In this episode, I present a classic Zen teaching on not-self: Zen Master Dogen’s statement that “To study Buddhism is to study the self.” In Zen, a direct, personal understanding of the true nature of self is considered so important that one Zen term for spiritual awakening is kensho, meaning “seeing one’s own true nature.”
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Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
How Zen Relates to the Original Buddhist Teaching on Not-Self [1:44]
Zen Master Dogen’s Teaching on the Self in Genjokoan [5:08]
What It Means to Study [8:00]
What Self Do We Study? [12:15]
When We Study “Self” We Study Our Self [15:00]
Challenging Our Assumption of Self [18:00]
Forgetting the Self [21:42]
When You Forget the Self – Then What? [23:57]
Being Verified by All Things [26:03]
Dropping Off Body and Mind [29:42]
How Zen Relates to the Original Buddhist Teaching on Not-Self
The Zen take on the self definitely grows out of, and depends on, the older Buddhist teaching of anatta I presented in the last episode, so if you aren’t already familiar with anatta, I suggest going back to listen to the Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self (episode 14) first.
So, just to briefly recap: In the last episode, I covered in detail the Buddha’s teaching about anatta, or not-self. I explained how – contrary to popular belief – the Buddha didn’t teach that we have no self. Rather, he observed that the human desire to locate and depend on a permanent, inherent, enduring self-nature was ultimately futile and dissatisfying. The primary reason for this is that all things impermanent, or subject to change. Therefore, the Buddha taught the practice of not-self, where you learn to refrain from the habit of identifying the things you encounter as being part of self or belonging to self. Essentially, we recognize things as “not self” and thereby relieve ourselves of all kinds of obsessions, worries, and experiences of dissatisfaction or suffering.
A quick note here to explain how the Zen teachings I’m going to discuss in this episode relate to the older Buddhist teachings: When I discuss the Buddha’s original teachings, as I did in the last episode, I usually rely on the Pali Canon, which is the collection of scriptures maintained and followed by the Theravadin school of Buddhism. “Theravada” means “way of the elders,” and modern Theravadins strive to remain true to the Buddha’s original teachings. It isn’t entirely accurate to equate Theravadin Buddhism and its Pali Canon with what the Buddha himself originally taught or how the Sangha originally practiced, but it’s a pretty close approximation.
Zen evolved later, in China, as part of the Mahayana tradition, and Chinese masters innovated and put the teachings into their own terms. Chinese students of Zen (or Ch’an, as it was called in China) usually studied the original Buddhist teachings as well as anything written by Chinese masters, or offered by their own Chinese teachers. The teaching of no-self would have formed a basis or background for all Ch’an discussions and practice. The Ch’an masters didn’t reject anything the Buddha said, they simply interpreted it, elaborated on it, and expressed it in poetic language that was more reflective of the Chinese culture. If I had to sum up, in one sentence, the difference between Theravadin Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, I’d say Theravadin Buddhism is methodical and rational where Zen is more intuitive and poetic. Let’s see if you agree with me after listening to this episode!
Zen Master Dogen’s Teaching on the Self in Genjokoan
Fast forward through the development of Ch’an in China to the 1200’s, shortly after the Ch’an school of Buddhism had spread to Japan (where it was called “Zen.”) Zen Master Dogen lived from 1200 to 1253, and was a prolific writer. While he is considered the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan, his teachings were actually largely ignored from a few decades after his death until the early 20th century, when his genius was rediscovered. His philosophical as well as practical teachings about Zen are inspiring and profound – if a little challenging to comprehend at times.
Fortunately, as far as Dogen teachings go, the passage we’re going to focus on here is relatively straightforward, although of course it will take some explanation. In his essay “Genjokoan,” Dogen gives a teaching about self that many of us have found to be a precise description of the path of Zen practice in four steps:
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.”
