No Self

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Sunday Lecture: zen sayings: "Who's dragging this corpse around?; sense of self - root of all suffering; need to understand no-self, not just conceptually; Buddhist tool kit for understanding no-self; clearly identify sense of self - when saying "I" or "me" - false accusations; philosophical analysis; self same as body and mind or different; Bodhisattva precepts; Rumi poem

AI Summary: 



Good morning. Welcome. I'd like to bring up the subject of no-self, one of the Buddha's key teachings that most of you have probably heard of before. And I'd also like to talk some about the Bodhisattva Precepts because this afternoon there is a receiving of the Bodhisattva Precepts ceremony and how these two are related. So if you've heard a lot about no-self and feel like, well, yeah, yeah, I know that, not that again, please let's together remember the importance of this teaching and there's


infinite depth to the realization and experience of this teaching. It's easy to just hear the words and say, oh yeah, yeah, that. But really, let's take it up together today. Self, what is this self? It seems that we believe, whether we know it or not, it seems that the proposal is that we have this innate, inborn belief that there's some substantial core of me, of me-ness, of I, that doesn't change and


is always here. And we experience the world in this way. Can you hear in the back? So in many traditions there's this practice of questioning and investigating what is this self, who am I? And in Zen we have koans like, who is it that's dragging this corpse around? And one could just take up this question or who is it that's thinking about Buddha or who is it that's reciting Buddha's name?


And these are simple koans, questions to point back to, investigate who this is. And the Zen style is very pared down, so we just have questions like this. But in the vast Buddhist tradition, there are many tools we can use to help us with this investigation, to break it down and try to locate where this self might be, if it's there. Also, the context for this is the, I think, is the most important thing to remember, in a way, is that this belief that there's somebody here pervading our experience, we could say the owner of our experience or the controller, that that one is actually the cause of


all suffering and affliction and problems. And we might think, if we haven't really thought about this teaching much, we might think that's kind of silly, that's too much to say that it might be the cause of some problems. But this is the proposal that actually, without this core, innate, very difficult to see belief, that we would actually be happy and free, even in the midst of difficulties. And we wouldn't have problems in the sense that we usually have problems. We still might have problems with war, and other people being hurt, and so on. But most of our problems aren't usually like that. There, we have all these personal problems. And without this belief, those would actually cease to


be. Also, part of the story is that seeing this belief, and not just seeing it in a, or not just refuting it in a conceptual way, but actually experientially understanding, tasting that it's really, really no more than an illusion, is actually just the beginning of the process of awakening in the Buddhist way. This would be sometimes called entering the stream of practice, first kind of taste that that personal, permanent, inherently existent self of the person is merely an illusion.


And the tradition says that at that time that that belief is seen through, it's not the end of the story. We can still have many difficulties because of our habits from countless lives. We still have all this karmic stuff going on that we've, that's still playing out. But our relationship to all that stuff is a little different. We can't take it quite as seriously. So part of what happens at this time is that there's no more doubt about that this freedom from suffering is possible. There's like, that doubt is gone and actually can never


arise again. The doubt that it's possible, even though we maybe still have a lot of work to do. There's no doubt that actually that insight is the basis for the rest of the work we have to do. And also there's, it's said that there's, at that time, there's no more grasping at precepts and practices. And so this can tie into, as we, as we look at the precepts, this would be like a kind of superstition. In fact, there's maybe no more belief in any kind of superstitious ideas, especially regarding liberation and dharma and so on. So even that, even the belief that practicing precepts will, will be the, the substance of our realization of our awakening and freedom,


even that belief is, is no longer holds up. Which is not to say that, that precepts aren't important, but we just, the way we see them is different. And also at that time, they say there's, there's no more falling into hell realms. And this can be seen to be just, hell is a state of mind. So after being sure, by seeing and knowing that that this, this owner-controller critter in there is no longer as real as we thought, that we can't fall into deep despair. We might still be able to fall into a kind of a more selfless despair about the state of the world, for example.


