by Nyogen Roshi
Ours is a living practice, an experiential practice. This isn’t a religion where you sit in a room being lectured to. Sometimes it has the appearance of that, but we know what we’re really doing here. It has struck me that one of the things we need to explore in these talks is the ego, mainly to help people with this act of faith. The act of faith I’m talking about is faith in yourself.
To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. There’s the glitch. What does that mean, to forget the self? I don’t want to forget this self! I dearly love this egocentric “I”! Do we?
Buddha said life is suffering. As nearly as I can determine, and I’ve put in many years here, he was right. I’ve looked at my friends, some tremendously successful, and as they age, the truth seems very consistent. I use as my own example my father. He was very successful. He can go anywhere he wants, do anything he wants, have anything he wants, and he’s had it that way for years. Some people in that situation sort of “drug” themselves. They run faster and faster, doing that, doing this, doing that. But the trap is that you can’t run fast enough to escape the fact that you are impermanent. You are aging. You are aging as we talk. At a certain point my father could no longer control the karma that was unfolding. The devastating part was when he lost my mother. They’d been married over 60 years. In losing that kind of control, the success that he’d had no longer meant anything. Then you could actually watch the fear and anxiety grow. His frustration and anxiety seemed to be focused on me, because if what I do is right, perhaps he wasted his life.
I want to take the teaching from the Abidharma, and more importantly out of our line from Harada Roshi to Yasutani Roshi to Maezumi Roshi to me, and examine how ego formation comes about. The major problem that ego contends with is what is real, and what is not real.
You might say, “That’s pretty easy. I know what’s real . . . this here in front of me is real.” No, it’s not. What you’re looking at is a delusional play of the ego. And this can be tested, because our method is a scientific method. You sit down, and you enter into samadhi. Penetrate deep into the mind. This can be done, but it’s difficult. You still the mind until this chatter of discriminating consciousness is cut through. Not easy, but it can be done. And then, what will open up for you is a panorama that you’d never guess exists. And it exists right here now.
We don’t want to think of ego as bad, because all of this comes out of ego: this questioning, this doubting, this frustration that drives us on to penetrate into this thing that each one of us is.
We can talk about shiki or consciousness, but we have to be very careful with words. Words are part of the problem we have. We have to use words, because we have to communicate. But words are considered part of the vines and entanglements that catch us. With the delusional mind, we follow words, and they are contradictory. You’d think that a fine intellect would see the contradiction. Here’s an example: “We’re going to fight for peace.” Can’t be done. My idea of how something is, is simply my idea. If a word comes up and in my mind it represents whatever emotion I have, then I will grab onto it and dig in. If need be, I will cause you to suffer to maintain my own delusional concept. The problem is that I think everybody views the word in the same way. Of course they don’t. In a sense each one of us plays in the field by ourselves.
We think we know what our parents’ expectations of us are, so we impose those expectation on ourselves. I’m a parent, and I’m always stunned by the expectations my kids tell me I have of them! I did too, with my parents.
We carry on this internal dialogue, and it’s a product of ego. Ego’s job is to try to establish a safe, “real” zone. Those of you who have sat for any length of time begin to sense the truth of this. What we’re talking about here can only be validated by yourself. Buddha said, “If you can’t verify this teaching for yourself, throw it away. Go do something else.” There’s much more that the Tathagatha sees. But he said, “I only tell you what your problem is, how to escape from it, and how that is carried out.” The Four Noble Truths: life is suffering, the cause of that suffering, how to stop that suffering, and then how to go about doing it. When we talk about Buddha Dharma—to study the self is to forget the self—what self am I talking about? I’m talking about the self that’s in the center of your head evaluating what I’m saying. That “I” that is experiencing discomfort. That “I” that is evaluating who this old monk is up here talking. That’s the “I” that I’m talking about! It chatters too much. You’re constantly involved with it. It gets your feelings hurt. It projects out. It tumbles with your anger. That “I.”
What happens if that “I” that you’re experiencing right now all of a sudden is gone? To forget the self means to become enlightened by the ten thousand things. What are the ten thousand things? It’s just everything around you. If there is no “I” sitting there — and I don’t mean a state of nonexistence — your essential self appears here in front of you. As it is. To be enlightened by that means you are in fact all things.
