Sunday, July 13, 2008

Self, Not Others

I'm not the only one struggling with home repairs. One day, when Mahakasyapa was hard at work mixing mud for making walls, a novice monk asked him, "Why do you do hard work like this yourself?" Mahakasyapa replied, "If I don't do this, who else would do it for me?"

This story is reminiscent of Zen Master Dogen's encounter with the head cook (tenzo) at Mount Tiantong. One day after the noon meal, Dogen was walking between buildings at the temple complex when he noticed the tenzo drying mushrooms out in the sun. He carried a bamboo stick but had no hat on his head. The sun's rays beat down so harshly that the tiles along the walk burned one's feet, yet the tenzo worked hard and was covered with sweat. Dogen could not help but feel the work was too much strain for him. His back was a bow drawn taut, his long eyebrows were crane white. Dogen approached and asked his age. The tenzo replied that he was sixty-eight years old. When Dogen went on and asked him why he had not assigned this chore to some assistant, the tenzo answered, "Other people are not me." Dogen was very impressed by his answer.

One of the essential teachings of the Buddha is the concept of "no-self." It is taught that there is no such thing called "I" or "me," that "self" and "others" are just two sides of one coin. It is said that when Shakyamuni Buddha realized his enlightenment, he realized it simultaneously and together that all the Earth and all its sentient beings. If the "self" of Shakyamuni Buddha encompasses all sentient beings, then all sentient beings are one with Shakyamuni Buddha. In that case, what is the "me" in the tenzo's "Others are not me?" Who is the "me" in Mahakasyapa's "Who else would do it for me?"

Shohaku Okumura has pointed out that Buddhist and Zen teachings too often forget the self that is not others and put all of the emphasis instead on "no-self." However, the self that is in a community is the one that is not others. Others can not do my zazen for me, no one else can practice for me. Okumura notes that through studying Buddhist teachings we study no-self, and when we engage in precepts and ethics we are practicing the self that is not others. Within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this self that is not others can manifest the reality of no-self. "This is the most important and difficult koan in our day-to-day practice," Okumura notes, and observes that when we practice zazen, we are studying the self that is beyond the separation of self and others.

So here finally is my point: the Buddha's Middle Way is not merely the middle way between sensual indulgence and ascetic practice, but it is also the reconciliation of all apparent dualities. Yes, on one hand, the Buddha realized his enlightenment together with all sentient beings, so self and others are one, not two separate things. But on the other hand, "other people are not me." The Middle Way is accepting both viewpoints without clinging to one or the other, without letting one negate the other. The Middle Way is transcending the distinctions between "no-self" and the "self that is not others" without embracing or rejecting either. And finally, the practice of zazen is the means handed down to us by the ancestors and patriarchs by which we can directly realize this transcendent truth (prajna) beyond "no-self" and the "self that is not others."

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