Tag Archives: ego self

Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose

One of the most misunderstood and misused teachings in Zen is that of “no gaining” mind. It is often quoted, typically without context, and suggested as an exhortation for a practice which takes “no goal” as its goal. This is a misunderstanding, quite far from the meaning of this phrase and the application it has to Buddhist practice.

In Japanese the term is 無所得 pronounced “mushotoku.” Taking each character separately; “mu” is a negation, “sho” means place, and “toku” means advantage, gain, profit. So the literal meaning is “the place where there is nothing to be gained” or nothing to which we can be attached. From there it is easy to understand that “no gaining” is a teaching of “no false discrimination,” or you might say abiding in the non-separation between subject and object. That is, “no gaining” mind refers to that mind which sees emptiness and interconnectedness as one.

For Zen Master Eihei Dogen this phrase appears in relation to egolessness, particularly in “ShobogenzoZuimonki,” a collection of pithy sayings by Dogen, as recorded by his disciple Koun Ejo in about 1234 CE. In this short compilation we hear Dogen’s constant exhortation to zazen, and to practice that fully engages body and mind without the expectation of gain. He says,

Simply do good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind you have to awaken to impermanence.

Thus, Dogen’s idea of the goal of practice is quite clearly described – awakening to impermance. This echoes the opening lines of the Heart Sutra in which it is said that Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, was relieved of all suffering simply by “seeing” that body and mind are empty of permanent existence.

Sitting in zazen, experiencing our fundamental non-separation from all things, coming from the place where there is nothing to be gained, we also come to understand that there is nothing we lack. There is no need to look outside of ourselves for acknowledgement, no need to hope that our teacher will give us something special, no need to grasp at things that are always flying away. Instead, we can fully express, from within, harmony and the wish to benefit others, because they are none other than us.

Walk to Feed the Hungry Sokoji



The Bigger Picture

In Zen we often speak about the study of the self, about checking into our experience and what it really means. Yet, if the study of the self begins and ends only with this body and mind, only with the perceptual realm that you can explore, then it will always be a limited view, a biased view, and a one sided view. It will never be able to fully encompass all that is the Self. Pointing at this Dogen writes, “…the true human body is the entire universe.” One could equally say that the true human mind is the whole universe.

So what is it to study the true human body, the true human mind?

Recently, I read a Facebook post by a friend in which she shared a quote about finding your soul and your soulmate. But what if you are so completely interconnected with all things that there is nothing permanent about you? What if you are so completely defined by the temporal arising of all things known and unknown that you cannot even identify something that is the core? Wouldn’t that be a world in which you become incredibly vast, incredibly fluid, incredibly connected?

More poetically, Dogen describes it thus, “…mountains, rivers, and the Earth, and the sun, moon and stars are mind.”

Earth Sept 2 2014 c. NASA

Earth Sept 2 2014 c. NASA


And yet you certainly can’t deny that there is a particularity about you. There is a grouping of physical attributes which tend to hang together to form your body. There is a consciousness, one that is full of thoughts, feelings, tendencies, history, hopes. So there is no reason to deny the unique temporal arising that is bounded by your physical and mental state. It is as much as anything else is, which isn’t much.

From the perspective of Zen Buddhism, holding both of these perspectives simultaneously is a sound view. Both things are true; they, in fact, inform each other and rely on each other. Together these perspectives enable a view that brings you into harmony with the true nature of reality. It is a view that enables you to be in accord with everything, whether you are attracted to or aversive to it.

This view of the interdependence of all things has many implications. It implies that what you do matters, because it impacts all other things. It implies that there is nothing that is static or independent or permanent. It implies emptiness inherent in form.

However, the aspect that I want to focus on today is that this view implies that there is more to life than what meets the eye. It implies that our bodies and minds can be vehicles for transformation, and for experiencing even things that are completely beyond the realm of what we can perceive. This is not mysticism. It is simply acknowledging that the human sense experience is limited, but what it means to be human is not. And that teaching is important, because without that context we are simply swirling around in the world of our biases, and our psychology, and the arbitrary boundaries that we draw around ourselves and others. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with that swirling, but to say that simply abiding there doesn’t lead to freedom from suffering.