I always remember what Roshi would say. He’d shrug his shoulders because it’s such a grandiose statement to the discriminating consciousness: “You are, in fact, the universe.” Creation, continuously flowing out. Not static, never stopped. This is what you are! And this traceless enlightenment goes on forever.
We talked earlier about the sense consciousnesses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body. And the sixth consciousness is mind. This is the thinking process, the very subtle source of ego discrimination. There’s the seventh level—we call it the conveyor consciousness. These first six levels form the body that gives the solid feeling to the “I” consciousness. The body, the form of ego. The sixth level, the thinking process, holds this sense of ego, but it’s not constant. All of you have had this experience. Say you get involved in a good book and forget yourself. Or so engrossed in your work and look up: boom! Time’s gone. You’ve had no awareness. Your back is sore, your neck stiff, but you weren’t even aware of it. You forget the self through that thought process.
The conveyor consciousness, the seventh level, holds the self constant. Eighth consciousness, alaya consciousness or storehouse, is the repository. You don’t need to try to hide your bad deeds! Everything is recorded. It’s maintained in there. Seed consciousness. My action here, this moment, imprints instantly in the eighth awareness. And instantly produces the next moment. Karma. In the same way, you don’t have to toot your horn for the good that you do.
The ninth level is Buddha nature. This transcends it all. We call it Buddha nature, but don’t think it means an Asian-featured person, made of bronze, staring downward. It’s you! It simply came to us from that direction. Karma is bringing it here, now.
Again, the part of us that rises up and settles down, birth and death, are the first six consciousnesses. Seventh, conveyor; eighth, alaya; ninth, Buddha nature. Yasutani Roshi says “Even if they drop an atom bomb on you, those levels are not scratched.” You have to, in your samadhi, in the depth of your practice, punch through to experience the reality of this pristine crystal awareness. Body and mind dropped away. Shinjin datsuraku datsuraku shinjin.
You don’t have to accept on blind faith. You have to have faith in yourself so that you will persevere. So that you will do that which is difficult. And why shouldn’t you? This may be your only opportunity to have the greatest experience that a sentient being can have. It transcends birth, death, space and time and that’s absolutely real. No exaggeration. We know, historically, that it has been practiced for 2,500 years. We know those who have penetrated deep into this samadhi. Not once have they come back and mentioned to us that it’s not worth the effort. What do they say? Rush on, rush on as if putting a fire out on your head, because that’s how brief our life is. When we’re young, it seems like it goes so slowly. But it’s relative. The older you get, zip, it goes quickly. Faster, faster, faster, faster, faster. Where has it gone? All of my plans?
Physicists won’t argue with this: you are constantly in the process of change. Those of you who walked in tonight, right now, you’re not the same person. This birth and death that we fear so much are an ongoing process. You’re very, very experienced with it. It’s happening right now! Death means total nonattachment. Gone! Bring me the person who walked through that door. On a cellular and an emotional level, you’ve had all sorts of experiences since that time that have changed you.
Impermanence: one of the seals of the Buddha. Empty. Nothing is fixed! There is no ego entity here, no solid mass. A variety of things — nose, tongue, eyes, ears — comes together. Ego tries to make these senses solid. You can have the experience, it’s called kensho, satori, enlightenment, of this dropping away. Dogen says, “You will then be like a man who picks up the dipper, pulls up the water and only by drinking it can he say whether it’s warm or it’s cool.” I can scream it to you, but it won’t satisfy you. And it won’t be real, even if you accept what I say. And then you will be torn by the next person who comes in and is even more eloquent.
Drink the water for yourself! And then, as Roshi loved to say, “you’ll be a person who covers the ground where you stand.”
The seventh, eighth and ninth levels of consciousness are beginningless. If there is no beginning, there is no end. You are, in fact, eternal. Don’t think that means there is not awareness. They call it “pristine, crystal awareness.” Part of our koan practice is to explore this. You get into the enlightenment stories. What do some of the old masters call it: “extremely intelligent.” Not the kind of intelligence that we are so proud of here in the West, our technology. So proud of it yet we’re not smart enough to realize that when we poison the air, we poison ourselves and our children and our grandchildren. When we poison the water, we’re doing ourselves in. That’s how smart we are, when we rely on discriminating consciousness. We produce cities, like LA, with massive parts where nobody can walk the streets safely. That’s how smart that mind is! That egocentric mind. That mind you want to rely on.