I’ll explain each of these steps in detail in a moment (although of course I’m not claiming that a verbal explanation in a podcast is going to let you access the full meaning of this teaching!). First, however, let me attempt to summarize what Dogen’s saying here in order to give you a sense of where we’re going: By boldly equating “the Buddha Way” with studying the self, Dogen is unequivocally stating that the matter of self is central to the practice of Buddhism (and therefore Zen). He indicates that we need to engage in deep inquiry into the nature of self in order to be liberated from the self-concern and obsession the Buddha identified as such a problem over a thousand years earlier. Dogen then goes further, describing how it feels to function when one is liberated from a deluded view of self: We are “verified” by all things, and are able to shed the limiting concept of separateness in order to experience intimacy with all of life.
What It Means to Study
So, let’s start at the beginning: To study Buddhism is to study the self. What does Dogen mean by “study?” The translation from the Genjokoan I just used is by Shohaku Okumura, and in his book Realizing Genjokoan, Okumura gives a further explanation of the Japanese word he translates as “study.” The Japanese word is narau, which is related to the word neraru. Neraru means “to get accustomed to,” or “to become intimate or familiar with.” Okumura further elucidates the term by explaining how the Chinese character for narau is composed of the symbol for the wings of a bird, combined with the symbol for “self.” He suggests that narau implies the kind of study or learning a baby bird needs to do in order to fly – watching its parents, taking the risk of trying flight itself, and then practicing over and over in order to do it successfully.
The “study” of self Dogen is referring to in the Genjokoan is not intellectual study. It’s not about sitting around thinking about yourself or your life. It’s not about analyzing your neuroses and trying to figure out where they came from. It’s not about philosophizing, or reading, or even meditating in order to achieve some kind of transcendent insight about yourself.
Instead, Dogen’s “self study” involves turning toward your direct experience as a living being. We become intimate with our own bodies and minds through the practices of zazen (Zen meditation) and mindfulness. If you haven’t done a contemplative spiritual practice before, you may think you’re intimate, or familiar, with yourself and your direct experience. However, if you sit down to silently stare at wall for 30 minutes with nothing to distract you but your own thoughts and feelings, you might be surprised at what you find. One of the most amazing things about Buddhism and Zen is that they offer real practices you can do to help you “wake up” to what’s actually going on!
You might call this kind of study phenomenological. Phenomenology is “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view” – that is, it takes your subjective experience as a valid method of inquiry for genuine insight into the nature of your own consciousness. Rather than dismissing your direct experience as a “merely subjective” view on external reality, Buddhism points out that your subjective experience is your only real means of insight into your nature as a human being. Studying the self can’t reveal to you whether there’s life on other planets, but it gives you transformative insight into how your own mind and body work – and therefore how you can gain more freedom of choice when it comes to navigating your own life. How better to learn what it means to be a human being than to study your own experience as a human being? How better to learn what it means to be you – an individual with your own particular body, mind, genetic makeup, and history – than by studying you?
Another translation of the first line of Dogen’s famous Genjokoan passage is “to learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves.” So it’s not just about gaining understanding about your self, it’s also about learning how to use the self like a bird learns to use its wings to fly. This is a gradual, often challenging, process.
What Self Do We Study?
What exactly are we studying when we study the self? Zen is based on the Buddha’s original teachings about not-self, or anatta, so we’re basically starting our study with the premise that no matter how hard or long we look, we’re not going to find anything enduring, inherent, or graspable thing we can call “self!” Isn’t it strange to focus your study on something you can’t locate or define? Also, according to the Buddha’s original teachings, we cause ourselves no end of dissatisfaction and suffering when we identify anything as “self” – so wouldn’t focusing on self in our Buddhist practice only exacerbate our dissatisfaction and suffering? Wouldn’t it make us even more obsessed with self?
