Tag Archives: ego

Tilling the Field of Identity

When speaking with friends and reading the newspaper, I have the impression that the questions of identity are up for us as a nation. Whether it be a discussion of race relations, of feminism, of the widening rifts between classes, or of sexual orientation or gender, the question of identity is big right now. A lot of people are wondering how to be skillful with the aspects of identity that can be so different from person to person.

For Buddhists this can be a particularly vexing point because of the teaching of “no self.” Essentially, the teaching of no self means that there is no permanently abiding self, no self that arises independent of causes and results, no self that remains fixed for even an instant. Yet, to be clear, Buddhism does not teach that there is not a self. It doesn’t deny that a self appears to arise and dissipate, and that we experience that self as “me.”

This raises the question, “How can we honor the things that make each person unique – like their past, their preferences, their bodies, their expression – and still abide fully in the truth that all of those things don’t fully capture what it means to be a person?”

This is a question that deserves deep and sustained inquiry. For starters, I’d like to offer a brief Zen teaching, in the hopes that it might provide guidance for a skillful response. It begins with the story of an interaction between Kueishan, an 8th Century Chinese Ch’an teacher and his student Yangshan, who were the founders of the Igyo Zen tradition.


Here’s the story:

Yangshan was digging on a hillside, in an effort to make a rice paddy. He said to Kueishan, “This place is so low; that place is so high.”

Kueishan replied, “Water makes things equal. Why don’t you level it with water?”

Yangshan replied, “Water is not reliable, teacher. A high place is high level, and a low place is low level.”

Kueishan agreed.

Hearing this story in modern times, it seems to me that Yangshan is commenting that he is in the lower position of student, in the lower position of worker, in the lower position monk. This contrasts with Kueishan who is in the higher position of teacher, the higher position of observer, the higher position of Abbot. So Yangshan is pointing out their differences.

In response, Kueishan effectively says, “Why don’t you just even things up with a little water?” In other words, you don’t have to see it that way. You could just gloss over it.

However, Yangshan doesn’t fall for this and responds by saying, “Water is not reliable.” That is, you can’t just gloss over differences. That is not a skillful way to practice with differences. He goes on, “A high place is high level; a low place is low level.” In other words, each of us takes our place. Each of us takes our dharma position in the moment. Kueishan agreed that this is the correct view.

The lesson of this story is that the skillful way to practice with difference is to acknowledge it because, until we acknowledge what’s present, we can’t possibly begin to work with it. Our differences help us to see our dharma position, help us to see the ways in which we are related. Teacher doesn’t arise without student. Low doesn’t arise without high. While we might want to make everything the same, that is unrealistic. It’s not a reliable way to interact with the world.

On a similar note, in the “Sutra of Eights,” the Buddha taught that we should not view ourselves as lower than another, as higher than another, or as equal to another. Where does that leave you? It means we must view ourselves as incomparable, unique beings that are interrelated in ways that are important to acknowledge.

Returning to the story, it is interesting to note that it is Yangshan who gives the teaching words. In doing so, he is demonstrating that, by truly acknowledging and working with their differences, he was able to change the dynamic and be in the “high” place. In effect, he leveled the differences by not glossing over them. So the skillful conversation of identity begins from a place of true acceptance of difference. From there, we can step into relationship and find the ways to connect.





Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose – continued

Continuing on yesterday’s theme…

The beauty of this teaching of no gaining mind is that no gaining also means no losing. That is, you have nothing to lose if no one recognizes your most generous acts, your most selfless words, your most harmonious gifts. You have nothing to lose if there is no discernible reward for being your best self. This can be said because you are already one with all things, so the recognition is intrinsic.

It reminds me of the parable of the Bodhisattva Never Disparage. It’s a tale from the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) and it tells the story of a being who had vowed to never disparage other beings. It’s said his practice was to tell people that they too would be Buddhas, as is predicted in the Lotus Sutra. However, some people didn’t like this, and would shun him, yell at him, or even throw rocks at him. At those times, when his safety was at risk because people not only didn’t appreciate his compassion but disagreed with it, the story tells us that the Bodhisattva would “run away to a safe distance and continue” telling folks that he could see their buddhanature.

And so it is with each of us. We are called to bring compassion into the world, called to see the best in others and to “do good,” and perhaps we meet with some resistance or we are ignored. But a practitioner who truly sees non-separation, truly sees nothing to gain and truly sees nothing to lose.

Hide and Seek c. Center for Media and Democracy


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



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.

