Dwelling in Subtle Forms of Identity
by tendo zenji
What are the barriers to awakening that we as practitioners put in our way. This is to turn around the questions so often raised about why the practice doesn’t seem to “work” for a given practitioner. As noted in previous talks we are typically Standing in our own Way. In this talk from the February 2023 Daylong Retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery we consider more subtle forms of standing in our own way: dwelling in identity.
Recording of this talk
February 18th, 2023 Daylong Retreat talk: Dwelling in Identity
All things are set on a nonabiding basis. The nonabiding basis is based on nonabiding. If you can. reach a thorough realization of this, then all things are One Suchness, and you cannot find even the slightest sign of abiding. The whole of your present activities and behavior is non-abiding. Once the basis is clear to you, it will be like having eyes: the sun is shining brightly, and you can see all kinds of colors and forms. Isn’t this the mainspring of transcendent wisdom?Yuanwu Letters (Cleary Bros)
The nature of reality is non-dwelling and thus must be our practice. This has several meanings, but in essence it is the interconnected nature of reality. But when we rest in various things, we are resting in identity, that is what we mistaking take as ourselves. This can be very subtle and we are going to examine several instances related especially to practitioners. At this level abiding can be seen as attachment. Anytime we are dwelling in something at its root it is the self grasping at something that it identifies with.
The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
—This is the mind’s disease.
Without recognizing the mysterious principle
It is useless to practice quietude.
The Way is perfect like great space,
Without lack, without excess.
Because of grasping and rejecting,
You cannot attain it.
Do not pursue conditioned existence;
Do not abide in acceptance of emptiness.
In oneness and equality,
Confusion vanishes of itself.
Stop activity and return to stillness,
and that stillness will be even more active.
Xin Xin Ming, attributed to Chien-chih Seng-ts’an
from Faith in Mind by Sheng Yen.
The Chan Practice of Non-abiding
The Diamond Sutra contains the sentence, “(One) ought not abide anywhere, and there will arise this mind.” Before he became the Sixth Patriarch, the young Huineng became enlightened when he heard this single sentence. In Chan, we often use a briefer phrase, “Non-abiding, mind arising.” This phrase appears within the entrances to Nung Chan Monastery and the Chan Hall of Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan, as well as the Chan Hall of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in the United States. Master Sheng Yen continually brought up this phrase during long retreats, explained the concepts behind it, and asked retreatants to practice accordingly.
The Chan school places great importance on “non-abiding, mind arising” because the intrinsic nature of the mind is exactly non-abiding. If you wish to be enlightened, your actions must be in accordance with “non-abiding, mind arising.” Not only must you have a clear sense of this idea, but your every action, word, and thought must be in line with it. This idea that all actions of body, speech, and mind should be in accord with the concept of non-abiding is expressed in the saying by the Huineng: “As the mouth speaks, so the mind acts.”Guo Xing, from The Chan Practice of Non-abiding
Complacency manifests in many ways and reinforces our identity.
Resting in the form institutionally
A place of practice exists to help you let go of self, by keeping you off balance, giving you no place to dwell. But once it becomes too familiar we can rest in it. It becomes part of our identity.
Outsourcing one’s practice outside of oneself
All practices are by their nature have an aspect we can attach to. That is there is an element that we can hold on to, abide in. The benefit of the practice should outweigh this, but when a practice becomes “stale” it is because we are abiding it it in some way.
When we become comfortable in the practice then we are dwelling in it. As all practices have a graspable element it is incumbent upon us to question where we are at. Maintain beginners mind. That is not self-conscious, but fresh. In retreats we are constantly off balance and breakthrough should come early. How early? before retreats become unable to surprise us. That is before they become routine.
