Transcribed from a talk given July 17, 2007
For those of you that have come to the Tuesday evening sit for a number of times you have most likely heard me talk about these two fundamental activities which constitute all things in this vast universe. I often refer to them as the activities of plus and minus, male and female, or the activity of birth and death. And I think sometimes people may wonder where this teaching, where this description of the fundamental activity comes from. We are often surprised to hear this description of plus and minus.
My teacher often refers to our particular lineage of Zen as Nyorai Zen. Nyorai is the Japanese word for the Sanskrit word Tathāgata. Tathāgata was the term that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, used to refer to himself. This word Tathāgata has as its content two roots: Tathā-gata, and Tathā-āgata. These words mean, literally, “thus going” and “thus coming.” The foundation of the teaching of Buddhism is within this single word “Tathāgata.”
It addresses this idea that we come up with, this idea that we hold very dearly; that we are objects, that we are things, that we are fixed, lasting things and that as we go through this life we bump into other fixed lasting things. But this teaching of Tathāgata, “thus coming and thus going”, or as we put it in our tradition, “the activity of plus and minus”, asks that we question this assumption. What is it exactly that we take as being solid? What is it that we’re taking as being an object in this moment? What is it that we call “I” or “me”, that we take as being fixed and lasting and permanent?
When we look at our lives, when we look at the way that we conduct ourselves in business or in relationship, if we look at the way that we treat objects in this world, people, things, environments, we find that we base our decisions, we base our choices, we base our actions on who we think we are, “I”. When it comes time to make a critical decision about whether something is good or bad, almost universally, our judgment is based on our understanding of “I”. What is good is what is good-for "me". What is bad is what is bad-from "my" perspective.
The Buddha taught that there is no such thing as a lasting permanent “I”. This concept in Buddhism is called, “anatta”—no self. There is nothing which is fixed, or lasting, or permanent.
It doesn’t take us very long to investigate this, at least at a cursory level, to say, “What is it about ‘I’, ‘me’, this person that is sitting here right now, that is fixed and lasting and permanent? It’s certainly not my thoughts, it’s not my emotions—I feel differently from moment to moment—it’s not my beliefs—what I believe now is not what I believed as a child.” We can go through every aspect of this "thing"—preferences, choices, relationships, ideas, the physical body—and we can’t find anything to lay our hands on which is of the nature to last.
We find that we take each and every aspect of this thing that we call a self as solid, we unquestioningly accept the nature of self as being fixed and permanent, when even with a brief examination we find that this assumption is seriously flawed.
Now, to open ourselves up to this realization, to open ourselves up to our own experience that this thing that we take as being fixed and permanent isn’t there, will have serious implications on the rest of our lives.
I have a background of working with mental health and addictions services, and I remember one time I was listening to a psychiatrist talk about a definition of schizophrenia, and one of the symptoms that helped to define this illness we call schizophrenia is “delusion”. Delusion was defined as “a fixed false belief in spite of evidence to the contrary.” As a monk, sitting there listening to this, it dawned on me that in general, from the perspective of Buddhism, humanity is delusional.
This absolute belief in a self which exists separately, which is lasting and fixed and permanent, is delusion. It doesn’t take much to see the evidence. In fact what I find really interesting is that each of us is very much willing to accept the non-existence of other “selves”.
We can accept the impermanence of plants, of animals, of cars and of building, of mountains even, even of other people. But when it comes to our perspective of ourselves, we make the exception, “but I’m lasting.” Now, this isn’t always a blatant, outstanding belief that we go about chanting or anything like that, but when we investigate our behaviour, when we investigate how we relate with people in this world, how we treat the things that we come into relationship with, the food that we eat; is our conduct reflective of the fact that we are an activity, or does it reveal our misguided perspective that we are going to live forever?
This fundamental teaching, “anatta”, is found in all schools of Buddhism. In some ways, it is what defines this Way. When I speak of the activity of plus and minus I am speaking of the activity of arising, the activity of dissolving.
Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, stopped referring to himself by name, and instead referred to himself as “the Tathāgata”. I guess we could understand this as saying, “the person who has come into this moment, the person who now dissolves in this moment.”
How many of us can uphold this perspective of ourselves? As we go through our day, as we go through our relationships, as things that we have desired come into our grasp, are we able to enjoy them just as they are, and when the time comes for them to pass, can we release them recognizing this fundamental activity of plus and minus?
Now, perhaps, when I ask this question, “how many of us can do this?” some people in this room think, “Certainly not me! This realization, this way of harmony with the fundamental activity of things is beyond me”, or “I’m too stuck, I’m too fixated with myself.”
Who is it that you are fixated with? Who is it that’s fixated with it?
Ahh, we’ve been caught! In all of our thinking, “No I don’t think of myself as fixed and permanent. No I don’t hold onto a self,” we find that we do. We find that we have these definitions for ourselves: “I’m this kind of person”, or “I’m that kind of person.” “I like this and I don’t like that.” And in experiencing this, in being hooked so to speak, we find ourselves in the heart of practice, for this practice of Zen, this activity that we are doing right now, is not a philosophical endeavour.
Our job isn’t to sit quietly and think deep thoughts, but to investigate this moment, this moment which has as its content all things...this moment, which is nothing other than our lives. We don’t just think about this, but we must investigate with all of our energy, all of our mind, all of our heart, all of our body, this moment-right now.
Where is it that we’re getting stuck? What is it that we’re attaching to, fixating, taking as solid, permanent, lasting? What is it that we’re convinced will provide us with lasting, permanent happiness? This practice of Zen that we engage in is a means of taking these teachings, the Dharma, taking it out of our heads, taking them off of the page and the history books and breathing life into them.
The Buddha taught first, “Wonder of wonders, each of us is fundamentally awake, but we don’t realize it.” Each of us is nothing other than this activity of plus and minus, but we mistake ourselves as being something else.
Each of us is nothing other than this activity, and yet we take ourselves as objects. And it is because of this fundamental error, this basic misunderstanding that we suffer.
This teaching, Buddhism, the path of awakening, is not a practice of trying to make something better. It’s not a practice of trying to add something in, or develop something. It is, just as I’ve said, the path of awakening, waking up, coming to realize this fundamental activity just as it is. Letting go of this deluded notion that there is this "thing" that I can call “I”, which stands fixed and permanent, separate from all other things in this vast universe.
It isn’t a matter of reading the right thing, or sitting for the right number of minutes, or hours, or days. It’s simply waking up in this very moment to what is. There isn’t a single person in this room...there isn’t a single fibre of carpet in this room...that is not capable of this awakening. These are limitations that we place upon ourselves. It is important to realize that it is we, ourselves, creating this concept of “I” and cutting ourselves off from the rest of this universe. We don’t have to make it a bigger self. Simply let go of this idea and realize that already, you are at one with all things in this vast universe.
This practice is with us all the time. Each of us, as we go through our day can investigate this activity of plus and minus, breathing in...breathing out, this activity of being born...and dying is as near to us as our breath. So as we go through our lives, when we feel isolated, when we feel cut off, when we feel ourselves having some difficulty, we simply stop holding on to ourselves so rigidly and breathe.
Unify the mind and body and with this fundamental activity of plus and minus, and just see what happens.