So, there is this flash of energy. (The Big Bang Theory is very consistent with Buddha Dharma.) At work automatically is the field of ignorance. Don’t worry. Beyond even that is your Buddha nature, flawlessly existing, manifesting as the need arises.
A form flashes. Identification. Something’s there. Feeling comes. And it’s always the duality: is it friendly or is it hostile? Is it harmful or is it beneficial? The moment that evaluation is made, the ego starts its work. Starts into formation. But ego needs things solid. Because out of this duality comes fear. That’s where we’re first deceived. That’s why Dogen says turn the light inward, step backward into that space that’s open, totally clear, pure. If I come from the state of one body, and I never allow the dualism to arise, then I am never in conflict. If this is one body, and this is in fact me, if I hurt you, who am I hurting? Myself. A person who hurts themselves is a schizophrenic. This rational world that we hold so dearly is the world of the schizophrenic. That’s the pain and suffering that constantly has to come out of this ego condition.
So with this first recognition and the feeling — is it good or bad, should I go toward it or pull away — ego starts. Then with that, the intellect starts, the mind starts, the process of the brain starts. And ego wants to solidify this. Because when you don’t hold this separation, it’s totally fluid. No effort. In Zen, that’s what we say: the effort of no effort. Everybody says, “the contradictory statements of Zen!” No. Zen is telling you the absolute precise, logical way we should be functioning and don’t. Even though we can’t avoid it! Even though we can’t avoid Buddha Dharma! Because it’s what you are.
You can stay quite comfortably in your realm of delusion and you are still safely in the hands of the Buddha. You can’t escape it. It’s what you are. It becomes a question of how you’re going to exist. In a miserable, little wormlike egocentric existence or in the cosmic sense, free. Like the tiger released into the forest. You know how the tiger goes into the forest: they go where they want to, they do what they want to. Nobody’s going to tell a tiger what to do.
So as this process starts to develop, an interesting thing happens: the projection of ego, through the thought process. I begin to build layers of delusional thought. I dialogue with myself. I have lost contact with what appears to be my exterior world. I build an internal drama. And I feel, in this egocentric mind, that it is real. I’ve told the story about going to the high school dance as a teenager with a zit on my face. I’m so certain that everybody sees it, that when I get to the dance, I don’t actually relate to the hall, to the people. All I can think about is the lump on my face. Now the funny thing is, why we all can function so well, is that everybody else is thinking about the lump on their face! So we never, ever communicate.
Understand that this “I,” this place you are right now, you always experience alone. We think we interact. We think we communicate. We don’t. If you see an accident in the street, somebody injured, you might think, “Oh I feel what that poor woman is going through.” No, you’re not. You’re feeling what you think she’s going through. You’re playing with yourself.
You might say, “Isn’t that always the case?” Well, yes and no. If there is no self here, if this “I” is gone, that issue is never raised. I simply take care of what’s in front of me. The best example is Mother Teresa. For us, she’s a bodhisattva. Selfless caring. This is the compassion of the path that we walk. Buddha nature. But ego is afraid. Think how dearly you will hold to your ego-ground. Your self-image. How about the stinky side? “I’m afraid to show it!” Shouldn’t be. It’s recorded in alaya consciousness. That’s why you can never escape from your deeds. In Zen, that’s why it’s so important that there is no corner of you in your psychology that you hide from. You bring it out. And lo and behold, what happens? You can survive. And you survive effortlessly. Those who do it, become emancipated.
You can see this in the dokusan room. People often come in, tight and closed off. And then you’ll see the breakthrough. And without fail, they’ll start flapping and stretching. It’s like the first time they realized they can move in this space, and move quite gracefully. Any of you have been around the old Zen masters, those who’ve sat for 50 years, the one thing you’ll be taken with is the grace with which they move. And they’re not conscious of it. That’s just who they are. That’s who you are! And your discrimination — “Oh, but we don’t discriminate.” Sure, we do — when it’s selfless discrimination, it’s precise.