Maybe possible, but even then, it seems that it wouldn't be that kind of, you know, so deep that, that we don't want to go on or something like this. So we can still have problems because of our karma, but they can't, we can't fall into hell realms of mind. Because this, even though this, the direct experience of this insight can come and go, the conviction that it's so, is always there, always accessible. Also in regard to the precepts, although at that time there's no more relating to the precepts as, as kind of something to kind of hold on to, to create an identity or uphold our identity,


literally the term means something like fondling the precepts. So we no longer use them in this kind of way of like, yeah, I'm following that one and like, I'm pretty good at that one, aren't I? It's not so much like that. It's, but at this time they're actually, it's kind of a natural maybe we wouldn't even say following the precepts, but there's naturally non-harming of others at this time through this insight of no self. And we still might, you know, get into arguments and, and hurt people. But again, like not falling into hell realms, it can't get that far. We can't sustain a strong intention to harm others. It doesn't hold up. Our karma can still create these kinds of things, but we can't sustain it in kind of like over a long time kind of scheme, kind of revenge or something like this.


And the reason is because it doesn't make sense anymore. Our karma can still create these kinds of feelings and intentions in negative states. But when we remember that insight, it doesn't make sense. They don't make sense. They're happening because of past belief in that controller, owner, self, but they don't have the weight that they did. They don't have the momentum. So this is the motivation to see into that there's no self here. It's not just a fun philosophical exercise. It's about the root of all our difficulties, and not just for ourself, but this is why we create all the trouble we do in the world with others. This is the proposal


that it's all based on this false belief. So if we really remember how key this is, we may become strongly motivated to understand. And so back to some of these tools from the Buddhist tradition. It may be enough to just ask who's dragging this corpse around, but if you want a little more to work with, there's various analyses. This is convincing the conceptual mind that actually, they say there's in a way kind of two kinds of belief in the self. One is the innate one, that's not a philosophical view, and the proposal is that even animals have this, so they don't philosophize.


And by observing them, it seems to be the case that they have some, maybe somewhat crude, sense of a self. And just to interject, this self is the permanent, essential, inherently existent one. This is not to say by any means that there is no personality or a kind of conventional self that does things in the world. That would contradict our experience completely. And the Buddha is not denying that one. It's just that mixed with that one, mixed with this conventional appearance of a self, kind of overlaid on body and mind, mixed with that one is the belief that there's something behind it all,


pulling it all together, possessing it and controlling the core I or me. So some of these tools are, first, there's clearly identifying what this is, what is this I, this sense of self, and part of it is there can be a feeling about it. This is all about experience, so we can talk about these various definitions of it, but it's not just a feeling, it's not just a feeling. It's important to identify the experience of the sense of this permanent self, the inherently existent owner. And some of the techniques one can use if one is having a hard time identifying it are just actually saying the word I, me, I, we have this sense of, yeah, me.


And that's the, or, you know, think, I did this, or I'm here giving a talk or listening to a talk. There may be this more than just, there's just a rising of the event happening. There's somebody here. And they say, still, that may be difficult for people. So another way is to notice it at the time when you were accused of something, and especially falsely accused of something. So this is a good way to identify it. Like, you did that, [...] and you didn't, and that's maybe the strongest sense of, like, but I, not me, like, I didn't do it, you know? So that's a really good way to find it, I think. That immediately, like, gut feeling, kind of, almost like bodily tension that comes with that, like, defense, because this is what


we do with, based on this belief, is that there's somebody here to defend and uphold and maintain and promote and continue and so on. The defense is a big one, you know, and gratify and put ahead of others and make look good and so on. So that defensive feeling can come up very easily, and like, but I, maybe we don't even have the word, but just that feeling of, like, contraction. That's that sense of the self. That's the one that's to be refuted. And some traditions would say, before you even start looking into this and investigating it, just become very familiar with that sense. Even though we all are, you know,