These are all valid questions that, ironically, need to be part of our study of self! It might make more sense to put Dogen’s statement this way: To study Buddhism is to study all things self-related – our sense that we have an enduring, inherent self-nature, our desire to find something permanent to rely on, our various views about self, the way we identify things as self and how we feel when those things change, how our belief in self leads us to act in selfish and harmful ways, the pervasive fear we don’t actually exist or that we will be annihilated upon our physical death, and the undeniable experience of being alive and aware that leads us to imagine a self-nature.
I once studied with a Zen teacher who kept asking us, over the course of an intensive three-month practice period, to diligently search not for the self, but for our view of the self. He kept insisting we identify within us the conviction that we had an enduring, independent, inherent self-nature. No matter how hard we look, we can never locate and define an enduring, inherent self, but we can definitely find our view that one exists! This teacher encouraged us to become intimate with that belief and how desperately we hold on to it, and how little we question it. Identifying our view of self doesn’t represent the whole of Zen practice, but it’s an important place to start.
When We Study “Self” We Study Our Self
The way I’ve been talking so far may imply that Zen self-study is rather philosophical or impersonal, but that’s definitely not the case. In practice, studying the self in Buddhism ends up being intensely personal, and we won’t get far if we try to skip over the personal in order to contemplate abstract generalities like the question, “What is the view of self?” We’re asked to study our self, because that’s the only self we have direct access to! So, when we explore, for example, “the pervasive fear we don’t actually exist or that we will be annihilated upon our physical death,” we are exploring our own very real, visceral fear of death or non-existence.
Also included in our self-study are more mundane aspects of our experience around self: the ways we act in our daily lives that express or enact our belief in, or attachment to, an enduring, inherent self-nature. Because of the self-concern that arises from our view of self, we spend a lot of time looking out for “numero uno” and obsessing about the things we identify as self or as belonging to self, including our body, thoughts, emotions, opinions, possessions, relationships, abilities, qualities, attainments, etc. The admonition to “study the self” in these contexts invites us to turn toward our assumptions, thoughts, and behaviors and ask, “What’s going on here?” Over and over we recognize how identifying things as self eventually leads to self-obsession, selfish actions, and dissatisfaction.
How do we do study ourselves in practice? In zazen, and in whatever stillness we can summon in the rest of our life, we pay attention to ourselves. This doesn’t mean getting caught up in the details, but observing carefully. What do we think? What do we feel? What triggers us? When do we feel small and defensive, and when do we feel relaxed and intimate? Why do we feel what we feel? What do we fear? What do we hope for? Who do we think we are? What is it like when our self-consciousness falls away for a moment? What makes that happen?
We don’t have to intellectually investigate these questions, and we don’t have to go through them systematically like a course of required study. We just cultivate awareness of what’s going on in our life. We build a habit of being familiar with our own living.
Challenging Our Assumption of Self
Through our study of all things self-related, we arrive at a sincere question, “Am I right about self?” Our previously unexamined assumption that we possess an enduring, inherent self-nature starts to look more and more like what it is: an assumption.
To challenge our sense of self, we have to examine it very, very carefully. We need to keep our attention on it intensely enough and long enough to notice where the gaps appear in what usually seems to be an enduring, very real self. I don’t have time to go into all the subtleties of the human experience of self-consciousness here, but here’s a short list of some of the kinds of things we assume about ourselves:
- In some inherent way, we are the same person we have been all of our lives. Many – if not most – details may have changed, but at the core we have some enduring essence that remains the same.
- Although we admit we are deeply affected by things outside of us, and also dependent on other beings and things for survival, we have a self-essence that is absolutely independent of everything else. In other words, if we were abducted by aliens and ended up living in a completely different world, we might feel traumatized but it would still be “us” in some essential way.
- There is some “I” who is present even as our self-consciousness comes and goes. When our mind wanders, or is totally absorbed in something, the “I” remains, waiting for our awareness to return.
- There is some one behind our volition. When our actions have negative consequences, we are to blame, and when they have positive results we get to claim the credit. When our agendas are thwarted, we feel threatened.