A Day to Celebrate

Racism is a Zen topic because it is about our mutual human inheritance, our struggle to live up to our personal, social and religious ideals, our ability or failure to acknowledge our common humanity and our connection with that which is greater than us. It has been in the US news of late in two particular instances – one in which a wealthy white man made some extreme comments about slavery and another in which a very wealthy white man made comments about associating with blacks and about the black men that played basketball on his team. In both these instances, those with authority have made clear decisions that express their strong disagreement with racist views. This is a day to celebrate, a day when those in power use their authority to issue appropriate consequences for those who would injure others through their deluded views of separation and arrogance.

San Francisco Airport mural

San Francisco Airport mural

The sense of separation is one of the most fundamental delusions we hold as human beings. It is a mistake that might cause us to feel that we must put ourselves above others, or that we simply cannot care about others because we are too busy caring for ourselves. Simply writing this down makes it obvious how absurd it is. The fact is that we alone cannot completely take care of our own interests. We need other human beings to survive and they need us as well. So, while it is true that each person is a unique individual with a unique life, it is also true that every single person on the planet has the same DNA and that what we are is much, much greater than any one human being.

So it is up to each of us to turn this sense of separation around, and begin to study our own bodies and minds and the truth of our interaction with everything around us. Zazen, sitting meditation, is one way to simplify the amount of interaction to the point that we can begin to be present for it. Give it a try. You might find that your ideas are as fleeting as time and as changing as water. And that’s a good thing. Because racism can only exist when you hold on to a view of a very, very small world.

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?

The Bird and the Ox on Waking Up

Last weekend I was enjoying a discussion about ego with the Dharma en Español group, a gathering of practitioners who study the Spanish translation of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind at SFZC City Center on Saturday mornings. We were exploring the ways in which our views about the world reinforce the idea of a separate self, which is THE fundamental delusion of our lives. Eventually an example was needed, and I offered this one:

You are sitting zazen, and begin to hear the chirping of a bird. You think to yourself, “Ah, this bird is trying to help me wake up!”

Can you find the ego-self in this scenario? It reminds me of the 10 Oxherding pictures – particularly number 9, which appears after the empty frame…

Ox herding picture no. 9

Do you see the bird? Do you see the one who sees the bird? Or the one who hears it? Which is to say, the bird does not appear to arise in order to teach you something. The bird is simply bird; it is there to be the bird it must be, due to the coming together of the particular set of circumstances of the moment. The same applies for the hearer, who is an aggregation of a set of circumstances of the moment, which include a bird sound. This is not to say that the bird and the hearer do not influence one another. They most certainly do if there is any sense contact, or even thought of sense contact. So it is clear that they do not apparently arise independent of each other in the moment of contact. They co-arise in the moment. Yet, there is an aspect of the unknown. The hearer cannot know all of the conditions which appear to create bird or even appear to create self in that moment. This is what Dogen meant when he said, “When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.”

The difference between a deluded view of this event and an awakened view of the event is the perspective. One perspective thinks that the bird exists only in relation to the hearer. The other perspective is that the bird and hearer are in relation to one another and to the myriad circumstances of the universe, with neither apparently arising solely based on itself or the other. So the hearer cannot hear oneself in relation to bird. One can only hear bird. And at the moment of hearing bird, the hearer is one with bird, inseparable from bird, and from all the other conditions of the moment.

This phenomena is especially important to consider when dealing with other people. We can have a perspective of them which is totally caught up in the way we believe that they are serving us, or not serving us, rather than taking the view that we are together co-arising in the moment. In fact, our view of them is as much a factor in each others co-arising as some physical factors.

This kind of discovery happened to a friend of mine who recently wrote to me about his practice. His intention was not to be a cause of suffering for others. He had this wonderful intention, and was very aware of it in his day-to-day life. However, one day it dawned on him that this view was based on his idea that he could control the suffering of others. It became instantly clear that this was an ego-based intention. So, acknowledging that error, my friend could take up the same vow but with Right View, the view of the fundamental interconnected, and yet unknowable nature of those he wants to serve. Now that intention can take flight!

Looking Backward in the Mirror

This morning, in conversation, I found myself receiving the admonishment of Shakyamuni Buddha. “There is no need to convince another of Right View. Simply conduct yourself in such a manner, and the world will co-create itself according to the Way.” Ahhh yes. The desire to have a positive influence, to leave a legacy, to be seen as offering discernment – these desires are all simply an expression of the ego self. They reflect a wish to protect some small-minded identity that habitually defines the world in a way which is incredibly petty when placed into the real context of a universe of co-created activity. Wow! Thank you to the vehicle of the Dharma, a long-time practitioner who is himself humbly finding a path amidst mind, small and large and beyond measure.