Beginners Mind—How to avoid complacency
A noble one of former times [Baizhang Huaihai] has said clearly: “For example, a fly can alight here and there, but the only place it can’t alight is on top of a flame. Sentient beings are also like that. They are capable of alighting on objective supports, but the only objective support they can’t alight upon is prajñā.” When from moment to moment [sentient beings] do not retreat from [the resoluteness experienced when they178] first produced the thought of awakening; and they take the consciousness that makes mundane defilements into objective supports and turn [that consciousness] backwards to engage prajñā: even if they don’t make a thorough penetration in the present life, at the very end of life they will most definitely not be led along by bad karma and fall into a bad rebirth path.Dahui, Letters of Dahui p. 84-85
Keep your mind fresh. Each moment is fresh; new. This is the lesson of impermanence, not that nothing lasts, but that everything is constantly being born. When we first encounter a new situation we are often self-consciousness, worried about doing things right, how we are perceived etc. Once we are past that but things are still unexpected, delightful, this is beginners mind. We can stay in this beginners mind in various ways. Increasing the intensity, keeping ourselves on the razors edge, works for a while. But engaging in fundamentally non-abiding practices is what is truly required. See Non-Dwelling practices
Identity as a Practitioner
We very easily become stuck in beliefs about ourselves as a practitioner, particular in how we perceive the practice is going for us. We thinking that we are no-good, that we can’t awaken, that certain practices “never work for us,” that we are selfish, we can’t arouse bodhicitta and so on. What are these beliefs rooted in? It is essential that we practice self-questioning and look at the roots of our beliefs. Most of our issues resolve themselves in fear of death and desire to be loved. Once again the self rejecting (fear of death) and grasping (after love). If we look at a particular belief we have we can identify what it is and let the feelings run their course through us. Repeatedly doing this we can untangle these root beliefs. The danger is creating much more difficult identities, the “I’m the type of person who can’t do x, or who always does y” kind of identity. These are identities. I am like this, we say. But who you really are is unbounded.
We establish views on how practice should be done and this again becomes entangled with who we are.
When members of the scholar-official class study the Way, most don’t really comprehend. Unless there is oral discussion and mental reflection, they are blank, with “nowhere to put their hands and feet.” They don’t believe that the state of not having anywhere to put your hands and feet is precisely the good state. —Dahui, Letters of Dahui, p. 167
The value of a Good Friend, is that they can point to where we re doing something for our self and not for the purpose of seeing past the self. But anytime we think things are done in a particular way, or that this resonates with us, or hold tightly to specific views, we again need to engage in reflection on that. Look for the root assumption. Is there identity here?
However, you must not abide in the state of calmness. If you abide in the state of calmness, then you will be possessed by “measuring with the dharmadhātu” [i.e., using ultimate reality as a measuring stick]. In the teachings, this is called “dharma-defilement” [i.e., producing all sorts of views about the buddhadharma]. Once you have extinguished “measuring with the dharmadhātu” and all-at-once washed away any sort of idea of “remarkable and outstanding,” then, for the first time, keep an eye on [a huatou]Dahui, Letters of Dahui, p. 168
Attachments to experience (glimpses; the awakened self) –
When we have glimpses into reality as it is, even major breakthroughs while we still have a lot of conditioning to work through these can become an identity for us. These events lead to lasting changes, but when we turn it into an experience, we reify it; it becomes a thing. Then we are just dwelling in the past (memory). At its worst this becomes an “awakened ego” that is someone fully dwelling in self who thinks they are awakened and acts accordingly. This is the root of many of the problematic teachers we have seen. But even someone acknowledging that they still have a long ways to go can still hold onto experience, to dwell in it. Then it becomes a barrier and stagnation occurs.
Working through the identity as a practitioner
Look for these tendencies and put them down. Examine the core beliefs: trace back where feelings come from, where negative thoughts come from. Why are we practicing? How are we practicing. Question of the self is essential. Non-abiding practices can help shake loose these tendencies.
Attachments to Self
Not really wanting to wake up
This manifests in myriad ways. Attachments to self is the main issue—it of course doesn’t want to cease. It likes the idea of the awakened self, that is, itself plus being recognized as have attained something. This is the ego. But along with this of course is all the other identities we have. We are fine with the path as an identity, a lifestyle, “what we do” and the aspects that surround practice. Often those who say they can’t sit alone are in this camp. This primarily manifest as a lack of commitment.
Lack of commitment
This is the true Way of training of all the Buddhas, and is true Zazen. Speaking or silent, moving or still walking, standing, sitting and lying down are our everyday actions. In this our everyday life we must keep working (on the Koan) resourcefully, from moment to moment, constantly and continuously.
