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Category: practice

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 

Ultimately Non-Dwelling

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)
ISBN: 0190664169

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 
Purchase: 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
Angelo Dilullo
SimplyAlwaysAwake.com (May 25, 2021)
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1737212323

Online articles

Chan Practice of Non-abiding, Ven. Guo Xing

Inscriptions on Trust in Mind (Xin Xin Ming)

The Buddha on Solitude

by tendo zenji

Ānanda, a monk does not shine if he delights in company, enjoys company, is committed to delighting in company; if he delights in a group, enjoys a group, rejoices in a group. Indeed, Ānanda, it is impossible that a monk who delights in company, enjoys company, is committed to delighting in company; who delights in a group, enjoys a group, rejoices in a group, will obtain at will—without difficulty, without trouble—the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of self-awakening. But it is possible that a monk who lives alone, withdrawn from the group, can expect to obtain at will—without difficulty, without trouble—the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of self-awakening.

Shakyamuni Buddha from The Greater Discourse on Emptiness (Mahā Suññata Sutta)

only what is necessary

by tendo zenji

Hermitage at Tahoma-san

My Drafty Mountain Hut at Tahoma-san

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by tendo zenji

To be Shown to the Monks at a Certain Temple

Not yet to the shore of nondoing,
it’s silly to be sad you’re not moored yet…
Eastmount’s white clouds say
to keep on moving, even
if it’s evening, even if it’s fall.

-Chiao Jan (730-799)
(translated by J.P. Seaton in the The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry)

Leaving home

by tendo

“In our culture, home-leaving is virtually nonexistent. Monastics have jobs, children, homes, and luxury vacations. Lay practitioners hop from retreat center to retreat center looking for a spiritual fix. We’re less and less able to give anything up. We want to become enlightened, but we don’t want to renounce the world. And what is even worse, we don’t realize that everything we attach to helps build up the layers of conditioning that prevent us from realizing our inherent nature.” (1, p. 114)

There are two barriers that particularly bedevil the western practitioner: extreme individuality and the notion that you can have it all. The latter notion is the one that we have erected in opposition to the notion of leaving home. Traditionally embarking on the great way meant that you renounced your previous life, that you fully devoted your entire self into the endeavor. When Buddhism came to the west it was the monastic practices that were adopted, but primarily into a lay practice.  The traditional practices of the laity (or householder) of course differed throughout various locals but were almost always focused on upholding the precepts and the practice of of dāna.

For all the diversity of Buddhist practices in the West, general trends in the recent transformations of Buddhist practice … can be identified. These include an erosion of the distinction between professional and lay Buddhists; a decentralization of doctrinal authority; a diminished role for Buddhist monastics; an increasing spirit of egalitarianism; greater leadership roles for women; greater social activism; and, in many cases, an increasing emphasis on the psychological, as opposed to the purely religious, nature of practice. (2, p. 35)

Buddhism transformed every time it moved into a new culture and much of that transformation can be seen as a positive development.  But as the practice of monastics was brought into lay practice all of the attachments of daily life were added to the already overwhelming barriers erected by evolution, history, culture and our individual development. Following the way is a process of shedding our attachments and the purpose of leaving home is to make a radical break from our primary attachments: home, family, possessions, status and identity. As Daido notes in the above quotes these attachments “…build up the layers of conditioning that prevent us from realizing our inherent nature.” and to break from them is an attempt to dig through those layers.  The degree to which that break is one of intention is key and it can be the case that making the choice to fully commit to the practice, to place it as your primary priority, to reject the priorities of the dominant culture, is to make that break, is leaving home. Furthermore he argues that to completely withdraw from society with all it’s responsibilities and burdens can leave us ill prepared to bring the practice into our everyday lives and beyond that can even be psychologically damaging.

Zen master John Daido Loori once complained that “most of the lay practice that goes on among new converts in America is a slightly watered-down version of monastic practice, and most of the monastic practice is a slightly glorified version of lay practice.… To me, this hybrid path—halfway between monasticism and lay practice—reflects our cultural spirit of greediness and consumerism. With all the possibilities, why give up anything? We want it all. Why not do it all?” (3)

If we take the position that western practice is inherently going to be different than traditional practice and furthermore that leaving home is primarily a psychological break then the question ultimately becomes: what does it mean to place the practice first. This is where the especially mendacious western notion that we can “do it all” comes in to play.  It has really been foisted upon us that we can be completely devoted to a job working long hours and still be the best parent in the world, have a rich social life, be engaged in the arts and still be “fully committed” to the practice. But the reality is the more our attention is fragmented the less is given to any one of these endeavors.  At best you can prioritize things and divide your energy and attention between these competing demands.  Basically we can’t ‘do it all’ and the notion that we can and the attempt to do so impedes our practice, is another barrier along the way.

Unfortunately there isn’t an easy solution to these questions. Each of us has to carve out our path and work out our priorities.  Most practitioners in the west are lay practioners after all and it has never been expected for a householder to make the same break as a leaver of home.  But even for lay practice the notion of ‘doing it all‘ is an impediment.  In the main the addition of meditative practice, of intensive retreats and other monastic practices that have been adopted into western lay practice are a positive development.  But the notion that one just has to work these endeavors into a packed schedule is counterproductive. The deemphasis of the precepts in western lay practice for these monastic practices – which traditionally would be undertaken by an individual already steeped in a culture based on the precepts –  fosters this delusion. The precepts and the eightfold path give direction on how to minimize attachments and how to prioritize our attention and point toward a simpler lifestyle where one can really put full attention on their practice. But as this involves giving stuff up and explicitly contradicts the western myth that we can have it all is it no wonder that this aspect is deemphasized.

“Practice has nothing to do with hope. Neither does realization. What is required is the kind of tenacity, the kind of vow that comes out of a strong, committed practice.” (1, p. 55)

For someone who does decide to leave home these concerns are even more intractable. There are few opportunities for a completely supported monastic practice in the west and many of those that exist have been rife with problems.  Many who would be attracted to monastic practice can actually be psychologically harmed by that situation.  But for one inclined to fully commit to the dharma, to truly place it as their primary focus, to devote the bulk of their attention and energy to the practice, how to avoid the “watered down” hybrid path? The answers to these questions are even less forthcoming, even more confounding. It once again seems that one has to carve out one’s own path.  But we are so good at fooling ourselves – a primary notion of the practice itself – that this seems fraught with peril.  Furthermore that other great barrier of the western practitioner, that of extreme individualism, can become insurmountable. Monastic practice is a many ways a support system that contradicts our instincts for individualisms, for distraction, for trying to “do it all”. To avoid all of thes pitfalls without such a system in place is incredibly difficult.

So in the end there are no answers only more questions. It seems likely that while every path will be to some degree an individual one, that degree is important.  There must be a support structure that at least points out when one is going the wrong way, fooling themselves or increasing attachments. Most of us will require a form that pushes us, some form of accountability and someone to call us on our bullshit. In the end there pretty much is no way around the fact that one will have to give stuff up. We can’t, in the end, have it all.


  1. New York, Dharma Communications.  ISBN: 9781882795215
  2. Alan Wallace (2002). Prebish, Charles S., ed. Westward dharma : Buddhism beyond Asia (PDF).
    Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22625-9.
  3. Jay Michaelson  (2013),  Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment
    Evolver Editions,  ISBN: 1-583-947140-0.
  4.  Householder (Buddhism), Wikipedia article.