This offering arose in the midst of a conversation about how to have a conversation. Recently I’d been approached by a person under whom I have worked. She wanted to talk about disappointment and an expectation that had not been shared. She was direct, but gentle about it. Still, I hesitated because I feel that once the decision is made and the first steps are taken, it’s a little too late to offer feedback. It’s a bit like asking someone what they think of your new hairdo. Once the hair has been cut, to criticize can only be painful. There’s no putting it back, at least not until it grows out. Asking for input before the haircut is more likely to elicit a constructive response.

So the question arose: what is a skillful way to talk about a state of affairs which you undoubtedly view differently, and which is not likely to be undone anytime soon? And what my friend suggested this morning is to avoid trying to convince the other person of my view, or to show the other person who I am by expressing my view. This is a great reminder about renunciation, in this case renunciation of the view of self. That is to say, he recommended that I not impose my view of myself on the situation, but simply express the experience of it.

In this way, if I can cleanly describe my feelings and thoughts and perceptions and respond to what arises in that moment – not the moment that is already history – then the self that arises is simply a skillful interaction, and can be characterized but what’s seen and heard. This is a very different self than the one that is a fixed view, set up in advance and defended over the course of many interactions. So, for example, if I think that I am a compassionate person, then I must always be trying to say something or do something compassionate, and I am constantly judging myself against this view. I will want to hear feedback from others about how compassionate I am, and I will want to see myself as behaving in a compassionate way all the time.

Looking backward in the mirror – c. PR Newswire and American Broadcasting

But, if I forgo the fixed view of myself, and simply act in a skillful and compassionate way, then I can be authentic in the moment and know that sometimes I will act compassionately and maybe sometimes I won’t. But it doesn’t define me or define the world in relation to me except, perhaps, in retrospect, as the consequences of my words and actions have their impacts. This is like looking in the mirror backwards. If you want to see who you are, “you” can only be defined arbitrarily as an accumulation of activities of body, speech and mind. Even this activity of looking back is not necessary, but it can be helpful as a form of studying the self in order to forget the self.

On the Spot

In Zen practice it’s very common to put people on the spot. For example, when a student is leaving the temple to go to practice somewhere else or to return to a lay life or simply to take an extended rest, there is a “Departing Student Ceremony.”

Scene from "Zen" depicting Dogen as a pilgrim

Typically, the Abbess, Abbott or teacher of the student will thank them for their contribution and ask them a single question. This takes place in the zendo, in front of the entire assembly, who stand at their seats and observe silently. It can be a very poignant exchange, and it’s made more significant by the fact that it takes place in public. Students often express some concern in the days leading up to it. They worry that they won’t find an answer, or that their answer won’t be insightful enough. And yet, this is an activity that is well known throughout the community, as anyone who happens to be in the zendo that morning will witness these events. It doesn’t come as a surprise to the students, and many of the people who have been in residence for years come to appreciate and look forward to these exchanges. It can be a pivotal moment, one which can inform practice for years to come.

In fact, in my own experience, it was during a departing monk ceremony that the seed of a koan was planted. I was leaving San Francisco Zen Center to practice in Japan. My Practice Leader Shosan Vicki Austin asked how I could “eliminate the separation” and I replied with “just this breath.” But, on reflection it occurred to me that there is more to meet than just the breath. So the koan arose, “what is this moment?” It is that which we must meet completely, eliminating the sense of one who breathes and one who observes breathing.

But why the stress? Why do people whose stated intention is to be at ease with their own bodies and minds put each other on the spot like this? I think of it like thumping a melon. You thump it and hear what sound it makes, rather than paying attention to its outward appearance. And when a student is presented with a situation in which they feel some pressure, they learn about how they practice with pressure. That is, they learn whether they’d rather shy away, or burst forth with something funny, or simply stand still when the moment is intense. They may even say something without considering the question or choosing their words, possibly expressing themselves with a minimum of conceptual thought. This is where something other than the ego-self can come forth.

So, in Zen, practice is to put yourself in situations where the immediacy of the moment might allow you to forget yourself, allowing the non-self to be expressed more clearly. At that moment being on the spot is the only place to be.