What a grand experience Zazen Practice is for the new student and how confusing it also may become. Bow, sit down, inkin rings and the designs within the floor appear on cue. I remember one day in the Zendo, everything disappeared and all that remained was one little black knot on the floor. After a few weeks, I got much better at “Knot Zen” and became quit talented at making everything go away but, my one black knot. Soon even my knot disappeared and I was left with an empty and still mind. I remember thinking that this must be the “emptiness” that Buddhism teaches. At the time, it felt great, instead of facing my issues, I could just send them away. If only I could keep my blank mind, I could abide in shunyata and finally find the peace I sought.
The “manifest self” or “ego self” is a very dynamic construct of our brain. It is a necessary conduit which allows us to interact and navigate within space/ time. To simplify, the “manifest self” is that which separates us from the myriads of other things. The “self” is the conceptual straw man which creates the contrast needed for the formation of “other” and ultimately the formation of our reality. The “manifest self” is actually a wondrous process which allows us the balance required to truly experience and engage the world around us. What a “marvelous little tail it is” states Wumen in case 39. However, the problem arises when the “manifest self” becomes misunderstood and is so integrated with the physical body that it soon becomes synonymous with it, in other words, the self becomes a solidified “thing”. For example, many of us have experienced times when the “self” is perceived as threatened and we feel overwhelmed by the same “fight or flight” response that is evoked when we are confronted with true physical harm. It is a common experience for these intense defense mechanisms to overwhelm new students and cause them to cease practice. However, most of the time we are not cognizant of this activity until the artificial seams fall apart and our dream abruptly ends. Splitting apart, the binary self becomes evident as we instinctively begin the process of trying to rectify the two conflicting attributes into one neat reality. Due to the powerful stimuli generated by the skandhas, and our strong reactions to them, the subtle “limitless self” falls into shadow and our “manifest self” takes control. Our perception of “self” then aligns itself with the source of the skandhas and excludes all that which is perceived as other. These views lead us to perceive the “manifest self” as independent from the world and based in the skandhas. In return, protective psychological armor forms around our “concept” of self. We are, after all, a little fish in a big pond from this perspective. Initially this armor gives the appearance of working; however, in reality, these mechanisms just create even deeper states of suffering and drain more and more energy from us. It is always interesting to hear students after sesshin speak about all the energy they have. Many bounce from one part of the temple to the other days after the sesshin has ended. All of this free psychic energy reclaimed after defensive armor has been dismantled over days of Zazen.
The absence and suppression of the “limitless self” creates elaborate shadows which echo the desire for unity; however, they can never produce it. Completion always exists just outside of our dreams and no matter how elaborate we make them, they remain empty shells of desire. So we become hungry ghosts seeking completion in the world of red dust. Maybe that new car, new job, new relationship or new religion will bring us the completion we seek. Once obtained, these things crumble within our fingers and leave brittle hollow shells. Honesty and fearlessness are keys to realizing the completion we seek. This means digging deep within ourselves and experiencing that which we originally sought refuge from; our pain and suffering. It is through these catalysts, that we are privy to a more complete view. However, this window may also bring with it misunderstanding. We may become confused and perceive these two conceptual attributes as separate from each other and deem one superior and the other inferior.
If the limitless self is grasped in the same unbalanced way as the “manifest self”, it too may create an imbalance within the person and cause suffering. Many times the “limitless self” is perceived as a “superior self” or “true self”. With this flipped view, the world of form is ignored and seen as illusion. This view transforms us into blank minded men and women who deny who and what we are. We become ghosts who are afraid to live, and seek oblivion. As living ghosts we stare at the floor day after day and see inactivity as the true practice. With great concentration we forge forward and continue to dispatch all the arising thoughts, experiences and emotions that arise in mind. We attempt to suppress more and more until cracks form within our defensive armor, and soon the power of all that was suppressed comes rumbling forth and spills outward. The binary self splits once again; however, this time the instability is created by the manifest self. Some of those suppressed thoughts and emotions have now become neurotic in presentation and we are now confronted with all the monsters under the bed. Maybe we just need to sit more! Maybe we need a different teacher! Maybe we need a different tradition! This Zen is not working! On and on we struggle to maintain our “blank mind”, until one day, if we are lucky, we are forced to reconcile our fragmented self and cease the endless cycles of birth and death.
The two attributes of the self are like the waves which flow across the surface of the ocean and the still depths which lie underneath. The “manifest self” is the wave, while the “limitless self” is the still vast ocean that lies beneath. They both embody different attributes of the whole; however, they are unified by the same intrinsic nature (the water). Another example of this dichotomy is revealed by looking at the attributes of a single sheet of paper. When we look at a piece of paper, we perceive two distinct sides. We do not separate these sides or it would cause the deconstruction of the object. With an understanding that both sides are needed to complete what is paper, we can begin to have insight into the nature of self. If we place the paper down upon a table, we can still see the object via its attribute (side). If we flip the paper over, we can also see the object within its other attribute. It is the two sides which constitute the whole of the “paper” but, completion can be found in either attribute. When we grasp the ‘self’ in the correct manner we no long experience the distortion of a fragmented self but, experience a fluid and unified self. Emptiness can be a slippery concept and as “The Sutra of a better way to catch a snake” points out, “Bhikshus, understanding my teaching in the wrong way is the same. If you do not practice the Dharma correctly, you may come to understand it as the opposite of what was intended.” Learning the correct way to approach and grasp the teachings is very important.