Monday, March 30, 2009


The Sangha of the Montague Farm Zendo recently spent their winter practice period (Ango) studying the nature of "mind". What exactly is it? Where is it? Is there anything that is not it? A study of the mind invariably leads us to a study of the self. What exactly is this notion of self? Buddhism teaches that we have no abiding permanent self. The notion of a separate self is an illusion. Why then do we seem to carry this "sense of self" around with us all day ... this vague perception of a mind and/or self that resides within each of us ... often located somewhere in our heads just in back of our faces within our skulls.

Much of modern psychology is taken up with the matter of self. We hear psychologists speaking about such "things" as our "self image". We are sometimes thought to suffer from feelings of low "self esteem". It is great to have a lot of "self confidence" and to be "self assured". And lets not forget that homonculus called our "self identity" that is mysteriously ever present giving rise to the now famous quip, "wherever you go, there you are". And why then are we praised and revered when we act in a "selfless" way on behalf of others? If having a "self" is so important, why is acting in a way that that is without self so praiseworthy? Doesn't this all seem a bit confusing?

During a three year period between 1887 and 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch artist, painted over 30 self portraits ... almost one per month for each of the last three years of his life which ended tragically in July of 1890 when he took his own life.

Who was this man, beloved by all in this modern era but lonely and dejected during his own lifetime? And who are each of us? ... really. We pass our days as if we will live forever, never thinking much about our own mortality, never questioning the meaning of our own existence. And then one day we're gone. As if we had never been here at all. It is pretty much a fact that 100 years from today, almost everyone who is alive on this day, including all the babies born today, will be dead and gone. That is over 6.5 billion people! All gone ... forever.

The great Zen Master Rinzai once addressed an assembly of monks saying, "There is a true person of no rank. He is always leaving and entering the gates of your face. You beginners who have not witnessed him. Look! Look!"

Take a look at this YouTube video of Vincent Van Gogh ... watch him leaving and entering the gates of his face ... then ask yourself this question: Is it possible that our so called "self" is nothing more than an optical delusion brought about by language and that the real self or True Self does not abide anywhere at all but simply manifests continually in the changing of each moment as our six sense organs; i.e., eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind interact with the six sense objects; i.e., sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and thoughts to produce the six functions of mind; i.e., seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. And this grand, ever changing dance of the senses is nothing more than "the man of no rank" entering and leaving your face? Beyond that, there is no self to speak of ...

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Clarissa Alverson said...

Daikan--I always look forward to your posts. Did you ever see the movie "Waking Life"? I think you would like it. I found the script online and I find that a lot of the lines sort of stick with me. Here's the part that seems to match the essence of your post:
“And as one realizes...
that one is a dream figure...
in another person's dream,
that is self-awareness.
You haven't met yourself yet.
But the advantage to meeting others in the meantime...
is that one of them may present you to yourself.
Examine the nature...
of everything you observe.
For instance,
you might find yourself walking through...
a dream parking lot.
And, yes, those are dream feet inside of your dream shoes.
Part of your dream self. And so,
the person you appear to be in the dream...
cannot be who you really are.”

ikee said...

After attending a retreat in Lincoln, Maine with Zen teacher, Ed Brown, author of the Tassajara Cook Book, I presented him with a small gift, a bumper sticker containing a line from the movie, The Big Lebowski. It read: "The Dude Abides." Ed simply said, "Oh, I get it, The true-man of no rank." At the time I thought - "now that's pretty cool, what a novel thing to say right off the top of his head!" I have been contemplating his statement ever since.

From the movie, The Big Lebowski, in the final scene, the cowboy character/narrator repeats The Dude's final statement, which is, "The Dude Abides" and then comments: "The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals."


Unknown said...

I just found your lovely blog. Thank you!

As I get older, I find it intriguing to watch myself (my "self") hanging on a bit more tightly to my life, my memories, and the sense of all of that, as it seems to be in danger of slipping away. What is slipping away? This unique point of reference that comes through the sense organs of this human body, filtered by the experiences, memories, wishes, fears of the human mind that lives in this human brain?

So I set a task for my "self," to compassionately observe it all. The fears, the wishes, the feeling in the pit of my belly, the peonies still blooming, the peonies falling to the ground. Maybe there is some Big Consciousness or Big Awareness or Big Mind that is peering through my eyes, and listening with my ears, thinking thoughts with my brain... only I cannot clearly experience the bigness. I can only wonder about whether that might be so.