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…
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!