Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Look, look! Speak, speak!." Self, No Self, Dogen and Me.

One day Lin-chi gave this sermon: "There is the true person of no rank in the mass of naked flesh, who goes in and out from your facial gates. Those who have not yet testified to this fact, look! Look!"

A monk came forward and asked, " Who is this true person of no rank?"

Lin-chi came down from his chair and, taking hold of the monk by the throat, said "Speak! Speak!"

The monk hesitated.

Lin-chi let go his hold and said, "What a worthless shit-stick this is!"

The first time I heard this, I was terrified. The Tanto was screaming at the Shuso, and a lot of the elders of our community were laughing. But I had no idea what they were talking about. And I still don't.

What can be derrived from this exchange is that we don't know who the true person of no rank is, but it's coming through this body's eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. My question started in our Genjo Koan class when we were asked by that same Tanto who screamed at that Shuso, what does studying the self mean? Which led to what does Dogen mean when he writes study the self?

There seemed to be a split; some senior students, priests of many years, really felt that Dogen was not talking about this human self in Genjo Koan when he said:

 "To study the Buddha way is to study the self" Kaz Tanahashi * & Okamura *

"To learn the Buddha's truth is to learn ourselves" Nishijima*

"Studying the Buddha way is studying oneself." Cleary*

"To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one's own self." Abe*

* Translater credits

One senior monk said Nishiari Bokusan Roshi said verbatim that Dogen was not talking about the human self, while the Tanto said Okamura Roshi's translation for Dogen's Kanji for self was very unique and unusual; he said it was part person, and part wings, and could be interpreted as "your own self learning to fly." 

I fell strongly into the camp of including this human body in the study of self, along with the apparent self of all other beings, and the selfhood, or separateness of all other objects, landscapes, and anything I could possibly bring into a subject+object duality. There was this assertation that all I really could be  is skandhas or alaya vijnana.

Call it a hand, or call it a collection of five fingers, comes to mind from Okamura. I don't remember the last time my alaya vijnana stubbed its toe. My skandha's don't need to be shaved.

The Buddha himself never answered this question. When asked if there was a self, he answered with silence. When asked if there was no-self, more silence. This is a finger pointing at eternal assertion and nihilistic denial, and acknowledgement of the nothingness of emptiness and the somethingness of enlightenment. 

There is an ultimate reality in being human and I think it occurs between our thoughts; what are we between our thoughts? This is what I'm looking at when I follow Dogen's instruction. Could I do this without this human body, without breath, without a brain to have a delusional thought, without out a mouth to utter a defiled word, and isn't there something radiant throughout delusion and defilement? 

The next day, Meiya-sensei called me in for practice discussion. I sat before her dark brown Okesa in the candle lit room and said I'm trying to learn from you, but I don't think we have anything to talk about. Just like baby owls fall from trees and walk on two legs with wings outstretched learn from elder owls who fly above, I think this is the best thing we can do. You can't tell me anything, and yet, I'm here to learn, and I'm sure about that, though I'm not sure I'm learning anything. 

She answered in silence. She smiled, too. 


  1. What a rare moment - I am up at this time, you just posted.

    Something I have learned - this self is this unique body, and when the body dies, the self is gone. So gone. They never come back to visit. I was bitter about that when Sherlock died.

    My unique body-mind is a bipolar trip these days. Up, down. It is very difficult and useful to practice on the up days, like today, and has been impossible to sit down on the bad days, to decide to sit down, or decide anything. It is an illness. I'd much rather have some other kind of illness. How do you cultivate equanimity? Acceptance?

    I'm considering applying for Dosho Port's new thing, Vine of Obstacles. Finally, someone who realizes there are a lot of us out here with no teacher in sight. I'm thinking Zen helps.

    My take on studying the self is experiential. In sitting I've watched pain rise and dissolve, seen tears come from no thought at all, sat still through urgent impulses, watched my mind circle circle cawing, cawing, seen my ancient twisted karma and how the way out is OUT. I always wanted to be real, but somehow all this has led to enough detachment from my desires that other people become real to me and I can hear them, empathize, not blame, know that I can't fix them, things like that. The heart way.

    I realized spontaneously recently that the way you cut off the mind road is to walk on the heart road; or, cultivating the heart you tame down the mind's conditioned insistence. When you know people with dementia, you get to feeling that the organ where self resides is the mind. After her first stroke, my mother was not herself anymore. This is unbelievably hard to realize. They are still in that body, they look the same, it's their voice saying those things.

    1. Dear Dalai Grandma,

      I'm resolved to believe that arising inquiry is enough in defining the self. An inconceivable mind for the inconceivable vow to save all beings won't be anything "I" can know.

      This mind is strange and surreal; from emotions to logic to images, it's potential for projection is just limitless. Just the other day, stories about frogs and feelings about an old student and a bright green picture of grass all came up together...what in the world could they be?

      Whenever I point at heart or mind, I point at meat! It's not fancy enough.

  2. Dear Kogen, have you ever been having a time of difficulty, and decided to open a random book at a random page and receive what it tells you? I am in just such a time, and now that I am such an occasional blogger, opening my blogroll is almost like scanning a familiar bookshelf. My screen opens to the true person of no rank. Thank you for the most timely reminder, and reconnection. (

  3. Wow! I love when that happens. What's funnier is that it came to me both last practice period and from an old Wind Bell I found.

    What a nice tradition of being Shuso for a whole year. That makes a lot of sense. Were you non-residential for that year? That makes even more sense that it would span a year. Here, our Shuso's serve for about 3 months, residentially, after about 7-15 years of practice. Sadly, there is no Shuso this practice period (all invited parties declined!).

    Thanks for visiting! Those pictures look great!