217. The Buddhist doctrine of no self

If you were to ask someone to give an example of Buddhist doctrine, the example given may well be ‘the Buddhist doctrine of no-self’.

But actually that isn’t true, in two senses.

Firstly, at no point in the sutras or anywhere else did the Buddha either deny the self or affirm the self.

He just pointed out that our ideas of what the self is are incoherent and contradictory, and whether or not the self existed, we couldn’t find it in any of the familiar places.

And he did this because thinking in terms of self and world is obviously dualistic; but likewise thinking in terms of no self and world is dualistic too.

It is as if one sketched out an outline of a person, filled it up with imaginary karma, and called the whole thing ‘self’. And you then took that content away, simply leaving the outline again, and this time filled up the space with imaginary enlightenment. What is the difference, really?

And this is the second sense. There isn’t ‘Buddhist doctrine’ in the normal sense, because the heart of Buddhism isn’t within the conceptual realm.

If our understanding is theoretical then our liberation will also be theoretical.


207. Like a dream

We compare this life to a dream because, amongst other things, dream illuminates suffering, no-self and impermanence.

Our desire – attraction, aversion – is inescapable. But we don’t need to escape. We just need to experience. Just experience.

In dreams, we cannot say there isn’t a self, but nor can we locate it.

And rather than beings within time, there is just vibrant impermanence; a changing, kaleidoscopic whole.


204. Good and bad zazen

The Self asserts itself twice : first openly, then by stealth.

We are often told that zazen is not meditation, and that’s true, if meditation is seen as a way of controlling the mind, expanding consciousness, increasing compassion and similar egoic drivel.

But we also need to be alert to a different form of self assertion: imagining that there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experience. So, when we are sitting, we might imagine (good) raw experience to be somehow dimmed by the (bad) experience of judging, commenting, associating and so on, which our ‘mind’ seems to be doing automatically. But who is it who wishes to get this (bad) experience out of the way?

Our practice is to experience everything in vast open awareness.


202. Jiko

In the Genjokoan, Master Dogen wrote:

“To carry the self forward to experience the myriad charms is delusion. For the myriad dharmas to come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment”

Dogen, Genjokoan

‘Self’ is ‘Jiko‘, which has two meanings. The first is self in the usual sense; the ego, the small, personal self. The second meaning however is the whole of dependent origination. The whole works. The big self.

Dogen switches between the meanings, so we can paraphrase him as saying:

“To sit in zazen and experience everything as my experience, and to be concerned with ‘me’ is delusion. To unobstruct each thing’s illumination of the whole of time, the whole of existence, is enlightenment”

Know this: your practice is not a personal practice. It is entirely unconcerned with your puny needs and wants. It is the whole universe practicing, through this body.


169. Zazen is not a practice of the self

The most important thing for us to understand is that Zazen is not a practice of the self. It is a practice of the Buddha.

That being so, it is not concerned with purifying or perfecting the self. Or setting the self off on a journey.

It is not concerned with furnishing the house of the self with wisdom and compassion.

But rather, becoming completely intimate with the ground.

My first teacher said, “What is it which stops the Universe from collapsing?”

He didn’t answer. Of course, he didn’t need to.


161. The mirror of the self

Our lives do not exist in time. But in our lives, time exists.

Likewise, space. The budding tree births the sky.

Buddhist language is not a description of ‘reality’. It is a provisional language, aimed at liberation.

My first teacher said that we can’t break the mirror of the self with the head.

But if not with the head, then with what?



117. The Zen Doctrine of No Self

One of D. T. Suzuki’s most famous books is ‘The Zen Doctrine of No-Self’. It’s a very seductive title. Once we’ve got the theory clear, we can start to practice. Once we’ve got the map, we can make our way to the territory. It’s a completely erroneous perspective.

My first teacher said, “you cannot break the mirror of the self with the head”. Denying the self is also asserting the self because – just like atheism – what is denied remains there in outline. A god shaped space, a self shaped space. We need to understand that Buddhism is the relinquishing of all views. The relinquishing of all views and discovering in the midst of practice that territory in which the karmic mind is not sovereign.

And in this place there are maps. Some are incomprehensible to us, some are like a dream and some are like daybreak.


116. Anatta

The foundation of Buddhism is Anatta, no self. Dogen’s way of expressing this in our practice is ‘dropping off body and mind’. Dropping as we would drop off a cloak. But a cloak that we keep finding ourselves wearing again.

We might imagine that this dropping off reveals a purer self, but that would be a mistake. This dropping off, the activity of non fabrication, non talking the self into existence, doesn’t reveal a purer self. Rather, it uncloaks this one piece zen, where everything, including the activity of the karmic mind, is an unbroken whole. Everything is as it is, which is nirvana.


110. The Sickness of the Self

Buddhism is a medicine for the sickness of the self.

It takes us a long time to realise it. What drives us to start to practice is a sense that something is missing. That we may be caught in the in breath of narcissism, or caught in the outbreath of depression. We may feel like there is dirt on our face which we can’t wash away.

But rather than something missing, something is not yet missing: the deep belief that there is a Me.

The fundamental belief in Buddhism is anatta, no self. In Zen we express this as emptiness. This belief is the foundation of everything else; Interdependence, total dynamic functioning and so on. It is why when we chant the Heart Sutra we chant that the Bodhisattva of Compassion, practicing Zazen, sees the five skandhas as empty and thereby relieves all suffering.

The oscillation, the breath, is not between the inflation and deflation of the self but between the five skandhas and everything, seen as vast compassionate space. We cannot lift ourselves, yet we are lifted up.

The sickness never really leaves us. But nonetheless, everything is illuminated.


66. No Gain

We are told that we should sit without expectation of gain. That isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete.

It is our karmic self which decides to practice, and which gets us to the Zendo, but the ‘person’ who sits without expectation of gain is not ‘I’.

We are double aspected. One aspect is our karmic self, the other is our universal self.

Universal self isn’t the personal self inflated by ‘enlightenment’, it is the whole shebang, dependent origination.

The karmic self occupies a position within dependent origination: universal self – no self – is dependent origination. Each thing is everything.

Zazen is dropping off the karmic self, endlessly. We don’t pin medals on it as it falls.