Forgetting it for most of the time and only occasionally recalling it and then just giving it a try at Zazen only invites a host of wild fancies. And to go to Sanzen only when one feels like it is just not on! And even though you have forgotten to work on the Koan, you must never lose the power of the vow and the strength of faith. It is like learning archery. Shooting the arrow, you cannot possibly expect to hit the target right away but you must practice and practice.
The training calls for great energy and great perseverance, neither being put off by a bit of pain, nor getting easily bored. Even after devoting themselves to the Way for twenty and thirty years, the old masters found it far from easy.Zen Master Daibi, commentary to Torei zenji’s Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamps of the Zen School
We make our excuses, too busy or whatever, we just occasionally practice, but the commitment to what it takes to actually wake up just isn’t there.
Inquire into your motivations
So what to do? First one really needs to understand what motivates your practice. Be honest and don’t worry about ones motivations. These change just like everything else. Inquiry into motivations
Abiding in Groups
Sometimes the distortions that can come out of being part of a group have little to do with the group or its members and a lot to do with you. Some good questions to ask yourself are: “What do I really want to get out of being part of a group?” or “What am I really expecting or hoping for by being part of this group?” It’s important when asking these questions that you remind yourself there are no wrong answers. For instance, if the answer is, “I want to belong,” or “I want to be liked,” or “I want to find a romantic partner who is spiritual,” then you have to acknowledge that motivation and be honest with yourself. If you tell yourself and others that you’re there for spiritual awakening, but your real motivations are hidden even to you, then you will have cognitive dissonance. You will be frustrated on both accounts. Authenticity is the key here.Angelo Dilullo, Awake: It’s Your Turn (p. 168)
Clarify Your Aspiration
To clarify your aspiration means knowing exactly what it is that your spiritual life aspires to, not as a future goal but in each mo- ment. In other words, what do you value most in your life—not in the sense of moral values, but in the sense of what is most important to you. Contemplate this question. Do not assume that you know what your highest aspiration is, or even what is most important to you. Dig deep within, contemplate, and meditate on what the spiritual quest is about for you; don’t let anyone else define your aspiration for you. Look within until you find, with complete clarity, what you aspire to.
The importance of this first Foundation cannot be overemphasized, because life unfolds along the lines of what you value most. Very few people have Truth or Reality as deep values. They may think that they value Truth, but their actions do not bear this out. Generally, most people have competing and conflicting values, which manifest as both internal and external conflict. So just because you think something is your deepest value does not mean that it actually is. By deeply contemplating and clarifying what you value and aspire to, you become more unified, clear, and certain of your direction.
As your realization and spiritual maturity deepen, you will find that some aspects of your aspiration remain steadfast while others evolve to reflect what is relevant to your current level of insight. By reflecting on and clarifying the issues relevant to your current level of understanding, you stay focused on the cutting edge of your own unfolding.Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation
There are many places in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch that refer to how one should practice non-abiding. For example, the chapter “Samadhi and Wisdom Are One” says that those who practice non-abiding will see the emptiness inherent in virtue and evil, beauty and ugliness, enemy and friend, demeaning and argumentative language. Such a person does not engage in or think about reward or injury. Thought after thought, he or she doesn’t engage in or think about the previous condition. If the previous thought, present thought and future thought continue without stopping, this is called “bondage.” If, in regard to all dharmas, thought after thought continues with non-abiding, this is called “unbinding.” (emphasis mine)
Ven. Guo Xing from The Chan Practice of Non-abiding
Engage in Self-Questioning. Examine your beliefs. Stay in the present, do not dwell in past experiences. Do not let things become routine. Engaging in Non-Dwelling practices can keep things fresh as they don’t give you anything to hold onto. Work with good friend who will point out where you are fooling yourself.
The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue
Jeffery Broughton and Elsie Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (August 1, 2017)
The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp of the Zen School
by Zen Master Torei Enji with Commentary by Master Daibi of Unman
Translated by Yoko Okuda
Download pdf: here
Faith in Mind
Chan Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala (October 10, 2006)
ISBN-10 : 1590303970
The Way of Liberation
Open Gate Sangha; 1st edition (January 1, 2013)
ISBN-10 : 1937195171
Awake: It’s Your Turn
SimplyAlwaysAwake.com (May 25, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 1737212323
Chan Practice of Non-abiding, Ven. Guo Xing
That analogy by Baizhang Huahai in the Dahui letter – is really helpful – illustrating the principle.