Living With Our Ordinary Selves
by Rev. Sarika
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
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
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.
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.
When I was preparing
this talk I consulted the dictionary to see what it said
about the word "ordinary." This is what I found:
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
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 different.
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
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
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.
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 whatever's happening.
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
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