- Living With Our Ordinary Selves
- Rev. Sarika Dharma
What is ordinary self? What is True Self? And what is self? I'd like to begin by
describing the progress one makes in Zen practice by using the Zen circle analogy, which
is the one Zen Master Seung Sahn uses.
If you picture a circle, starting at zero degrees up at the top, that is ordinary self.
That is the place where we get up every day, we go to work, we drive our cars on the
freeway, we deal with our families. Ordinary life. But all the time that we're doing this
in our ordinary life, in our ordinary self, we also have lots of stuff in our heads. We
make constant commentary on what is going on in our life. So we get on the freeway and
it's backed up, and we say "I wish these people would get out of the way. Why does
everybody have to be driving here? I've got to get to work, I'm going to be late, my boss
is going to give me a hard time." Or while driving on the freeway we're thinking
about what we're going to do that evening. We sometimes drive right past our exit because
we're thinking so much. So many thoughts fill our head.
That's our ordinary lives, at zero degrees around the circle. Something happens then.
We realize that we are not totally happy in our ordinary lives and maybe there is
something else, some other way of being, some other way of dealing with the world. And
perhaps we begin to read about meditation and Zen, and we get some ideas that life doesn't
always have to be like this. That's 90 degrees around the circle, a quarter of the way.
Intellectually, we become aware that we could change in some positive way and make our
lives easier, make our lives happier.
180 degrees around the circle is once we start meditating. We actually take the action
to sit down to practice what we've read about, and we find that we get very peaceful.
Sometimes we even get attached to that peace and want to meditate all the time.
"Don't want to live my life. Want to stay in the Zendo and be peaceful and calm and
not worry about all these thoughts. Let them go, let go of all these annoying
thoughts." My master used to say that our mind is like a drunken monkey jumping from
branch to branch, never stopping with all these thoughts. But once we start meditating we
do start to let go of the thoughts.
Then we go another quarter of the way around the circle, 270 degrees, and this is the
place where we begin to realize that we can have power. This is the place where you see
Indian fakirs sleeping on nails and walking on glass. You may begin to have powers of
seeing what people are really thinking; not reading their minds so much as just being
aware of these things. In Zen, this place is very dangerous. In Zen, we say go right
through it, don't stop there or it will catch you. It can embroil you; it's a place where
you could learn to be very manipulative of other people. So in Zen practice we want to go
right through that place.
And when we do get beyond that place, we come out to 360 degrees around the circle.
What is 360 degrees? It's the same place as zero degrees. We're now at the same place we
started, except everything is different. Because now, when we eat, we just eat; when we
sleep, we just sleep; when we drive on the freeway, we just drive.
So, the ordinary self that is at zero degrees and the True Self that is at 360 degrees
is really the same in a way.
The attained masters that I've met seemed to me to be very extraordinarily ordinary. My
teacher was that way. He was a very important man, very highly thought of, but if you were
around him you could see that he was just ordinary. He would water the lawn and rake the
leaves and he would participate in the events at the Center. If we were doing a retreat,
he would do some of the cooking. He would laugh a lot and sometimes he would cry and
sometimes he would be upset. But it all would pass right through him. When he got angry,
he would be angry and let it go. And when he looked at you, he saw you. He was just right
there, right with you. He could do this because his mind was not cluttered with thoughts.
He was one of the most unpretentious people I have ever met. Extraordinarily ordinary.
When I was preparing this talk I consulted the dictionary to see what it said about the
word "ordinary." This is what I found:
"The regular or customary condition or course of things. Of a kind to be expected
in the normal order of events. Routine, usual. Of common quality, rank or ability.
Deficient in quality, poor, inferior, common."
In light of this definition, none of us wants to be ordinary. We don't want to be
deficient in quality, poor, inferior, or common. But we need to think of ordinary in a
different way: in the sense of every day and every moment. Our lives happen moment by
We may think that we need to live a very exciting and adventurous life to have any
significance. This is not necessarily the case. We watch people who have fame and fortune
and see how sometimes it is much more painful to them than our ordinary lives, yet we
still have an idea that we are inadequate unless we can accomplish great things.
When I was in college, a long time ago, I wanted to become a fiction writer. My idea
was that if I could write a short story that would be published in a college textbook,
essentially I would live forever, and with some status. Somehow that would make my life
meaningful. Well, I never did and I certainly don't care about that anymore, but I think
it's very common for us to want something more than ordinary. What Zen says to us is be in
your ordinary self, aware and conscious, and things change, and everything looks
Zen is not about anything special. When we sit in meditation we don't try to get into
an altered state of consciousness. In Zen, we are simply aware. We hear the dogs barking,
we hear the water running in the pool. When we sit, we don't try to go into a trance. We
stay grounded. Zen is about being here now.
There's a Zen story of a student who asked her master, "How can I find the true
meaning of life?" And the master asked, "Did you eat your meal?" The
student replied that she had. The master said, "Wash your bowl."
It's very interesting to live in a monastic setting. While training and doing retreats,
you find that you no longer have to make decisions, unless you're leading the group.
