Tesshin spent the previous week in Detroit, Michigan leading a training session for GM and the United Auto Workers. Before the sessions began, Tesshin was driving around looking for something to eat. While lost in thoughts, he suddenly came to a checkpoint which cheerily announced “Welcome to Canada!” (For those who do not know the area, Detroit is only 2 miles from Windsor, Canada) Whoh! how did this happen? And there is was – BANG! reality took Tesshin out of his wandering thoughts. He was at the border with a big Canadian flag staring down at him.
Now unlike us, who would have been upset at having to go through the hassle of a checkpoint, explain an innocent error, and waste a bunch of time, Tesshin realized there was a “teachable point” in this situation. The realization of the border crossing is like the experience of realizing a Koan. When you finally get it – you get it – and it is so simple. Here is the border – it is a border – and I am HERE. This is “suchness” – it is reality – plain and simple. It is moments like this where the story in our heads falls away and we come face to face with the reality of a situation.
Tesshin next asked the question, “How do we ever know where we truly are and who we truly are?” For many of us, there is an internal narrative we tell ourselves, but is this real? This story is the “ego” repeating over and over again – “Here I am! Here I am!” It is a desperate shout – almost like if it is not reasserted every minute it will disappear. This is why time on the cushion is so challenging! The ego keeps throwing thoughts up and distracting us – it is reminding us that it will not go away without a fight! Even an accomplished Zen master is not immune! Our challenge, according to Tesshin, is to recognize the ego, its story, and its constant monologue and realize that the story is not reality. Our practice is to train the mind to quiet down so that we can get out of our own way and see reality for what it really is. This could be as simple as realizing that we just drove to Canada instead of the Indian buffet we intended.
So who are we really and where are we? The ego narrative tells us a story and the attachment to this story blinds us to reality. You may think you are the greatest person in the world. You may identify with a high-powered job or with the fact that your child just got accepted into Harvard. On the other hand, your narrative could be negative. You think you are a failure or even an evil person. This relationship fell apart because I am a terrible person and nobody would ever love me. The ego does not care – it simply needs a story which it can shout out to the world to assert its existence. The key thing is that these stories are just that – stories! They are not real and they do not help.
Tesshin recounted his time training in Japan. Monks are always in turmoil about their spiritual attainment. (Yes, even monks have ego!) It is a tradition in Zen that the teacher “knocks” the student out of their “ego games” with Koans, shouts, or even bonks on the head – if necessary! Tesshin commented that his teacher, Ban Roshi, (http://www.yorktownzen.org/tesshin.html) was very conscientious on this. However, what happens when the teacher disappears? Then what? This is a key message in our practice – a teacher can only take you part of the way. You must finish the journey yourself. This is why we train! If we can master the mind, then we can quiet the ego and really understand what is going on around us. We will not need to depend on anyone and will truly be in control of our own fate.