throughout the day, as a kind of meditation, you can, like, this might be a kind of unpleasant meditation period, but you could, you could actually, like, continually bring up this, this sense of being falsely accused and feeling like, no, not me. And get, you know, kind of bring it out into light and get the full feeling of it. And still, it's hard to identify, and the reason it's hard, it's kind of fluid and hard to identify is because it's not there. So, but this is the, maybe the closest we can get to the, to this feeling of what it is that we're actually going to see through. And then, another step could be, and this is, gets into the reasoning. And this is, like, logical reasoning, and it's, again, we have this innate view and a philosophical view. So through the reasoning, we kind of, we can undo the philosophical view. And it seems to be that


most traditions, I think, seem to agree that this is a necessary step. In the Zen tradition, they don't use this analytical philosophy in the same way as the, as Tibetan tradition and the, and the early Buddha's teachings did. But there are, there are just more poetic analyses, I would say, the way that they're talking about it, and we can bring some up. Dogen Zenji does use this kind of thing. But it's kind of disguised, we might not call it analysis. But a kind of straightforward one is to say, okay, is this, is this self, this owner, controller, is it the same as, identical to body and mind? Or is it different, separate from body and mind? And remember, this is an inherently existent, independent self. So is this one, this one,


this imagined one that we sense when we feel falsely accused, is that one, is it the same as body and mind, which is, includes all our experience? Or is it separate? And before going on from there, one would, one would kind of reason about that to discern that there's no other possibility besides being the same or different. It's not like, well, kind of, it's kind of the same and kind of different and kind of like this weird mix. In this kind of a, kind of sharp analysis, it's like, if you look into the logic of this, you can see for yourself, it's, it's, it's actually quite simple. But you have to kind of look at it for a while to see that there's only these two possibilities. Either it's the same as body and mind, or it's different from body and mind. And we're kind of, we're trying to corner it. We're trying to corner this, this kind of, this kind of hazy false belief that's kind of scurrying around that we can't get a handle on.


We're going to corner it, and when we get in the corner, we're going to see that, that it's not there. So, is it the same or different from body and mind? And body and mind is, is short for the five aggregates, so we don't need to go into describing those today. But, but if one is, if one's not totally convinced just using body and mind, one could more break, break down body and mind into these five aggregates. But the proposal is that body and mind are, and our experience is, is that body and mind are constantly changing, moment to moment. We can see this with our body, right? It's, it's not the same body we had yesterday, or especially 10 years ago. And the mind is not the same as a moment ago either, constantly changing. So, is this independent permanent self the same as these constantly changing body and mind,


or is it different? So, is it the same? Well, because body and mind are constantly changing, and this other one is independent, unchanging, that seems quite clear right at the beginning. That's impossible. It can't be this, just identical to the conditioned, constantly changing body and mind. So, we think, okay, then it must be different. It's only one of these two. So, is it, is it, is it something that's, and this, you know, in each person's experience, this might actually look different. That's why you don't necessarily start with this one or the other one. Some people actually might experience it like, yeah, I actually do think of it as just my body and mind. I'm like, whoops, oh, can't be that, because they're just changing all the time. So, now we flip to the other one. Is it separate from body and mind? And if it were, it's independent. This, this self is, is independent, so therefore it can't


depend on the body and mind. And in fact, it can't be, if it was related to body and mind at all, it would be in some interdependent relationship. Relationship means interdependent, connected somehow. So, if it's independent by nature and it's separate from body and mind, then it can't have any connection to body and mind. Therefore, it could just be some thing out there, but we wouldn't experience it when we're falsely accused, for example. And we, and it wouldn't, if it's the controller and owner, it's how could it control or own something that it's not related to at all. So, this is kind of a rough version of this kind of inquiry that, that one can do, and, but thoroughly investigate that and, and there's other, it can be more elaborated instead of just same as or different than.