Now there is the fear—you experience the fear. Suppose you had to stand up here right now and talk about the most vile part of yourself. You won’t even do that with your psychiatrist. You always have a hidden place that you cannot share. The Sufis have a saying that you’re not free until you realize that God knows all. We could say here that you’re not free until you realize that it’s all recorded in alaya consciousness and it’s coming back! Once you understand that, you can accept and have great faith. You can then come out on the stage and lo and behold, you can survive. More than survive. For the first time you experience freedom. For the first time, you can truly begin to appreciate the richness of our lives. And that has nothing to do with the material trappings we’ve put on ourselves. If we have them, great. If we don’t have them, great. In Zen, they say, don’t pick it up if you can’t put it down. There’s nothing wrong with desires. It’s the attachment to desire that’s the problem.
So as ego projects, I completely distort the mandala, the environment that turns around me. When I’m angry, everything is angry. When I’m sad, everything is sad. You can sit within these walls and if someone comes in and whispers in your ear that a dearly love one has died, this building will change. Your experience as you walk to your car will change. Where is that change taking place? In your head. Someone whispers in your ear, ”You just won the lottery.” Very same building will be altogether different. The walk to your car, which is the same walk to your car, will be glorious. It will be like it’s gold, silver, gorgeous lights. Where’s the change? In your head. And it’s delusional.
The point of our practice is punching through, cutting through that flow of egocentric consciousness. Cut it! Everyone of you that has worked koans knows that there is the killing koan. Cut it! It takes guts to do that. Slow down egocentric consciousness? Sure, that’s why we like to sit sesshin. It’s difficult, but when you leave, there’s an attenuating effect that stays with you for awhile. You go back to work and, gee, it seems so easy. Things that would annoy you, you’re not annoyed by. Gosh, you have a wonderful sense of “isn’t this exquisite?” And then round about Wednesday, you’re back. Everything sucks. Watch those sharks out there, they’re gonna get you! There are no sharks out there to get you. Only yourself.
As long as the thinking process continues, driven by ego, you build up layers upon layers of delusion. If you get caught in that drama, and we all do in varying degrees, some to the point of sleeplessness, it can spin so fast that there’s no relief. But there’s a built-in safety system. It’s called a breakdown. If you don’t break down, you become totally, paranoid schizophrenic. You see them on the street. You see them talking to themselves. They have completely reshaped the world. Totally delusional. And where has that happened? In their heads.
Meditation slows it down. And finally, a gap appears. Stillness. Where’s this stillness? Now. Then you see things as they are. One of the great statements of Zen: as it is. Thusness. That’s what you are. That’s what meditation is, very simple. Non-thinking. “Oh wait a minute, that sounds wacko.” No. Don’t worry about it. You don’t lose the ability to think. You’re just not driven by egocentric flows of thought. Cut through! Simply look up and at this point, Dogen says, you become intimate with the ordinary aspects of your life. If there is no thinking, and this “I” has dropped away, it means no separation. That’s what zazen is, no separation. The best and easiest place to accomplish that is on this cushion.
When there is no separation, and there is no dualistic thinking of “I” versus “that,” you enter the world of oneness. It exists here, now. Then you know the object intimately. There is no knowledge. It is wisdom. It can’t be accumulated, it can only be experienced.
That’s part of the problem that all of us have, particularly as we advance in our koan practice. We realize that we want to understand something. Ego wants to understand. Because if it understands, it can build more conceptual structures, it can give you a sense of being in control. I can tell you from my experience, that there can be a moment of fear. “You mean that if I actually just be, I can survive? How can I?” Because you have no moorings that you’re attached to. You simply get out there. It is an extremely naked experience at first. But you’ll find that you are manifesting as a buddha. With selfless movement. While there is the fear of all these things, there is an amazing force, an amazing energy that is constantly coming up like a powerful seed under an asphalt surface. This is Buddha nature. And it is fearless. You don’t have to worry. You’re fully endowed with it. And that’s where the courage comes to push through. An acorn can only become an oak tree. A sentient being can only manifest as a buddha.
This moment, now, is where your power is. Discipline yourself to experience it. Like Roshi would say, “Just do it. Become stupid and do it.” You will not have lost anything. You will have gained the whole universe.