Tuesday, October 28, 2008


When ever I mention the words “Self,” or “I,” or “Ego,”—especially in my Zen blog—I receive several comments that either disagree with my usage, or else offer other views. I look forward to such interaction.

For example, one person said: “If ‘self’ is the answer, or solution to our ills, then why all the ills? The ‘Self’ needs help; it doesn't offer it!”

Someone else commented: “The self is more like a universal soul. To find the self within you is to find something beyond the ‘self’ of the ego.”

I can’t argue with either view. First, because argument is pointless. Second, because I don’t want to argue. Everyone is entitled to his or her own view.

I’m sure tonight’s talk will bring on a firestorm of diverse voices.

* * * * *

Imagine for a minute you are enclosed in a transparent sphere. From inside your bubble you can observe everything. You are cozy because you are shielded from anything that does not agree with you. You are protected from disturbing noises, disagreeable odors, and difficult people. You are isolated from the world.

Everyone learns from childhood on to create and live in an insulated space.

Such a shell is built around a person’s “me,” a person’s “I.” It’s a protective defense. It’s designed to repel, or else filter, anything that is not harmonious with the one it protects.

Shells enclose a very small world.

Too often one’s shell is so tight it becomes stifling, which leads to deceptive thinking. That is, if anything that manages to insinuate its way into such a small world is not in agreement with the center—the “I” or “me”—the center suffers.

As long as one is bound by one’s small world, one behaves like a bird in a room that has no open windows or doors. A trapped bird flutters against walls, not sure of what it is doing but struggling to escape confinement. In its struggle it usually distresses itself.

Some humans allow themselves to be trapped birds. They ask “What am I?” Or, “Who am I?” Or, “Do I like this or that?” They struggle endlessly within their shell.

Paradoxically, their concept of “I” is what, in the first place, creates their small world and limits its boundaries. Ironically, this “I” is self-created. It is delusion.

In Zen there is no “I.”

Some religions teach that every human being is a worthless worm, born into sin and living in sin unless he or she accepts certain precepts.

Making threats of recrimination, or else dangling carrots of reprieve, is no way to treat a human spirit. Such practices reinforce people’s shells and strengthen their notion of “I.” People become fearful and guilt-ridden. A life based on the “I” concept is abstraction, not existence. Zen realizes existence directly.

Think about it: Zen realizes existence directly.

According to human-development researchers, consciousness develops largely in one’s teenage years. By consciousness I mean a sense of being-in-the-world. Consciousness is a background against which one’s existence is defined and measured. Consciousness means being coexistent with others.

However, the necessity of coexisting with others often encourages the development of the egocentric “I,” and one looks at all externals as so many tools, so much equipment. Friends and associates become equipment. Parents or children become equipment. Mates become equipment. They exist in small world terms, only as things to validate the “me,” the “I.” Of course, this equipmentizing reaches in two directions. One’s items of equipment, in return, also treat everyone else as equipment.

Think about it.

With everyone thinking “I,” “me,” and “them,” is it any wonder there is so much alienation in the world? Political systems clash. Christians and non-Christians wrangle. Arabs and Jews disagree.

When one lives in a closed shell everything outside becomes equipment designed to serve the needs of the inner “me.” Everything is depersonalized.

As an example, consider this singing bowl. At face value this bowl is an object designed to produce a sound. But no more than a tree is an object meant for lumber to build a shelter for me is this cup a mere thing designed for my need or my pleasure.

Perceive this bowl. Discover it. Don’t judge it, thinking that you don’t care for the shape, or that the color is not agreeable to your personal taste. Take the time to experience this bowl for the unique thing it is. It has shape. It has form. It has texture. It has a character of its own.

Furthermore, this bowl may seem identical to a matching bowl that was made at the same time, but each of the two bowls is its own self.

Experience a tree. Experience this bowl or that bowl. These are not mere things. Each is significant. Each is as important as any one of us.

These items are not pieces of equipment intended to fulfill our ego.

Other human beings are not pieces of equipment designed to validate our self.

Everything is unique. Every thing is what it is. Every thing, and every one, is.

* * * * *

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


When I lived in northern California, in the fifties and sixties, one of my favorite San Francisco hangouts was a chilly cellar called “the hungry i.” It was a gathering place for the avant-garde, the predecessors of the hippies and the beats. Wine was twenty-five cents a glass, and it generated warmth for many truth-seeking rap sessions.

I don’t think “the hungry i” is in business any more, and that’s regrettable.

* * * *

The term Buddha- nature is not a mere name given to one of the many aspects of Zen. Buddha-nature is the reality of the true Buddha that exists within each being.