That's the simplest version. The, the different, well, there could be other ones like, is this self, the, the, does it possess body and mind? That one, I think, for, for myself, that one seems to be the closest to what seems to be the case, that there's this self that kind of like overlaid somehow on the, on the body and mind, that possesses body and mind, and our language seems to confirm that, right? So, when we say, we say, my body, sometimes, and, and our, you know, we're confused because this whole thing doesn't make any sense, this thing of the self doesn't make sense. Our language is confused about it. Sometimes, we say, this is me, and sometimes we say, this is my body. So, right there, it's like, what? Is it, is it the, is it my body? Is there an I that owns or possesses the body and mind, my mind? Or is it like, this, this, this is me, or my, my thoughts are me?


More commonly, it, it, it seems to me, the conventional me, that, that the, the self kind of somehow possesses this body and mind, my body, my mind, and my sickness, my pain, my suffering, my happiness, my big toe, all of these things. We usually don't point to the big toe and say, this is me, but we do say, it's mine. This is like, and conventionally, we can say these things. Conventionally, in order to speak, we say, this is my toe, it's not yours, and that makes sense in the world. If it's merely convention, merely words to communicate, but the proposal is that, and maybe this is how this started, is that from using these words to communicate, we had to, or they, they actually, through language, it created, we started to fall for our own


conventionality, and think, well, it actually really is my toe. There's a me that owns it somehow, like the me got created somehow from this kind of language, or the thinking that's the basis of this kind of language, but whether or not that's the case, it seems to be happening. So if it's, if I am the owner of my body and mind, that seems like maybe a third possibility, right? It's neither the same as body and mind, nor different. It's kind of, it does seem kind of like a mix between the two, but, but actually, if we look, for example, like, if I am the owner of this cushion, for example,


then in that kind of case, the, the I that's the owner is separate from the cushion. There's me in the cushion. So that would be, that would just fall into the category of self is other than body and mind. And then if we think of the ownership as being like, like the tree possesses the bark, for example, then it, it's, then it falls into the category of being the same as, self being the same as body and mind, because the tree and the bark are part of the same thing. So this might seem like, if you haven't heard this kind of thing before, this might seem really kind of complicated and overly intellectual and like, what's this got to do with my experience? But through, through getting used to this kind of reasoning, one can actually


start seeing it that way without the kind of clunkiness of all those words and trying to figure out what they're pointing at. It can become more familiar, that kind of investigation. So they just immediately, when the sense of self arises, is this, is this body and mind? We've already gone through the reasoning, so it's like, no, it's not the same, or no, it's not different. So if, if one kind of goes through the reasonings very thoroughly and, and sees how there's no other possibility than this, then we can kind of corner this little culprit, right? And we can say like, okay, he's not over here the same as, identical to the body and mind, because they're always changing, and he's not over here completely separate and independent of body and mind, because then there'd be no connection at all. So, and I've already discerned that there's no, no other than these two possibilities. So there's no way there could be such a one.


There isn't any possibility. It can't, it can't, can't be. And then at the same time we're seeing that it can't be. We can, at the very same time, we can experience, well it sure seems like it, this one at the same time. So then there's like these kind of contradictory minds. It's, it contradicts our experience, but it actually, the more the, the logic pervades our, our mind and experience, the less the, the innate belief and experience that goes with that is going to hold up. So it just, it might, it might be that it slowly gets weaker and weaker and, and makes less and less sense. And we can be like, but I, you know, I didn't do it. And right as we're saying that and feeling that, it's like, what? It makes no sense.