Solar flare Aug 2014 C. NASA

Solar flare Aug 2014 C. NASA

Thus, Dogen Zenji states, “Neither the great elements nor the smallest particles can be wholly realized by the common person, but they are mastered in experience by the sages.” Sekkei Harada Roshi intones, “This thing, which you think is yourself, is neither you nor anyone else.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi explained, “Don’t be bothered by your mind.” I say do not be defined by your mind.










Bodhisattvas Fall Down Too

The Zen Ritual class has been meeting at SFZC City Center, each time studying a short verse from one of the many ceremonies that are traditional in Western Zen. Delving into the words we use to express our understanding and our intention, we find our particular places of connection, our points of entry to the gates of practice. For me this study of ritual has also helped to breathe new life into the forms, brightening the realm in which these activities take place, providing a context that resounds with meaning.

Week two we spoke about the Bodhisattva vows. Here they are again:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Thus, we can take the Bodhisattva vows as an expression of our intention to awaken ourselves and others to the truths inherent in all things. We can take the vows with the intention to see through our mistaken ideas and meet the incomparable uniqueness of each person and thing.

This is a big commitment. You might have a motivation to become a better person and to have a positive impact on the world, but that can easily slip into  just another goal for the striving ego. If you find yourself criticizing your own efforts to help, or those you are helping, you might ask yourself whether your good intentions have been channeled into striving for control. To really take up these vows skillfully you have to recognize that the inner world and the outer world are completely interpenetrating. That is, the world influences you, so you can influence the world. You don’t discount others’ ability to respond or your own ability to respond. You recognize that they work together.

Portrait of Lingzhao courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery online

Portrait of Lingzhao courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery online

I mentioned one of the stories of Lingzhao as an example of just this sort of view. Lingzhao was the daughter of a family of 9th Century Chinese lay practitioners who were deeply respected.

One day she and her father, Layman Pang, were walking along when he tripped and fell. Seeing this, Lingzhao threw herself on the ground next to him. When he asked what she was doing, she said, “I saw you fall down, so I’m helping.” This is truly Bodhisattva activity, meeting the one you are helping and seeing the world from their perspective. This is to literally level the playing field, eliminating any sense of hierarchy between helper and helped. In “the Hidden Lamp,” Joan Sutherland deftly refers to this as action “to help liberate the intimacy already inherent in any situation.” Once intimate with the moment, and the people and things in it, one can respond skillfully. Skillfulness arises as the result of not being blind to specific karmic conditions or to the vast interconnectedness they create.

Of course this does not mean that you have to become completely like the others in your life that need help. So, for example, you can’t help an alcoholic friend by becoming alcoholic yourself or enabling their alcoholism. Still, until you really make an effort to see their point of view and understand what makes them just as human as you, it’s not possible to offer a helpful response.

layman pang

Layman Pang courtesy of elephantjournal

The story continues with Layman Pang’s reply to Lingzhao, which was, “It’s a good thing no one was looking.” Be careful not to fall into thinking that this is an expression of shame. The father is pointing toward the egolessness of his daughter’s response. The “no one” who is looking doesn’t get in the way of enlightened activity, doesn’t set up a separation, doesn’t need to be superior in order to offer aid. Feel free to get covered in dust! Then you can stand upright together.

Taking the Boddhisattva vows, we are promising to fall down and get up with everyone.

Your Most Present Concern

So often, in everyday modern American society, we receive the message that we are defined by what we don’t have – the latest cell phone, the ideal job, the perfect family, the nicest car or the right insurance. We judge each other by our failure to acquire these things. And we judge ourselves equally harshly, fueling a drive that is based in anxiety and comparing mind. This message is encapsulated in commercials, in packaging, and in the ways we talk about what it means to be successful. For most of us, not a day goes by that we don’t receive this message.

