Monday, March 16, 2009

Drop away "self"!

Transcription of a talk given April 17, 2007.

For many people, finally making our way to a zendo, a practice place, comes at the end of a long time of thinking, thinking about. There are several students in the Zen Centre who have the same stories: “for twenty years I read about Zen, and I thought I really had a grasp on it, but I finally figured that I needed to go and practise.” And I think for many people there is a lot of hesitation, a lot of fear about coming to a place like this to just sit down. We’re not really sure what the fear is about, what the hesitation is about. And yet it’s there as an obstacle to practice that we have to confront at some point.

So right off the bat I want to congratulate everyone here tonight on confronting that first obstacle of practice, the resistance to practice itself. When we start to practise, the first thing we start to become aware of is a settling. As we engage in this simple activity of sitting, as we observe the breath, as we begin to become aware of our mind and body we begin to settle, to become still. As we become still we begin to become more aware of who we are, who we are not only in the positives, in the nice things that we like about ourselves, but also of the difficult things, of the the things that we are ashamed of. We become aware of our fears and our self-concerns in a very intimate way. And as we continue to sit, this awareness can become quite uncomfortable. “I came to sit so that I could find some peace, freedom from stress, liberation.” We’re not prepared for our difficult self.

Over and over again I say in these talks, “this moment has as its content all things.” And I think that for many of us when we hear this kind of a statement we intellectually grasp onto it, all things meaning everything good. We want to leave out all the difficult things, all the uncomfortable things, all of the unpleasant things. “This moment has as its content all things” means just that: pleasant and unpleasant, comfortable and uncomfortable. When we hear this statement we often think of it externally: the universe has as its content all things and yet we hold ourselves outside, and “I watch the universe” we think, consciously or unconsciously.

But as we practice, as we continue to engage in this activity of simply following the breath we become aware more and more deeply that inside and outside are not two. We become aware that this thing that we’re hanging onto and calling a self has as its content both good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. And what we start to experience when we practice and when we engage in our lives are the ways in which our attachment, our fixation with self, our addiction to comfort and to avoiding difficulty leads us to suffer.

In the beginning of practice we can develop a self-importance, and we can sit and think, as we wallow in our own difficult emotions, that nobody else feels this way, that nobody else has suffered as I have, nobody else knows what it is like to be me. This often happens to people early in practice. We’re first coming into contact with emotions that we’ve tried to avoid, to deny, but in the end we become fixated and egotistical even about our own emotions—“I’m suffering”.

My teacher would often give a talk like this and he would begin just the same, and then he would say, “awwwwwwww. Grow up!”

Each of us suffers. Each of us is brought to this difficult impasse because of our attachment, because of our fixation to this thing we call a self: “I’m this kind of person. I’m that kind of person. I like this and I don’t like that.” Buddhism teaches some fundamental laws—they’re called—impermanence: all things in this vast universe are impermanent. So regardless of what it is that you like you will inevitably, if you have it you will lose it. All of the things that you dislike and you want to avoid, if they are absent eventually they may arise. The more strongly you are fixated to your concept of “I”, your concept of self, the more interested you are in finding that self as being fixed, lasting and permanent the more suffering you will find in life.

Each of us has our demons as we’ve come up in this world, as we’ve arisen, as we’ve experienced life. Each of us has identified a self, attached to things that we prefer and like and felt those things dissolve, slip through our fingers, whether those things are relationships or ideas, situations, possessions. As we continue to practice we start to let go of this obsession with our own upsets, our own difficulties; we start to let go of the particularities of those things, and our investigation necessarily deepens.

What is it that brings us to suffer over and over again? What is it that brings us to become angry, to hate, to be afraid? We start to understand that in all of this myriad world the cause of our suffering is actually very limited.

The Buddha enumerated four noble truths the second of which is, “the cause of suffering is desire, craving.” The origin of craving is in this fixation, this obsession with the self, “I”, an “I” which is lasting, permanent, which stands separate from all other things, which has the capacity to make judgment—good and bad, comfortable, uncomfortable, desirable and unwanted. When we stand up on any of these positions, when we fixate them, objectify them as the source of our contentment the simple law of impermanence guarantees that we find suffering. But it’s not enough for us to grasp this in our mind; it’s not enough for us to understand this; we have to experience it.

For many people, when I talk about suffering, suffering becomes this object out there, this concept, this idea of difficulty which we play with in our mind. This is why practising in the context of our life becomes so important, because inevitably we will meet it not as a concept but as a visceral part of our lives: something that we are profoundly attached to dissolves, someone that we care about deeply dies, a situation that we are very comfortable with unravels. And we find that suffering isn’t an idea which exists externally, but is something that grasps us, that we engage in consciously, and we start to begin to wonder why.

When we come to practise we come to bring our minds, bring our bodies, to settle, to rest in this moment just as it is—the activity of plus and minus. We begin to become aware of our attachments. We begin to be able to see the specific fixations that we have, the particular habits that we have, that we cling to to identify ourselves, to make ourselves feel safe and fixed.

We want so much to find a place to rest where we can stop, where we can be fixed, lasting. We do all that we can in our power to convince ourselves that this exists, that this resting place is something that we can attain—“I”. Even when we practice Buddhism we start to think about enlightenment as some kind of finish line at which we can burst through and then we will be able to stand up and go about our lives, business as usual, as an enlightened being. We need to cut off this way of thinking, cut off this way of thinking that looks for a resting place, the place in which things stop.

I talk about the activity of plus and minus, the activity of arising, the activity of dissolving away. When we start to investigate ourselves not an object but as activity, when we start to investigate our interactions and our relationships not as objects, as things, but as activity, we have the opportunity to let go of our fixations, of our desire for things to be this way or that way; we have the opportunity to open our eyes and see things exactly as they are in this very moment without the expectation of things to be a certain way, without the disappointment when things are not the way we wanted them to be; we are able to see this moment, our lives, with eyes that are clear and fresh, and we’re able to perceive the beauty that is inherent in each moment of our lives.

So what do you have to do to realize this? Well, it’s not so difficult. You are doing it right now. This activity is not something that gets added on to what is going on already. This activity is what’s happening each and every moment. It’s all there is. We ourselves build up all kinds of ideas about self and other, subject and object, time and space. But when we are able to truly enter into this moment just as it is, all these things drop away and we realize that they are just concepts, ideas. But this isn’t something that we can grasp with our heads. In this very moment drop away self!

How do you manifest your true nature in this very moment? This is the beginning of Zen practice. I think I’ve gone way over time so I’ll let you all off the hook now. Thank you.


  1. Eshu, Thanks for sharing these talks on your blog. I look forward to them each week now.
    How's the dancing coming along ??

  2. Thanks Eric,

    I'm glad you are enjoying the talks. We finished our first group of classes which included a taste of tango, jive, rhumba(sp?), foxtrot, and waltz. We've signed up for the next group which starts in April.