So then there's this, then, but this doesn't refute the, the conventionally appearing sense of self. And there's different, you know, different schools would say different things about what this, what the conventional self is. Maybe the most common is that it's a, it's a verbal, nominal imputation or designation imputed on the collection of body and mind or the collection of the five skandhas. That's how we do it most accurately. That's why it looks like body and mind, but actually there isn't some permanent thing there. But the collection of body and mind are, which includes our whole experience. On top of that, we, we designate this other one, this, this inherently existent one. And we, we experience it as fused with the


constantly changing body and mind, which doesn't make any sense. But this is, this is the closest description we can have of how we actually experience the self without it being there. It's a, it's a, it's a word. It's a, just a convenient verbal designation and nothing more than that. But the body and mind that's constantly changing, conditioned by everything else, dependent on everything else, that actually has no owner or controller, that's the one that's free. That one's free and doesn't, and is not obsessed with itself. It's just going about its life and


death. It doesn't make problems for itself. It's this, this one that's not there that makes it problems. So what's this have to do with bodhisattva precepts? There's many ways to look at the bodhisattva precepts, ranging from the very obvious meaning of it's just a way to, like, get along with each other, right? Just be nice, just be kind to people, just don't hurt them. And these are these various ways that we hurt people, and we're going to try not to, because we all get along better and we're basically happier, whether


we have a self or not, right? This is one, this is one simplest version, maybe. At the other end of the spectrum, we could say it's this, a kind of like a, maybe a tantric initiation into Buddhahood itself, the ceremony of receiving the precepts. Sometimes in Zen it kind of plays with that side of things. It's an inconceivable empowerment or initiation into being non-dual with Buddha, and I won't go into that side now either. Something maybe in the middle of this spectrum of ways to look at the precepts, which are all wonderful ways to view the ceremony and the precepts, is in relationship to this sense of self, the precepts can be seen as another tool to discern this,


to investigate the illusory sense of self and see through it, because these precepts, which are, for example, not killing, not stealing, and so on, or as we say, a disciple of Buddha does not kill, a disciple of Buddha does not steal, these are basically always, I would say, if we're, what we would call conventionally going against these precepts, for example, killing and stealing and so on, is almost always based on this, based on this false belief that there's like somebody here in control, trying to manipulate its way into happiness through this kind of distorted way that doesn't really work,


for example, killing people, because I think we're all trying to be happy all the time, whether we're killing people or not, and we're just, there's misunderstandings of what works. So, if one receives this precept of a disciple of Buddha does not kill, and then one finds oneself killing or wanting to kill, that's kind of this sign, right, it's a reminder that like, oh, that's coming from this like a little guy in the hair that isn't really there, like that's a, that's like a deluded thought that I want to kill. They're all based on the sense of self, stealing, you know, getting something from me, lying is manipulating the situation so that I look better or something, you know, slandering others and speaking of


others' faults and so on, are all based on this, right, there's, and we could say, we can come up with exceptions, right, well, wouldn't it, wouldn't it be good to lie to save someone's life or something like that, but that's not what these precepts are pointing to. They're pointing to the usual way that we do these things, which is coming from this self place, and all Buddha's precepts, monastic precepts that might be different from the Bodhisattva precepts are still pointing to these places of self and so on, but some of them might be kind of culturally arisen from ancient India, whereas these Bodhisattva precepts are universal, though they were taught by the Buddha, they seem to apply very directly to our lives today in a wonderful way, the way that they're enumerated, the more I look at them, the more I think it's brilliant the way


they're set forth and kind of, one could almost say any kind of selfish activity or intention one could classify into one of the precepts. So there's just these ways through body, speech, and mind that we act from this false belief, so in accord with this study of the self, one could practice with the precepts in just that way. They're reminders, and so the intention in receiving them could be that I actually want to actually live in this true way, free from this false belief in a self, and as a Buddha would live, and so we could say that these precepts are the activity or a manifestation of Buddha's mind, body, speech, and mind.