It would be interesting if humans agreed on everything. Think of it. There would be no arguments, no differences, and no varying opinions. But if everyone thought the same, discussions would be pointless, and the world would be dull place.

Buddhism is belief in one’s own potential. It’s also concern for all living beings. However, as ideal as Buddhism seems, even it is fragmented. There are countless schools of teachings based on differences as to how Buddhism should be approached and how it should be practiced.

There is the Northern school, the Southern school, the Eastern school, and more recently the Western school. Some of these schools are based on the notion of whether awakening is sudden or is gradual.

There is Theravada (also referred to as Hinayana), which teaches nontheistic self purification as the way to freedom from ignorance and the extinction of all attachment. There is Mahayana, which teaches social concern and universal reformation.

There is Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Indian Buddhism, Southeast Asian Buddhism, and there is more. Each has its own opinions.

But in Buddhism, differences don’t matter.

If all of these schools have anything in common, it’s the question of the “I.”

What is the “I”?

Where is the “I”?

Who am I?

What is the true self? What is one’s face before one is born?

Is there an answer?

More important, what’s the real question?

Zen master Shunyru Suzuki said that what we call the “I” is a swinging door that moves when we inhale and exhale.

The writer and graphic artist Frederick Franck mentions in his book,The Buddha Eye, that Zen treats the “I” with the methodology of question and answer. That technique is known in Japanese as mondo.

Mondo is a dialogue between a master and a student, or two other spiritually developed persons. Each is expected to present their understanding of an incident in some nonverbal form such as a facial expression, a shout, a physical action.

Mondos are not koans but they may lead to a koan.

Most masters and teachers can detect something real from a bit of theater. If they see you’re trying to pull something off by waving your arms around, you’ll be ousted.

A mondo is a verbal exchange intended to turn the thought process topsy-turvy so the mind loses all preconceptions and becomes clear.

Mondo differs from wine-cellar discussions or Platonic dialogues, which put emphasis on wisdom over intuition.

Chinese Zen master Shih-t’ou, who lived from 700 to 790 A.D., was known for his participation in mondos.

A monk asked Shih-t’ou, “Who has attained understanding of the teaching of Hui-neng?”

Shih-t’ou answered, “The one who understands Buddhism.”

“Have you then attained it?”

“No, I don’t understand Buddhism.”

Another classical mondo involves a questioner asking, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?”

“Ask the post over there.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.”

* * * * *

Some times when I give a Zen talk I feel that what I’m saying is so understandable it really needn’t be said. But I can usually tell from your facial expressions it’s unfathomable.

So I forge on and hope for the best.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Guatama Siddhartha, the man known as the Buddha, lived more than two thousand years ago. Today he is honored not as a saint or a religious leader, but as an ordinary person who realized what “self” is.

In his honor over the years, images of the Buddha have appeared in paintings, in bronze, in gold, in clay, and in other physical forms.

An ancient Zen master said to his monks, “Images are fine, but metal Buddhas can’t pass through a furnace, wooden Buddhas can’t pass through a fire, mud Buddhas can’t pass through water.”

Think about that for a moment.

“Metal Buddhas can’t pass through a furnace, wood Buddhas can’t pass through a fire, mud Buddhas can’t pass through water.”

Obviously, intense heat will melt metal, fire will burn wood, and water will dissolve mud. So what’s the point of this rhetoric?

The point is the true Buddha doesn’t dwell in paintings or statues or even in words.

The true Buddha is self, and self is within you.

Such terms as transcendental wisdom, nirvana, enlightenment, and Buddha nature are common, but they are no more than clothes draped on the body.

Such terms appear often in Buddhism, but they are only window dressing. Unfortunately, they lead to a lot of questions by people who want to analyze and pick apart.

Any master or teacher worth his or her salt welcomes questions, but does not provide answers.

Your self is the answer.

Zen master Joshu said that “when someone questions me, all can do is shut his yap.”

You know what yapping is. It’s the shrill barking of a small dog excited over

nothing at all. It’s senseless jabber.

In human terms, yapping is silly prattle.

Remember the Shakespearean quote from Macbeth:

“It is a tale … full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.”

To quote Master Joshu (The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu), “Where is the Buddha to be found? Thousands and ten thousands of people are ‘seeking-for-Buddha’ fools. If you try to find one person of the Way among them, there is none.”

A monk asked Joshu, “What about it when all the bones are pulverized, and there is one everlasting spirit?”

Now that’s a profound question. It could lead to all sorts of conjectures and symbols and answers.

What did Joshu answer?

Joshu put an end to the nonsense by saying, “It’s windy again this morning.”

* * * * *

Remember: The true Buddha is within you.