- Any aspect of ourselves that is not entirely under our control is also not exactly the same thing as the core self who comes up with the agenda. For example, there is the “I” who wants to concentrate in meditation, and who disciplines the unruly “mind” by making it concentrate on the “body.” At other times, we may feel very identified with our body or mind, but not when they aren’t cooperating with our will.
When we learn to pay close attention to our sense of self – through our meditation and mindfulness practices – we begin to realize how changeable it is. It’s like a pet theory we hold on to no matter what happens, interpreting all evidence in a way that supports our theory. When we do Buddhist practice, we start to question our assumptions, and explore with a truly open mind what the nature of self really is. We also notice the gross and subtle suffering created by holding on to our theory of self, from an existential sadness about our perceived separation from everyone else, to a profound depression caused by our apparent inability to know who we really are.
Forgetting the Self
Finally, we begin to wonder, “Is there another way? Is it possible to function differently, without everything being based on my assumption of an enduring, inherent self-nature?”
Fortunately, practice gives us a greater facility for using our own minds and bodies in a positive and thoughtful way. Once we become intimate with our view of self, at some point it becomes possible for us to let it go. Not permanently – just for a moment. This may happen on the meditation cushion or in the midst of our daily life, but it’s like we happen upon the “on-off” switch for the view of self and dare to experiment with flipping it off. The switch inevitably gets flipped back on – usually a few moments later – but in the meantime, we learn something extremely valuable. We learn the self is a view we can do without.
It’s really beautiful that Dogen phrases this part of our practice as “forgetting the self.” He could have said we vanquish, reject, refute, or overcome the self, but he didn’t. This is comparable to the Buddha’s original teachings on not-self, where his instructions were to simply refrain from identifying things as self.
Ironically, even though reaching the point where you can choose to forget the self is considered an essential part of the Zen path, functioning without an obsession with self is an experience everyone is familiar with. In fact, there are many times throughout the course of your day where you are operating with what I like to call “less self.” There may still be a pervasive, background assumption that you have an inherently-existing self-nature, but at certain times your sense of self recedes and you just engage wholeheartedly in doing or being. Maybe this happens when you take a hike in the woods or play with your small children, but we all have some experience of forgetting the self.
When You Forget the Self – Then What?
What is it like when you forget the self? Especially when you really manage to drop the whole shebang, including even the subtlest assumption about a self-nature?
Here’s where Zen really departs from the Buddha’s original teachings, at least as they’re portrayed in the Pali Canon and Theravadin Buddhism. Zen, like other Mahayana traditions, attempts to describe our liberated experience, while the Buddha didn’t say much about the rewards of refraining from I-making and my-making except to say that it leads to relief from dukkha, dissatisfaction or suffering. Even where the Buddha talked about Nirvana, the state of complete liberation and enlightenment, he basically described it as characterized by the “rapture and pleasure” one experiences as one becomes further and further removed from the course, stressful experience of an unenlightened being. In other words, the Buddha described liberation only in negative terms – the joy and pleasure resulting from getting free from affliction.
It appears that later traditions of Buddhism, including Zen and other Mahayana traditions like Pure Land and Vajrayana, were dissatisfied with describing the results of practice only in negative terms. It could have simply been the influence of other cultures on Buddhism – culture which didn’t have the rather grim view of transmigration that was prominent in India at the time of the Buddha (see Episode 6: Arising of Buddhism Part 2 for a description of the belief about transmigration). Personally, I like to think later Buddhists thought it would be helpful to highlight and celebrate the beautiful, life-affirming rewards of their practice.
Being Verified by All Things
So, that brings us to what Dogen means to “be verified by all things.” As I attempt to give you some sense of what this means using words, keep in mind that Dogen’s phrase describes a phenomenological, direct experience, not a philosophical premise.
