate in this reality together and it’s not a matter of self realizing something outside of self…
there remains an aspect of our experience that can be called self.
It’s the self that, as Okumura says, is “one with the universe,” but it somehow still makes sense to refer to self. Why? When the self is one with the universe, doesn’t that mean self is obliterated because there is no individuality? Doesn’t that mean there is essentially no self? Isn’t self an illusion?
What self is left, and what does self mean if it isn’t about distinguishing us from others?
I think our deeper self, our “true” self, our self which is one with the universe, is more or less synonymous with life. Or, more accurately, living – because it’s about moment to moment unfolding, not a concept that can be delineated and put on a shelf (such that you could place “life” in a box next to “death” or “non-life”).
Our actual experience of living in a moment of prajna is the interpenetration of absolute and relative. Our life is not our own, our experience of living is without boundary. There is no territory that belongs exclusively to the self. And yet there is living, and that living is manifesting, in part, through our body and mind.
However, we don’t think about our unique body and mind in a moment of prajna. We don’t reflect, “Wow, look at that, the universal manifesting through my small self! So really, the universal depends on my small self to manifest! Cool, I do exist!”
Instead, in a moment of prajna you just are. Yes, there’s a body and mind there, but ultimately there are no distinct things such as you, body, mind, universe, moment, or prajna.
We sometimes call this aliveness “self” (often self with a capital “S,” or “true self”) in order to point to the vivid reality of direct experience. You can only participate in reality using your body and mind. You can’t leap into another realm of existence. Your aliveness remains, you simply recognize all things are also aliveness. So in some senses this is about an expanded sense of self – but with no central reference point.
At the same time, body and mind – as concepts we cling to – have to drop off. We get there through studying the self however we know how to experience it. At first this may be mundane and rather grueling, like having to sit in the middle of your own mess and look at it without any distraction at all.
Gradually we become more familiar with self, and look beyond our limited sense of it. “What more is there?” We wonder. We finally get so fascinated by living this moment that we forget the details of our lives. Then all things participate with us in a moment of pure reality, and we finally identify with Something Greater. (Or, as Dogen says, we are verified by all things.) At the same time, our delusive identification with the details of our small self drops away. It has to.
What does this mean to our everyday practice? That our way, the Buddha Way, is to fully explore the matter of our living. Who are you? Do you know? Are you willing to let all things verify you? Don’t you want that kind of intimacy? It’s not far away, it’s right here.