What is the self?

“To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.”

These first two sentences are probably the most widely quoted in Dogen’s GENJOKOAN, and perhaps in all of Dogen’s writings. It’s rewarding to read Dogen slowly and closely, word by word. You could spend months and even years just studying the GENJOKOAN without using it up.

Beginning with “to study,” Dogen puts you in the realm of activity. You’re doing something. Making an effort. Effort is one of three core elements of Zen practice: Faith, Doubt, and Effort. The Buddha Way – Zen practice – is something you do individually, and also together. You can be interested in Zen. You can think Zen is cool. You can think about Zen. But unless you DO Zen, nothing much happens.

Dogen goes on to identify the main to-do: What do you study? The self. This reminds me of a conversation Bruce Jewell had with Fukushima Roshi when we were visiting Japan and at Tofukuji monastery in Kyoto. Bruce asked Fukushima Roshi “What’s the single most important thing to do in practice?” and Fukushima Roshi said, “To watch yourself.” Pure Dogen.

The usual way of understanding this instruction is to understand “the self” as “yourself,” or “oneself.” But studying this self, oneself, is also studying the nature of identity in general, of selfhood, of the nature of self itself. Of the self of a tree or a star or any other person. But you focus on the self that’s handiest and most compelling: this self. You. And me.

We call zazen practice turning the light inward or taking the backward step. You don’t look outside ourselves for understanding and transformation. You look within. In your practice, you watch your own mind. You watch your own behavior. You watch your own thoughts and feelings. You watch your own desires. You study all this. And what do you find? What do you see? What is the self? These questions are stepping stones on the path of studying the self.

The idea of “self,” is the idea of a state of distinct identity. So when you study the self, you’re trying to understand this distinct identity. What do you find when you take this on? Where is the distinctness? Where is the core of identity? Is there even such a thing at all? Is it find-able? In the second sentence, Dogen says “To study the self is to forget the self.” What does he mean? Does he mean to become “selfless” in the sense of only caring about others with no selfish regard for yourself.

Usually, you take it for granted that your self has some kind of fixed, distinct identity. You look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and you say, “Yes. That’s me. It’s not someone else.” But what you see today is not what you saw 10 years ago. The you has changed, so what exactly is this fixed, distinct identity? Where is it? There’s a famous story about a disciple of Bodhidharma’s who comes to him and says he can’t find peace of mind. Bodhidharma tells him to go find his mind and bring it forward to be pacified. The disciple comes back and said he’s looked for his mind but can’t find it. Can’t find such a “thing” as his mind. Bodhidharma says, “There. I’ve pacified it for you.”

This is a story about studying the self and forgetting the self. Bodhidharma said, “To find a Buddha all you have to do is see your nature. Your nature is the Buddha. And the Buddha is the person who’s free: free of plans, free of cares. If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a buddha. The truth is there’s nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand.”

It’s not too hard to make an intellectual case that there’s no real fixed, distinct, independent thing you can call a self. That it’s an invention, a fiction, an artifice. After all, every cell in your body is replaced every 7 years. And you can’t and don’t exist independent of the countless causes and conditions of your environment – the sperm and egg your parents chipped in, the food you eat, your relationships, etc. and all these things are constantly changing. No single moment is repeated or perfectly repeatable. Even if life sometimes feels like a Groundhog Day experience, each apparently repetitive cycle involves some new action, some new understanding, some new consequences. So even as you have some sense of selfhood it’s hard to pinpoint.

This kind of intellectual unwinding of the idea of a self could be interesting, but it has little real power. It won’t change much in your experience of being alive or how you treat others. So we don’t put a ton of weight on such intellectual perspectives in Zen. The intellect is wonderful, but it’s not enough for what we have in mind. Not enough to effect transformation. That’s why we do zazen. Zazen is the main activity, the place where we deeply study the self in a way that has the power to change us. That’s where we root our struggle, to use Bodhidharma’s words, to see our nature. In other words, to see the nature of the self. To be enlightened as to the nature of self. and at the same time, when we do it, we let go of our struggle and any idea of enlightenment. We just do it.

This is not usually a speedy process. There’s a distinction in Zen between something called sudden enlightenment and something called gradual enlightenment. These terms are applied to the Rinzai Zen sect and the Soto Zen sect. They are different styles of practice. Without getting into a technical discussion of differences between how Rinzai and Soto Zen talk about enlightenment, I think it’s fair to say that enlightenment – gradual and/or sudden – describes a particular kind of insight. Commonly, “insight” refers to some kind of specific intellectual discovery or realization. When we use the word “enlightenment” in Zen, there is indeed a kind of insight/discovery/realization but (unlike “conventional” insight) it also includes a kind of transformative shift in how you understand your own nature, the nature of the world and of life itself, and your relationship to it. This is an aspect of what Dogen refers to as forgetting the self.

I think the most important thing to remember in all this talk of enlightenment is that this enlightenment, this forgetting the self, while it’s a real experience and includes a profound shift, is by itself of very little value when it comes to how you live. Unless you deepen and refine and integrate it into your everyday activity. Endlessly. Otherwise, it’s a dramatic experience that fades away with little impact.

This means learning how to re-enlighten yourself moment after moment, situation after situation. When you realize the fluid, impermanent, connected and contingent nature of what you call yourself, there is a kind of freedom and relaxation that comes along with it. The “I/Me/Mine” energy according to which everything revolves around your desires and aversions is no longer the only game in town. You have alternatives. You see others differently. Your preferences loosen their grip. You see everything a little differently.

But actually living day by day in alignment with this understanding, with this enlightened understanding, take effort. It requires care and attention and determination. Old habits die hard. Old habits are rooted in our bodies and I think selfishness and ego-driven energies are rooted in our DNA. So we have to stick with it. The process of practice is a bit like chiropractic. A chiropractor can adjust your spine and give you some ease and relief. But you have to go back for regular adjustments because otherwise your spine keeps drifting out of alignment and before you know it, you’re hunched over in pain, and you have less and less freedom of movement, less and less freedom of action. Hopefully you have a teacher to remind you and help you to re-align, and a sangha, and supportive friends. And you must also be your own chiropractor.

In the beginning, I thought Zen practice meant you magically became enlightened and cruised through life in a state of constant delight, always making the right move no matter what. Sounds good, doesn’t it? You could read the passage in GENJOKOAN this way. But the truth is that we study the self endlessly and forget the self endlessly, over and over, for our whole lives. It’s not about pulling an all-nighter to study and forget the self. It’s about pulling an all-lifer.

(notes from a talk at Zen Center of Fresno, 2/9/13)