presence of mind to absence of mind


I think we can all agree that we all must be able to maintain a certain presence of mind in order to conduct ourselves through our daily lives. We must be able to connect with the happenings of our days, in our personal circumstances and in the larger world, and in that connection to work out and then play the part that is ours to play. That’s what living an enlightened life is all about.

Let’s look again at Dogen’s teaching about the study of the self. Here is yet another translation of this famous teaching, expanded a bit in the final sentence. This is from the text of the Shobogenzo itself (p. 57: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Kindle Edition, Shambala Publications, 2010, p. 57):

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.” Also, “To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.”

“… to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” Now, is that not the height of self-conscious self-contradiction? And furthermore, “to forget the self is to be actualized [i.e., recognized, verified, enlightened by, any one of a number of words will fit here] by the myriad [i.e., ten thousand] things…”

So, the key it seems is this notion of the self. What does he mean by that?

Does he mean the individual ego, this sense of self that we carry around; does he mean our individual identity? If so, then our meditation practice should take care of that little task, right? That, and maybe a lot of hard (and expensive) psychotherapy! If we sit long enough and hard enough, and if we explore our inner landscapes deeply enough, we can eventually shed our little egos, right? God forbid! Our egos enable us to (as Fr. Greg once said to me), “live artfully and skillfully” in this world of ours. So, I don’t think we can realistically expect ourselves to shed our egos altogether. Shed our attachment to them, perhaps; stop letting them drive us to distraction from what is real in our world and the world around us. But shed them altogether? A questionable prospect, it seems to me.

Here’s a paragraph that gives some context to this notion of the self.  This paragraph is from the Editor’s Introduction to the 2010 Kindle Shobogenzo we’ve been quoting (p. 27):

While our thinking is often limited to the notion of “I,” which is occupied by “my” body, “my” mind, and “my” situation, Dogen teaches that we can become selfless in meditation. Then, we are no longer confined by our self-centered worldview and a dominating sense of possessions. Only when we become transparent and let all things speak for themselves can their voices be heard and their true forms appear.

As we calm down and move away from the usual mode of physical and mental activities, we often have a good idea or even, at times, an extraordinary insight during meditation. However, this is only a beginning stage. If we go further, we may experience a dissolving of the notion of the self.

Our “I” and our “my” both become thin. Transparent. And ultimately, forgotten. Our egos are no longer in control, or in the way. They perform their function in helping us to live artfully and skillfully, and also usefully – to live as fully functioning human beings – but they don’t keep us from seeing ourselves and others as we truly are. Seeing, and thus, being. In this sense, we come to enjoy a certain absence of mind.

Let’s see what this absence of mind looks like in the coming week. There may be more to savor here. Meanwhile, let’s return to the silence for the remainder of our time.