How are we to understand our self? Our sense of self colors all the significant choices we make. The world’s many religions and philosophies all attempt to address this question. However, if we don’t do our own investigation, we merely wind up choosing between competing stories. We don’t actually know for ourselves.
Buddhism is focused on the central question – what is self? Without making declarations or assumptions about gods or the cosmos, what can we know about our selves through examining our self and our world?
Rev. Joshu Sasaki, Roshi, the spiritual inspiration for Albuquerque Zen Center and many other Rinzai-ji centers across the country, has been teaching Tathagata Zen in America for more than 48 years. Under Roshi’s guidance students study the two primordial activities – variously referred to as Tathagata and Tathaagata, or expansion/contraction, plus/minus – which are dharma activity.
“Dharma activity” is the basic, natural rhythm of everything. Students new to Roshi’s teaching often find this difficult to comprehend, yet Roshi has been very insistent that we must recognize Tathagata and Tathaagata if we want to understand our selves and Zen.
The fundamental insight is emptiness – zero. Everything arises from zero and everything returns to zero. The one true nature of everything is zero.
Emptiness is a central teaching of Buddhism, yet in a world filled with people and things, we are often distracted by people and things. It is too easy to consider zero a vague, abstract teaching that somehow recedes into the background while we are busy with our daily interactions. Tathagata Zen addresses this issue, calling us to recognize our daily living as practice, and daily experience as dharma activity.
Concepts are static, but our lives are dynamic, and this dichotomy contributes to our confusion. Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent, Tathagata Zen points out that even the origin of everything – zero – is impermanent. Nothing is fixed, everything is dynamic dharma-activity.
The vital activity of zero is to divide itself and then unify itself. Dividing and unifying, dividing and unifying . . . this is the basis of the dynamic world of our experience. Zero divides itself into two essential activities: expansion and contraction (or subject and object). This is the world of people, things and events – what we encounter in everyday living. The unity of plus and minus is zero – perfect unity – beyond thought or perception. The origin of every moment is zero; the realization of every moment is a new zero. Each moment is an instant of plus-minus separating and unifying; there is nothing else. Everything arises as the instantaneous, momentary manifestation of plus and minus activity.
Roshi tells us it is essential to discover plus and minus activity in our daily life. The natural place for our investigation is zazen. Of course, our sitting must be firm and still; otherwise our breathing will be overshadowed by attaching to thoughts and emotions. When our mind and body are quiet and unified, we are aware of inhaling and exhaling.
The basic cycle is inhaling until completed, at which point inhaling rests; exhaling until exhaling is completed, then exhaling rests. This natural activity requires no intervention by our self (on the contrary, trying to “manage” our breathing often leads to difficulties).
If we want to study dharma activity, we need only investigate our zazen. In zazen expansion and contraction selflessly, spontaneously interact.
Zazen practice is not observing breathing: it is full-bodied manifestation of breathing activity. Breathing is sensual, physical and immediate – no thinking. We study breathing by dissolving our awareness into each sensation of breathing as it arises; or, alternately, we manifest our self as breathing. We study breathing by disappearing into breathing.
In the midst of breathing, there is a world of activity. Sounds, visual impressions, smells, tastes and physical sensations embrace us from every direction. From within, thoughts, emotions and images bubble up. There is a sphere of sensations, within and without, coming together each moment.
This is the content of every moment of our lives. When we inhale, we practice effortlessly receiving everything. When we exhale, we practice effortlessly letting go. Each moment we completely take in our world and then completely give it away. With each breathing cycle we inhale and exhale the spherical experience of our world.
But often we are not clear and we get in the way. We grasp at a thought, memory or emotion (perhaps it is something we want, something we’re afraid of, or whatever . . .). This is attaching mind; this is how problems begin and confusion arises.
The natural process is for subjective activity and objective activity to meet in this moment. They meet, merge and then separate as a new moment. Subject expands, object contracts, yet subject and object disappear into each other. When we attach, we cling to something, and the spontaneous interaction of plus and minus is distorted by our clinging.
To be clear, attaching must end. It’s easy to say, but very difficult to do. We must disappear.
There is no substitute for frequent, vital zazen. Every sanzen student has heard Roshi say, “Still not clear. More zazen.” But practice is not imaging some model of experience, practice is realizing experience itself.
While an image of spherical breathing may help orient us in our practice, the true manifestation of spherical breathing is free of any thoughts or images. The teaching is just skillful means to orient our effort.
The only truth is emptiness. The world of suffering and confusion will continue to arise as long as self is not clear. With whole-body, whole-mind, our practice is disappearing into inhaling, disappearing into exhaling. In the zendo or outside the zendo – one practice.
As our practice matures, self then becomes clear.