So tonight I want to offer you a completely different message.  I want to encourage you to release yourself from a life driven by a sense of inadequacy, and to turn instead to a life that revels in the incredible fullness of all that you are simply by being human. Tonight I want to release you from living a life defined by what you lack.

Mural of Life at SFO

Mural of Life at SFO

At times I wonder whether the modern day preoccupation with distraction and material acquisition is actually based in a fear of death, a fear of facing that which is inevitable for each and every one of us. Perhaps, you might think in secret, if I just have that big, beautiful house and a device that gives me driving directions, then I won’t have to worry about the fact that I am passing out of this existence.

Yet even death is not our most present concern. Our true concern is to live fully while we are alive – to release ourselves from a limited view of who and what we are – to reconnect, over and over again, with that which is greater than our self, but arises through it – to discover that the true meaning of enlightenment is a direct experience of the wisdom that runs through all things, even the horrible ones.

Mind you that by ‘living fully’ I do not mean living large, or fulfilling all your sexual and material desires, or even being the most calm or the most wise. I mean actually experiencing firsthand the incredible fullness of each moment, the magnificent transformation that is taking place in every instant. Notice the incredible revelation of truth that is expressed by the fact that everything is dependent on everything else – not some things are dependent on some other things, but everything needs everything else in order to exist. This noticing is the foundational Buddhist practice of mindfulness – paying attention to this very moment so clearly that there is no one who pays attention and no moment that can be measured. Life is simply the bare threads woven together to make an infinite fabric.

Sound impossible? Well, consider how many times things have actually turned out exactly as you expected them. They may be something like what you expected, but are they truly arising exactly in ways that you can predict with precision? I didn’t think so. This unpredictability is the weaving, the activity of impermanence, that change upon change. Still, we know that things do not change at random, but are governed by the laws of cause and effect. Awakening to these laws at work in our lives, we can find bright clarity about how to live and we can find deep compassion in understanding that nothing separates us.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put it beautifully when she said,

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather our concern must be to live while we are alive – to release ourselves from the spiritual death that comes from living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

So please check in with yourself. What is your most present concern?

Losing the Story Line

dogen pilgrim

Photo from the film “Zen” c. 2009

Paul Haller, the former Abbot of City Center, once told me during a ceremony at Tassajara, “Enter the Way and let it undo you.” This was a profound admonition; one that felt completely in accord with the life I seemed to be living. For many people practice feels like this, undoing the sense of you and losing your way to take up a greater Way. It can seem like losing the story line of your life. The people, places and things that together comprise the whole don’t seem to hang together the way they used to. In fact, they don’t seem to hang together at all, becoming more of a random walk than a sprint to the finish line. At times painful and confusing, Dogen Zenji’s path of studying the self to forget the self requires a fair amount of courage. It requires the ability to remain present for all that arises in life and to respond, not from a place of well worn, fixed identity but from a place of real intimacy, honesty and compassion.

On “The Wake Up Sermon,” Bodhidharma’s teaching on freedom from appearances

bodhidharma scowl

Text: To give up your self without regret is the greatest charity. Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awakening.

Commentary: How does one give up one’s self? And without regret? Consider whether there is a self who is completely one with all things in the moment. No separation between self and other, no hard feelings. The phone rings and you answer it. Just like the monk in the koan who turns his head when called. The eyeball does not see itself.

In Dogen’s Genjokoan we see the echos of the second and third sentences. “Carrying the self forward” is “using the mind to look.” “Myriad things come forward” is “not using the mind to look.” Causes and conditions simply perform their natural functions, yet the mind tends to draw a circle around some of them and call it a self. What a pity!

On “The Heart Sutra Commentary,” Sekkei Harada’s Words on the function of Dharma


“It is not possible for the ego to intervene in the Dharma. This means that it is enough to become the Dharma. In order to become the Dharma, you must forget the ego. In order to forget the ego, you must sit. That is all there is to it.”

Commentary: Becoming that which you are already are, is like turning from old woman to young. The salty water pervades skin, flesh bones and marrow. Don’t think that forgetting is passivity; don’t think that forgetting is activity. Is there anyplace where this sitting cannot take place?