To study the way of enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
-From Genjo Koan by Eihei Dogen
I have been thinking about studying the self and forgetting the self most recently since reading Lewis Hyde’s Treatise on Forgetting. Hyde wrote that it’s hard to forget what you don’t remember. We may think that not paying attention to something will cause us to forget it. It won’t, because the natural process of forgetting takes place when something is so intimate, so organic, so a part of us, that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. It’s become part of our body, a little like driving. We start off being clumsy and worrying about every little turn, when’s the right moment to turn back the wheel, when to brake and when not, how to drive on snow and ice. But over time, that slowly stops and we do all those things without thinking about them, without remembering them.
So studying the self is important. Dogen could have skipped that step and said: To study the way of enlightenment is to forget the self, but he didn’t. We investigate who we are from the day we’re born and maybe till the day we die. This pinched nerve I have right now is a reminder to investigate the self: How do I sit? How do I walk? What happens when I slow down? When does the pain get better or worse? What can I learn about this to help the body? Each of these is an opportunity to study the self with openness and curiosity.
A few of you may remember when Byron Katie taught at the Montague Farm. She wasn’t well at the time and reported that she’d gotten up in the middle of the night and vomited badly into the toilet. It wasn’t fun, she said, but then she started paying attention to the phenomenon of food coming up her esophagus rather than down, up and out of her throat and mouth rather than the other way around, and found it interesting.
Situations where you’re uncomfortable are excellent for studying the self. I get emails criticizing what I say or do, accusing me of not following through on things. I have voices in my head saying I’m not so hot or I don’t know what I’m doing. See these as opportunities for studying the self. Investigate thoroughly what is this thing that I call failing, a headache, pinched nerve, getting wet.
But studying the self is forgetting the self. How do you forget? By being intimate. Not keeping it on the outside. The closer I get, the more it’s claimed and owned, the more naturally it will be forgotten. I was asked recently what I do with things that bring up dislike and antipathy. I replied that some I can just slough off, but those that stick I choose to see as my voices having an interesting conversation or argument among themselves. Different viewpoints that are all me.
We have so many layers of self-consciousness, defensiveness, and disparate voices. How do we forget all these?
One way is the sudden way, when they drop in one heap. Sometimes we refer to that as an enlightenment experience. But there’s also the slow sloughing off of layer after layer of self-attachment, and maybe that’s the approach of Soto Zen, with the example of going through the mist and ending up wet at the end. Regardless, when we shed one thin layer after another, we feel a difference. We’re lighter on our feet in meeting life challenges, we don’t freak out as often, don’t feel the need to react, escape, manipulate, or control. Anyone practicing for a while experiences this.
Each approach has a danger. Bernie at times voiced disappointment in the sudden way, saying that people who had those experiences often didn’t work to actualize them in their day-to-day life. But there’s a danger in the slow kind too, and that is that we fall in love with the process of how we’re doing: Look at what I learned today, look at what I saw from this interaction, look at how my consciousness has expanded. This is especially relevant in the context of our self-centered culture and how it has co-opted Buddhist practices.
In 1987 I was in the ICU of a Yonkers hospital and my teacher visited me. The steroids injected into my body brought on hallucinations of great joy and clarity and I proudly babbled on and on about them. He smiled and said nothing. Now when people tell me their stories of what they understand and see, I also smile. I want to tell them that it’s not about improving and expanding their self, it’s about dropping it. We need to study the self, and we need to forget it. We have our tales of spiritual warriorship, and we have to let those go.
I wrote about my early experiences bearing witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and heard others talk of their experiences. After some five years of this I asked a fellow staff member why he kept coming back and he said: “I never had any experiences here. I just come to support the retreat.”
Much of the time we don’t want to forget the self; we don’t want to let go of a certain sense of accomplishment. I feel we’re called to live a transparent, simple life, responding so spontaneously and naturally to what arises that we’re not even aware of any state of enlightenment.
Living this way, we reflect the light of Buddha nature that is already here and now; we’re not creating anything. We don’t have to be the light, we don’t have to be anything at all. When we do what needs to get done without embellishment and self-consciousness, the functioning of the universe shines through. That’s non-doing. That’s non-action. We take care of things simply and naturally, subtly reflecting the light of Buddhadharma.