Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Self That Is Not Other

The teaching of no self is one of the most difficult Buddhist teachings to comprehend; not because it is such an intellectually taxing one, but because it cuts right to the core of how we view reality. And even after we do “get it” we’re still subject to the relentless tug of karma pulling us back into our old way of looking at self and other and the world. Unfortunately, as well, is the fact that somewhere along the road to our “getting it” lurks the nihilistic view that everything is merely an illusion, a phantasm – self, other, everything.

It is not difficult to understand how Buddhist teachings related to no self, in particular, and emptiness, in general, might be misconstrued as nihilistic. After all, the word emptiness – when used as a description of ultimate reality – almost invites it. And if you think that the word emptiness invites nihilistic ponderings, imagine what the word voidness might inspire. In fact, early scholars of Eastern texts often translated the Sanskrit word, sunyata, as voidness instead of the now more commonly accepted emptiness – and it’s pretty hard not to think in nihilistic terms when contemplating the void!

However, the key to understanding emptiness from the Buddhist point of view is to realize that it refers to being empty of individual and independent existence. Thus, the emptiness of ultimate reality is more a field of infinite potential than it is cold, dark, empty space; and comprehending no self is more a matter of comprehending one’s seamless integration into that field of infinite potential than it is convincing yourself that you don’t exist. By the way, a very nice resource on this topic is Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding – Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra.  

Shohaku Okumura, in a talk he gave at the Dogen Zenji Symposium of 1999, noted three areas in which Dogen’s standards for community practice have a role to play for Soto Zen practitioners of today. Pertinent to our current discussion is what Okumura (1999) refers to as “practice for the self that is not others” (p. 150). And just how does “the self that is not others” relate to the concept of no self? Okumura (1999) describes it this way:
If there is no self, the self is zero. If the self is universal and one with everything, the self is infinite…. Through studying Buddhist teachings we study “no self”; when we practice zazen, we study the “universal self” that is beyond separation of self and others. And within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this individual person that is not others can manifest the reality of “no self” and “universal self.” (p. 151)

Actualizing the Self That Is Not Other

I was lay-ordained along with four other people in a Soto Zen ceremony referred to as jukai. Jukai signifies the acceptance of the Buddhist precepts, and it is similar in meaning and importance to what Christians refer to as confirmation. The only reason I bring that up in this context is because within just a couple of years of our ordination one of our group had sold his business interest in order to start an organic farm, another had retired early in order to further simplify his life, yet another had left his sales job in order to pursue a self-employment opportunity, and I had left my corporate career in order to pursue graduate work in counseling. For a while the running joke around the Missouri Zen Center was that, if you weren’t careful, practicing zazen would lead to you quitting your job! Well, I don’t know about that, but I can say that zazen leads one to realize in no uncertain terms the impermanence of one’s existence and that of all beings and everything – a realization that imbues each moment with an unprecedented sense of immediacy. I can also vouch for zazen being what Okumura (1999) describes as a “study [of] the ‘universal self’ that is beyond separation of self and others.” This dual realization of the impermanence of the ‘small self’ and the unbounded nature of the ‘universal self’ seems to awaken in the individual a depth of compassion that they never knew they had, in addition to fostering the aspiration to bring one’s fleeting life into accord with this newly realized reality.

And just what does it look like when one’s life is in accord with the principles of this newly realized reality of emptiness and impermanence and interconnectedness? What does it look like to actualize the self that is not other? At this point I am so tempted to answer my own question by glibly invoking the woefully clich├ęd “chop wood, carry water”, but I won’t. Even though “chop wood, carry water” superbly conveys the Zen approach to life – wholeheartedly doing what needs to be done in each and every moment, no matter how ordinary the task – I will refrain from pretending that it can adequately answer the question currently under consideration. The fact is that knowing what needs to be done requires a spiritual journey unto itself. Our modern lives are just too complicated. Should we chop wood and carry water, or should we become engineers instead and set about designing passive solar heating systems and seawater desalinization facilities?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to be had here. One person might best manifest the self that is not other by simplifying their life, reducing their impact on the environment, living off-the-grid, and becoming increasingly integrated into a sustainable ecosystem. For them, chopping wood and carrying water might describe quite literally their approach to daily life. Such a lifestyle need not be motivated by a desire to drop out of a social system that’s going to “hell in a hand basket”, so to speak. Instead, it can encompass a dropping into increased social involvement due to a newfound ability to structure personal time and effort around that which is of greatest value – as opposed to what the marketplace might say that we should value. Furthermore, such a lifestyle tends to inspire others to tread lightly on the earth, as well, thereby leading all of us toward a way of being that might just end up saving the planet. If this intrigues you, you may want to check out Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity – Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich.

Of course, another individual might be so moved by the problems that we face such as global warming or freshwater scarcity that they become drawn to finding solutions for them. They might love learning the science and math necessary to succeed as an engineer, and perhaps nothing engages them more than being able to put their imagination to work and see their ideas come to fruition. This would also seem to be a case wherein the individual’s talents and motivations are brought into accord with what the world needs.