Let’s say you manage to find that “on-off” switch for your belief in self, and you flip it to the “off” position. In this process, you recognize that your self-view is something you overlay onto your experience. The view colors and twists everything you encounter because everything, in some way, has to relate back to self: What does it mean to you? How is it relative to you? Do you like it, dislike it, or feel neutral about it? Is it to your advantage, a threat, or ultimately irrelevant to you? For example, if you’re meditating and a bird sings outside your window, you may think, “Oh, that’s nice. I love hearing the birds when I meditate. It’s one of the good aspects of my life, which counterbalances the parts I don’t like, such as the pain in my knee.”
Without the overlay of self-view, you experience things in a very different way. When the bird sings outside your window, there is no conceiving of self, bird, room, meditating, like, dislike, or anything else. There is the sound of bird song meeting your consciousness – an intimate moment of life happening. The awareness of sound, the bird, the forces of life that inspire the bird to sing, and your consciousness of hearing are not separate things. Who are you, anyway? Where are you? In your brain, or your ear, or your thoughts? In your liking or disliking? If there were no objects of consciousness, no body, no air, no earth, nothing would even arise for you to identify as self.
Your being is not separate from anything else, and yet, undeniably, you are. Through your direct experience, you know you exist – but in what way? Ultimately, this awareness of existing is what leads us to all the I-making and my-making, but that attempt to define self is just an effort to solidify ourselves in order to protect ourselves. In reality, our awareness just is, without any boundary at all. It is interdependent with everything else that is – and therefore, in a strange way, you can say everything you are aware of verifies your existence. You don’t need to locate, define, or protect an inherently-existing self-essence in order to be fully, intimately, passionately, beautifully alive.
Just a reminder, here, that I’m not describing a process by which you sit in meditation and think about all this stuff. In order to experience being verified by all things for yourself, you have to practice diligently and actually let go of your view of self.
Dropping Off Body and Mind
The last part of Dogen’s Genjokoan passage is, “To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.” I don’t have time to go into this part of the passage in depth, but one way of interpreting it is that, when we are verified by all things, we become more and more able and willing to let go of our belief in a separate, enduring self-nature. Dogen says “body and mind,” I believe, as a way to indicate all the things we usually identify as self or belonging to self (like the Buddha used the list of the five aggregates, as I explained in the last episode).
It’s interesting that Dogen doesn’t just say we let go of our view of self, however; he says we let everything we identify as “self” drop away. I think this is because there’s a way we can subtly hold on a to a sense of self that feels liberated because it’s given up its attachment to body and mind. In that case, of course, we’re still identifying some aspect of our awareness or consciousness as the self who is experiencing. On the other hand, if you let body and mind themselves drop off even though you’re convinced they are you – a daunting prospect! – you’re really letting go of (what you think is) self. Our dream of self is so compelling, as we contemplate letting it go we can actually feel as if we are letting go of our very life – as if we were literally letting body and mind “drop off,” or disappear. Once we let go, of course, we realize we’re fine – but knowing that intellectually doesn’t seem to make the process any easier.
In the title of this episode I promised to explain why Zen self-study isn’t selfish. Hopefully that’s become obvious, because if you’re no longer obsessed with self you’re much less likely to act selfishly! The fourth part of Dogen’s passage explains further, pointing out that when you’re verified by all things, it’s not just your body and mind that drop off, it’s also the body and mind of others. You can function without an idea about your own self, as well as without any idea about the inherent self-essence of others. Self and other verify each other.
 Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Michael S. Diener (Michael H. Kohn, Translator). A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2010. (Original copyright 1991.)
 Leighton, Taigen Dan. Reflections on Translating Dogen. Published in “Dharma Eye” Journal of the Soto Zen Education Center, Copyright 2000. http://www.ancientdragon.org/dharma/articles/reflections_on_translating_dogen
 Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo (Kindle Locations 297-299). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/
 Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994.
 “Nibbana Sutta: Unbinding” (AN 9.34), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.034.than.html.