Everything is just follow the leader. Everything is done together. No one is to stand out,
everyone follows whoever's leading. And the person who is leading is not some special
authoritarian figure. That person is just the leader, and that's the one you follow. By
doing that you don't need to think about what should I do next. You don't need to think
about is it time to do this. You simply go along and follow. That frees you up in many
ways to see the world as it really is, to experience each moment, to be ordinary and yet
still be connected.
Let's talk about the self, because in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent
self. There is no such thing as a soul. The self is the same as everything else in the
world, it's simply a process that's constantly, constantly changing. We can't grab on to
it because it's always in motion.
In Buddhist psychology, the skandas are said to make up the self, our personality--who
we are. The word skandas can be translated as "aggregates" or "heaps."
There are five skandas, called nama-rupa. Rupa is form, the matter which makes up our
bodies. The nama are the mental aggregates: sensation, perception, conception, and
consciousness. Sensations are the messages we receive through our sense organs. Perception
occurs when a sensation connects into our brain and we have an idea, perhaps assigning a
name to the sensation. For example, we might see a flower and then we might think,
"flower." Conception has to do with what meaning the flower has for us; we might
think something like, "That flower is really beautiful." Finally, we have
consciousness, our awareness of what's going on. What we call the self is essentially a
process of all these things happening.
One of the characteristics of the skandas is that they are imperfect (dukkha), meaning
that nothing works out the way we want it to exactly. The skandas are sometimes called
aggregates of attachment, because they can lead to craving and desire. Another
characteristic of the skandas, though, is that they are without essence (anatta). The
skandas don't have an essence because they are impermanent (anicca). Thus, the skandas are
empty. Emptiness is a very important concept in Zen, but it's difficult to understand
initially because we think of empty meaning there's nothing there. In Zen, emptiness is a
lot closer to the idea that there's nothing to grab on to because everything, including
the self, is constantly changing.
Sometimes in our practice we get a kensho experience, a flash of what is our True Self.
At first, it's just a flash, a momentary flash. As we go along in our practice, it might
last a little longer each time until we get to the point where we can be with our True
Nature a lot of the time. But even so, we have to remember that our ordinary self comes
back. When we are in our ordinary self we can still make many misjudgments, and we need to
be aware of that.
I think you know from your own lives how we deal with things when we're just our
ordinary selves. Somebody says something that isn't very complimentary, something
critical, and we think, "Hey! You can't say that to me. I'll get you for that!"
We have an urge to strike out. Suppose we're in a relationship with someone and we aren't
getting along. We think we're right and the other person is wrong and we want it our way.
It all has to do with our ego. One of the differences between ordinary self and True Self
is our ego involvement, our focus on the belief that we have a self that can be injured
and therefore has to be protected.
As we begin to get closer and get glimpses of True Self, we have a better understanding
that all life has to do with interaction. That in life, things arise together. In our
relationships with other people, we begin to think maybe "That person's having a bad
day. Maybe that person's under a lot of stress. That's why they said what they said to me.
It didn't really have to do with me." We begin to understand that if we get into a
traffic jam on the freeway it wasn't designed to make us late or cause us trouble, it's
just a traffic jam.
In Zen, people talk about how you have to die on the pillow. You have to sit on your
zafu until your ego is annihilated, and then you will find your True Nature. I believe it
is more like you have to expand your ego to include everything. Because we are one with
everything around us. We are one with everybody, whether we like it or not. That is who we
really are. We are all connected.
Once you expand this feeling of ego, you don't have to defend yourself so much, you
don't have to protect yourself so much, you don't have to worry about being attacked all
the time. You can relax and you can be more open to other people and more flowing with
The growth of the True Self comes through practice. It's necessary to study, it's
necessary to hear discourses and discuss dharma with people and to read what the masters
have written, but it's also very necessary to sit.
When you sit, you begin to break down the wall of ego. You get a little crack at first,
a tiny little hole you can see through. But ultimately, total enlightenment must be the
annihilation of the wall. Now this was the same wall that our ordinary self was trying to
get through by butting our heads against it. We can get very bloody and battered on our
heads, but it just won't work. We often don't know any better so we have to try that at
first. But once we can sit down, once we can let go, the wall begins to dissolve and we
get that much closer to our True Nature.
There is a koan in Zen, which is "What was your original face before you were
born?" Sometimes it's "What was your original face before your parents were
born?" How would you answer that?
Yes, it's driving at your True Nature. It's asking what is your True Nature. This is
what is, what we are all part of, our True Natures. If you find who you are, if you find
how your mind works, if you find your own True Nature, you know everyone's True Nature. Of
course you still have to deal with their ordinary selves, as we all continue to deal with
our own ordinary self.
I'll close with another Zen story. Three Zen students were talking about whose master
was most attained. One student says, "My master is so powerful that she can stand on
one side of the river and write through the air, making marks on a piece of paper held by
her attendant on the other side of the river." The second student says, "Well,
that's okay, but my master's so powerful that she can go across the river without a boat,
without any help, without getting wet, because she simply walks on the water." And
the third student says, "Well, that's all very fine, but my master is truly attained.
Because when she eats, she just eats, and when she sleeps, she just sleeps."
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for providing us
with this article