That's how a selfless one would live in the world, and conventionally, you know, it would look like they wouldn't be killing and stealing and so on, and you know, it gets tricky when we get into the subtleties, but basically this is how it seems. So we could say, I want to live that way, so we say, we receive this precept, a disciple of Buddha does not kill, so then if we finally say, I really actually would like to squash that ant, maybe ants aren't so bad, mosquito, at that time we might be forgetting that we're a disciple of Buddha. So it's not like we're not a disciple of Buddha, exactly, but we've forgotten temporarily, and if we remember at that moment, like, oh, actually, like, I want to be a disciple of Buddha, so then we might think a disciple of Buddha


doesn't believe in this individual self, and if she does, she wants to see through that and live in accord with that, so I'm actually, even though I still actually do want to kill the mosquito, and I, what would it be like, what would it be like if I didn't? Or if I looked at my intention and let that intention be like, or even like, I want to kill the mosquito and immediately say, is the individual self separate or different than body and mind? You could even do that investigation right at that time, like, oh, yeah, yeah, never mind. And these precepts are inconceivable, the way it actually all plays out. When the Buddha first set forth the Bodhisattva


precepts in the Brahmajala Sutra, he said, this precept light pours forth from my mouth, the precept light, they're not like some conceptual ideas, they're not anything we can actually get a hold of, they're light, so that precept light pours forth from my mouth, it doesn't arise without a cause, the Buddha says, that light, but also it's not red, yellow, white, black, blue, it's not existent or non-existent, the precept light. And then he went on to enumerate the Bodhisattva precepts. And this is the awakened selfless one, I take refuge in that, even though I don't understand


it completely, and even though I don't seem to be experiencing it, I take refuge in that, and I'm actually going to give my life to revealing that, that selfless one who can live in the world in a compassionate, kind way, that's what I want to give my life to, I take refuge in Buddha, and I may fail again and again, but and I'm not going to, and I don't take refuge in some superstitious idea about Buddha either, or somebody who lived 2,500 years ago, I take refuge in the one who's free from this, from this owner, controller, creator of misery for myself and others, take refuge in the free one.


So, if this has been too dry and rational, let me close with a Rumi poem, that I think is saying the same thing, but from another religion of Sufism, and in different language, sometimes the word God arises in the world, and I don't know how various different traditions look at God, but I, myself, when I hear the word, I think of that, of the interdependent body and mind of the universe, as Fuson said yesterday, the true human body is the whole universe in ten directions.


So, if you're God, you could see this way, God is the one who's, who's not bound up by this controller, owner, manipulator, self. This is it, this is, it's kind of a story poem, but about a Sufi saint named Bayezid Bestami. That magnificent dervish, Bayezid Bestami, came to his disciples and said, I am God. It was night and he was drunk with his ecstasy. There is no God but me, you should worship me. At dawn, when he had returned to normal, they came and told him what he'd said. If I say that again, bring your knives and plunge them into me.


God is beyond the body and I am in this body. Kill me when I say that. Each student then sharpened his knife and again, Bayezid drank the God wine. The sweet dessert knowing came. The inner dawn snuffed his candle. Reason, like a timid advisor, faded to a far corner. As the sun sultan entered Bayezid, pure spirit spoke through him. Bayezid was not there. The he of his personality dissolved. Like the Turk who spoke fluent Arabic, then came to and didn't know a word. The light of God poured into the empty Bayezid and became words. Muhammad did not dictate the Koran, God did. The mystic Osprey opened its wings in Bayezid and soared.


Inside my robe, there is nothing but God. How long will you keep looking elsewhere? The disciples drew their knives and slashed out like assassins. But as they stabbed at their sheikh, they did not cut Bayezid, they cut themselves. There was no mark on that adept, but the students were bleeding and dying. Those who somewhat held back respecting their teacher had only lightly wounded themselves. A selfless one disappears into existence and is safe there. He becomes a mirror. If you spit at it, you spit at your own face. If you see an ugly face, it's yours. If you see Jesus and Mary, they're you. Bayezid became nothing, that clear and empty. A saint puts an image before you. When I reach this point, I have to close my lips.


Those of you who are love drunk on the edge of the roof, sit down or climb down. Every moment spent in union with the beloved is a dangerous delight, like standing on a roof edge. Be afraid up there of losing that connection. And don't tell anybody about it. Keep your secret. May I?