There are as many ways as there are people to bring one’s talents and motivations into accord with what the world needs. We need parents who will raise healthy and caring citizens of the world. We need doctors who will heal them when they get sick. We need business owners to provide jobs and we need workers who are fulfilled by their labor. We need a sustainable economy in which all of this can take place and, yes, we even need politicians to be drawn to public service in order to help bring it about. Unfortunately, though, it is all too often the case that people become parents because of their own selfish need to be loved rather than any desire or capacity to give it. Likewise, individuals can be drawn to becoming physicians, for instance, more out of a desire for status or esteem or money than any real calling to heal others. Business owners, as well, can be motivated more by a desire to enrich themselves than a desire to make safe and useful products, or to behave responsibly toward the workers making those products. And workers, likewise, may be keeping track of their paychecks more closely than the quality of their work or whether that work has any meaningful significance to them or the world. Oh, and please don’t get me started on politicians who claim to have dedicated their lives to “public service” when actually it is power that they have thirsted after every step along the way!

So, even with so many ways to actualize the self that is not others, it seems that there are even more ways for us to falter and end up guided by our own self-interest – without our being aware of it. But I don’t so much think it is a matter of us being motivated in this “good” way or that “bad” way as it is a matter of us negotiating myriad shades of gray. We are complex creatures, and everything that we do and every choice that we make involves a complex calculus of all of our wants and needs, aspirations and longings – much of it taking place on the subconscious or even the unconscious level. (Recall the bandwidth of consciousness discussed in the previous post.) Just pick any hot summer day and note what happens as your aspiration to help save the world by decreasing your carbon footprint and refraining from turning on your air conditioner comes face-to-face with your desire to escape languishing in your sweltering home for even one more instant! What, then, are we to do?

I think we need to start by being honest with ourselves – by becoming aware of our wants and needs, our talents and our fears. Have we chosen that highly compensated occupation because it is truly the best use of our talents and because it is truly of value to the world (and I’m not talking about economic value), or have we chosen it because we fear not having enough or because we want to prove that we, too, can play the game? We are the only ones who can answer these questions for ourselves, and zazen can provide us with the ability and the strength to make such an honest and fearless assessment. I once heard a Zen teacher say that zazen has its own built-in bullshit detector. Of course, I wholeheartedly agree. Zazen, by affording us greater and greater freedom from the conventional ways we’ve come to think about ourselves and the world, allows us to see, ahem, the falseness that is endemic to this modern existence, and it allows us to see the falseness that we try to pass over onto ourselves nearly every moment of every day. Perhaps, then, it is apropos to close this post with my favorite quote from Dogen’s Genjokoan: “To learn the awakened (buddha) way is to learn the self. To learn the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas” (as translated in Yoshida, 1982).


Okumura, S. (1999) Dogen Zenji’s standards for community practice (as it appears in Dogen Zen and its relevance for our time). Sotoshu Shumucho.
Yoshida, R., Eilers, J., Ganio, K. (1982). Gaku-do-yojin-shu: Collection of cautions about learning the Way. Missouri Zen Center. (Genjokoan originally published 1233)

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. To me, it seems that the key to understanding this concept is knowing what your motivations and talents are. So how much zazen does it take to figure that out? ;D I know I'll find my answers eventually, but from my current point of view, I can't see what direction my life is supposed to take.

  2. I hear you, Kristen! Please don't take this as a flippant response, but life is just life. At different times, though, we label life as having direction, not having direction, being stuck, etc. Oftentimes those labels are selected after mercilessly comparing ourselves to others who are so much more together, successful, and focused, blah, blah, blah. Enjoy the fact that during zazen all of those labels and comparisons fade into the background!

    Actualizing the self that is not other need not look like some grand, and spectacular thing. Are you being kind to the people that you come in contact with? Is your aspiration pointed in a positive direction? Are you trying to think about all beings and the environment when you have a decision to make? Only you can be the daughter that you are, the sister that you are, the pet owner that you are, the employee that you are. How do you go about being that self that is not other?

    You haven't used the word 'stuck' but, just in case you are feeling it, I suggest that you really, really feel it. Where do you feel it? When did you last feel it? Explore it. Revel in it. Get to know it intimately - then drop it off at the local Goodwill. Somebody will be able to make use of it. ;D Is there fear associated with or causing that stuckness? What is the nature of it and what would the result be if your very worst fear came to pass?

    I'm actually kind of familiar with that feeling of stuckness. Can't you tell? I'm also familiar with the fact that feelings can have us feeling as though we're tied up tight in a straightjacket, and then, in the very next instant, they can simply dissipate into thin air.

    Congratulations on living mindfully and intentionally!

    Sincerely, Maku

  3. Maku, another thoughtful post! Whereas, your previous ones have been more theoretical, i.e, the ones on D.O., this one is more applied but using the concepts gained from the earlier posts. Apropos to Kristin's comment, Maku and I were just discussing Malcom Gladwell's essay on Late Bloomers in his new book, "What The Dog Saw." Sometimes it can take a long time for us to discover our talents. According to Gladwell, based on his research on creative late bloomers like Cezanne,they have a guiding vision or sense of what they are or what they want to do and sometimes, their early work falls short of the ideal (hence they are considered "failures")but they keep working away and eventually achieve their ideal. They "fail" early because they are still in the experimentation stage. In Gladwell's interpretation, however, they are not failing but making progress towards their goal. He says we should take away from this a revised notion of what constitutes genius. I suggest we can also apply this to our lifework, whatever we take that to be.

  4. Hello Bob. Yes, that outlook on life does seem like a good one. I'll have to check out the entire essay. I think that even periods of "stuckness" can be times during which deep work is taking place within the psyche. Thanks!

  5. Thanks Maku. Great stuff as always :-)

  6. Thank you for reading, Samsara!