Self and No-Self

World Chant 18-Jun-2020


This week Tesshin shared a video showing Zen priests across the world chanting the Heart Sutra simultaneously.  One could imagine the entire Earth was chanting as a single entity for the benefit of all beings throughout space and time.  Tesshin encouraged everyone to watch the video again at the following links …  


After the Heart Sutra chant, Tesshin began to discuss the conundrum of self and no-self pointed to in the Heart Sutra.  He likened this to what physicists discovered about light early in the last century.  Initially, everything in the universe was understood to be either a particle or a wave.  However, confusingly, light was discovered to have aspects of both!  This caused, and still does cause, quite a bit of discomfort in people who expect an orderly universe where each phenomenon is placed in its proper category.


Does this sound familiar?  We are told constantly in Buddhism that there is no-self, however we constantly experience a personal “self.”  How are we to deal with this paradox?  As an example, Tesshin recounted that during this past week his son cut his hand and had to get immediate medical care.  He asked, “Who felt the pain?”  Did you?  Was the blood real?  If it was your child, would you have been content if the doctor stated that nobody has a self, there is no hand, thus there is nothing to fix?  Of course not!  


Thinking about light, we realize that it is not a mixture of particle and wave.  It is not as though we took black and white and mixed it into some amorphous gray.  Light is both simultaneously wave and particle.  Tesshin stated that it is the same with existence –  we are self and no-self at the same time.  It is said in Zen that if we cling to a dualistic “self” or “no-self” we misunderstand reality.  A wise teacher once said, “You and I are the same thing, but I am not you and you are not me.”    


Is this not what the Heart Sutra keeps telling us?  “No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.”  However, it also warns us, “… no path, no wisdom and no gain…”  In other words, do not fixate on either self or no-self.  These are all labels.  So, are we self or non-self?  Here, Tesshin was clear – we are both, at all times, simultaneously.  It is true, there is no individual self as there is only suchness in the universe.  But how can this be?  We are clearly our own karmic package!  We make our own breakfast, after all.  How can there be a self and a non-self?  The cut hand bleeds and feels pain only for one self!  The blood is not a delusion!


We have to be careful – Buddhism is not nihilism!  It is not enough to say no-self and thus no effort!   So how do we understand the simultaneous self and no-self?  Tesshin stated that it all comes down to conditionality.  Something like gravity is unconditional – it is just there!  This gives us a flavor for the suchness in the universe.  What about us and our lives?  We are the result of our karma, our history, and past decisions.  If our actions are conditional, then this is not our absolute spiritual true nature.  We need to understand what is unconditional in our nature?  What is our true nature?  What is constant in us?  This is the point of our path and training!  We live in the world of conditions, of cut hands, and Covid19.  This is all the conditioned world.  We must always remember that there is, simultaneously, the unconditioned world – our true world.  Our practice is to remember this and to cultivate it.